Back in the arena: Cyril Leeder feeling right at home as Senators’ CEO

Cyril Leeder headshot
Cyril Leeder is back in a familiar role as president and CEO of the Ottawa Senators. Photo courtesy Ottawa Senators

Every new NHL season brings the promise of a fresh start and the nervous excitement that goes along with it.

It’s safe to say that Cyril Leeder is probably feeling the butterflies more than most as the Ottawa Senators prepare for their 31st campaign.

“You don’t often get those second opportunities in life for things that are really important and meaningful,” Leeder, the NHL club’s newly appointed president and chief executive, said in an interview with OBJ on Thursday. “It wasn’t lost on me how rare that is.” 

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One of the men who spearheaded Ottawa’s return to the league in 1992 after a 58-year absence, Leeder spent more than a quarter century with the Senators organization before being fired by then-owner Eugene Melnyk midway through the 2016-17 season.

Much of his first go-round with the Sens was spent in the CEO’s chair, and Leeder makes no secret of his excitement at being back in the arena – literally and figuratively – where he spent a significant chunk of his earlier career.

But the 64-year-old Brockville native insists his return to the franchise he helped create wasn’t a slam dunk when new owner Michael Andlauer, who officially took control of the team last week, broached the idea this past summer.

Leeder, who spent the past five years as chief executive of the Myers Automotive Group, says he was “really happy” in his role at the network of car dealerships.

“I really, really enjoyed the car industry, working with (Myers owners) Harry and Rob Mews and the entire executive team,” he said. “It really was a great place to work, and I had no interest in leaving.” 

But, ultimately, hockey’s pull was too strong for Leeder to resist. 

He and Andlauer, a former part-owner of the Montreal Canadiens, had become fairly well acquainted over the years as fellow members of the NHL’s board of governors. When the Montreal native entered the bidding for the Sens late last year, he asked his friend if he’d mind lending a hand with his proposal.

Still, Leeder wasn’t ready to commit to a leadership role with the team. 

“I said, ‘Look, at the end of the process if you’re successful and we don’t hate each other, we can have a discussion,’” he said with a smile.

Ultimately, Andlauer got his man. Leeder says he’s convinced that the billionaire entrepreneur, whose passion for the sport was clearly evident in his introductory news conference last Friday at the Canadian Tire Centre, is just the person to shepherd the franchise into a new era as it ponders a move to a downtown arena.

‘He likes to win’

“He really impressed me,” said Leeder, who will maintain ties to Myers as the automotive group’s executive chair. “I knew he was a really nice person and a capable businessman. Now, I got a chance to understand his passion for hockey. He likes to win, and I think one of his biggest strengths is he’s a really down-to-earth, people person.

“He’s going to do the things he needs to do to win and he’s going to assist in that process and give the resources that people need to be successful, and that’s all you can ask for as a hockey fan.”

As the person who is ultimately responsible for getting the franchise’s financial house in order, Leeder is wasting no time in laying out his priorities as CEO.

High on the list is rebuilding the Sens’ season-ticket base, which has eroded over the past several years amid the team’s protracted on-ice struggles that have seen it miss the playoffs for six consecutive seasons.

Leeder says one of his most important jobs will be establishing stronger relationships with local businesses – particularly those with $5 million or more in annual revenues and at least 25 employees, the category Sens officials believe is the most likely to buy season tickets.

“We’ve got lots of businesses in that class,” he explains. “It’s just having those one-on-one conversations and trying to re-engage with the community.”

Leeder’s pitch isn’t complicated. The organization, he says, is committed to presenting an on-ice product “you’re going to be proud to cheer for” while delivering a “world-class” arena experience to fans and making “meaningful contributions” to the community through off-ice charity work.

His message to the business community is straightforward.

“If we’re not delivering on all three of those, we want to know about it, because that’s certainly our plan,” he said. “Our hope is that you see value in that and you’ll come to games and be a season seat-holder and a corporate partner of ours.”

Leeder feels the franchise is slowly making progress on the partnership front, pointing to the deal it signed with Kinaxis last year to feature the Kanata-based software company’s logo on the Senators’ white road helmets through the 2024-25 season.

“Would we like more of those? Absolutely,” he said. “I think we need to be more engaged with the technology community. Kinaxis is a bit of an outlier. We used to have huge tech support here in the early 2000s, and for whatever reason it’s not there now. We’re going to make efforts to do that.”

Noting that the Senators finished in the NHL’s top 10 in annual revenues from 2005-10, Leeder said he sees no reason why Ottawa can’t be among the league leaders in that category once again.

“I think we can get back there, and the only way to do that is to have everybody all in on the team,” he said. “If that happens, I know we can punch well above our weight.”

Arena in spotlight

Meanwhile, as speculation swirls over how much longer the Sens will keep playing at the Canadian Tire Centre, Leeder said he’ll work closely with Andlauer, the team’s local investors and the senior leadership group – which includes chief financial officer and chief operating officer Erin Crowe and vice-president of business operations Chris Phillips – to determine the best location for the Sens to call home in the coming decades.   

“We’re going to look at all the options and create that road map and a way forward for the hockey club,” he said.

LeBreton Flats remains the frontrunner to host the team’s next arena. After officially taking the reins last Friday, Andlauer described the federally owned site just west of downtown as “maybe the best piece of land in the inner city probably in North America available for development.”

Still, Leeder stressed that nothing is set in stone on the real estate front. He said the club will carefully assess all potential scenarios – including what can be done to improve the existing building in Kanata – before making a final decision.

“I don’t think we’ve seriously considered anything at this point,” he added. “I know there are different people pitching different sites to Michael, but I couldn’t tell you today if you could fit an arena on any of the alternative sites downtown that have been floated. That work hasn’t even taken place yet.”

As he gets reacquainted with his old surroundings, Leeder’s enthusiasm for his new task is palpable. 

“We’ve really got to work on the business and the re-engagement with the community and the arena process,” he said. “Those are the things I’m thinking about all the time.”

Meanwhile, Leeder foresees big things for a Senators squad that finished with a 39-35-8 record last season and heads into 2023-24 with a young, talented core led by captain Brady Tkachuk.

“We are hopefully going to make a playoff push, but that’s not the goal. Our goal here is to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “It feels to me a lot like the late 1990s, when we had a young team and a young Daniel Alfredsson. It feels pretty good.”

– With files from the Canadian Press

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