Outdoor NHL game will ‘change the way people think about Ottawa’

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, speaks with TSN 1200's Ian Mendes at the Mayor's Breakfast speaker series Friday morning.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, right, speaks with TSN 1200's Ian Mendes at the Mayor's Breakfast speaker series Friday morning. (Photo courtesy Ottawa Chamber of Commerce)

Years of lobbying for an outdoor NHL game in Canada’s capital, coinciding with the country’s 150th anniversary, came to fruition Friday when league commissioner Gary Bettman officially announced that the Ottawa Senators would host the Montreal Canadiens at Lansdowne Park on Dec. 16.

This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the modern-day NHL. On Dec. 19, 1917, the Senators and Canadiens squared off for one of the league’s opening night games.

“That night launched 100 years of NHL hockey,” Mr. Bettman said at a news conference Friday morning. “To launch our next 100 years, we believe it’s only right to bring the Senators and Canadiens back together.”

Additional details about ticketing and how TD Place will be transformed into an open-air hockey arena will be released in the coming months, the NHL said.

However, organizers are expected to re-use some of the infrastructure that will already be in place for November’s Grey Cup, such as additional seating that will reportedly bring the capacity of TD Place to 34,000 spectators, for the hockey game.

The game will cap off a year of celebrations marking Canada’s 150th anniversary and completes the “Triple Crown” of major events – which also includes next month’s Juno Awards and the Grey Cup – sought by Mayor Jim Watson and Ottawa 2017 organizers.

“(An outdoor NHL game will) be another addition to the incredible array of those big events ... that are changing the way people think about Ottawa,” Ottawa Tourism CEO Michael Crockatt told OBJ earlier in the day.

The impact on the city’s tourism sector goes beyond the direct spending by out-of-town visitors, Mr. Crockatt said. The city gains exposure from the television broadcast of the event, while attendees will typically publish photos and videos talking about their experiences in Ottawa.

Those authentic testimonials are “the difference maker” in tourism marketing, Mr. Crockatt said.

Ottawa Tourism is already leveraging events such as this month’s Red Bull Crashed Ice tournament to attract future visitors. Tourism officials invited meeting planners, tour operators and travel writers to Ottawa for the event, which featured competitors racing down an ice-covered course built on the Rideau Canal locks, and then showed them what else the city had to offer visitors, Mr. Crockatt said.

Plans for an outdoor 2017 NHL game in Ottawa have been in the works for years. Earlier on Friday, Mr. Watson recalled meeting Mr. Bettman three years ago and discussing its significance.

“He knew how important this event was for Ottawa,” Mr. Watson said.

Many hoped the game would take place on Parliament Hill, a backdrop that would have allowed for “once-in-a-lifetime” photographs, Mr. Bettman conceded earlier on Friday during a breakfast event with the city’s business community.

But constructing a facility from scratch, rather than using existing infrastructure, would have made it astronomically expensive, the NHL commissioner said. Echoing the federal government’s objections, Mr. Bettman said logistical obstacles such as security made a game on Parliament Hill impractical.

Bringing the game to Lansdowne Park required the co-operation of Ottawa’s two major sports institutions: Senators Sports & Entertainment and the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which owns the RedBlacks, 67’s and Fury and led the redevelopment of Lansdowne Park.

On Friday, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk thanked OSEG and its executive chairperson, Roger Greenberg.

“Working together, we found a way to get this done,” Mr. Melnyk said.

Mr. Bettman also weighed in on the plans to redevelop LeBreton Flats, which is expected to be led by the Senators and include a new NHL arena.

“I think it would be awesome,” Mr. Bettman said. “Having a downtown arena fits life in 2017 more than a suburban arena.”