Firestone the author back in the game: Sens’ co-founder details his effort to bring the NHL back to Ottawa

On Dec. 6, 1990, a group of young Ottawa entrepreneurs accomplished what most pundits thought was impossible – they convinced the NHL to grant an expansion franchise to the nation’s capital.


That intrepid trio was led by a 39-year-old real estate developer named Bruce Firestone, whose goals included delivering a Stanley Cup to Ottawa and turning 600 acres of land next to the team’s future west-end arena into a thriving neighbourhood with a hotel, office space, shops, parks and homes.
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Twenty-five years later, Mr. Firestone is no longer part of the Senators organization, and his dreams of a Stanley Cup and a bustling mixed-use development at what is now the Canadian Tire Centre have yet to be realized.

Still, he hasn’t given up. Left virtually penniless by the team’s bankruptcy in the early 2000s, Mr. Firestone, now 64, rebuilt his life. Today, he is a real estate broker, professor, motivational speaker – and writer. A regular columnist for OBJ, Mr. Firestone just released a book on his quest to bring back the Senators that is part autobiography, part thesis and all Bruce.

In Don’t Back Down: the Real Story behind the Founding of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators, Mr. Firestone shares his tale of the league’s return to the city it left in 1934. He recently spoke with OBJ print editor David Sali about the book, and what follows is an abridged transcript of that conversation.

OBJ: What prompted you to write this book now?

BF: In some ways, I probably should have waited another 25 years, but one of the reasons why I did it now is I just turned 64 and frankly waiting another 25 years would just be too long, and maybe after 50 years nobody will care. And for that matter, I might not be here to write it. I did promise (Senators president) Cyril Leeder, who’s a history buff himself, that I would write the book someday, and it just seemed that the day had come.

OBJ: You mention many personal incidents, including several near-death experiences and the breakup of your first marriage, which left you a single parent. How difficult was it to relive some of those painful moments from the past and put them out there for the world to read about?

BF: I didn’t put everything in the book (laughs). What I did was I put an edited version of it together. I could’ve written it, you know, “(NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman said this, (former NHL president) John Ziegler said that, (Chicago Blackhawks owner) Bill Wirtz said this,” but I didn’t think that would be very interesting for a reader, just a chronology. The timeline is staggered, and I went back between the personal, recounting stories about the actual team itself and the league. I tried to make it maybe a little bit more interesting, so that I hope anyway, the reader’s going to kind of cheer for the underdog, which would be yours truly.

OBJ: It sounds like you didn’t always have the most idyllic childhood. In particular, you describe some less-than-happy experiences attending a pretty rough-and-tumble all-boys’ school. How do you think that shaped your future behaviour and aspirations?

BF: I wouldn’t be the only person who went through a difficult time at school, and I think it does shape you in many ways. That school in particular, I remember reading in the newspaper two decades after I left it that one of the teachers had ended up in jail for very serious crimes. How does that shape a person? Well, I think in the sense that I wanted for my children and myself that my family and my children and hopefully my grandchildren will have a better experience than I did. But it also gives you a bit of a tougher edge to your character. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but my personality is kind of like biting on tinfoil. Some of that, I think, comes from my childhood experiences, some of which were marvellous and inspiring, but some of which were really, truly terrible.

OBJ: You reiterate throughout the book that to be an entrepreneur, you have to be a little bit crazy…

BF: I would like to write another book one day titled “Entrepreneurs Are Idiots” because you have to be an idiot to be an entrepreneur, especially in real estate. You know how difficult it is to get real estate projects approved. It took us 60 months to get the Palladium, now the Canadian Tire Centre, approved. Sixty months! And only 25 months or something like that to build it. We had, I think, 85 major conditions, and each of them had to be fulfilled before you could actually build it. That’s the kind of thing that young entrepreneurs are facing, which is why I wrote for OBJ that the real estate business is suffering from a shortage of entrepreneurs, certainly here in Ottawa.

OBJ: How can we change that?

BF: I gave a couple of keynote speeches in Saskatchewan (in November). I said I think the single biggest challenge that we face in terms of getting our economies on track is defeating the forces of NIMBYism. Now, I come at it from a developer’s point of view. Other people don’t agree;I get that. But I cannot tell you the number of homebuilders and developers I talk to here in Ottawa who literally are shaking with fear and trepidation before and after they meet with city planners and officials. If I were to show the list of projects that had gone the tubes (since amalgamation 15 years ago), it would be an amazing list. First and foremost amongst those would be light rail to the south of our city. I had clients of mine buying land around those (proposed) stations to build apartment buildings, shopping centres. The City of Ottawa not only didn’t build a kilometre of rail, they ended up paying tens of millions of dollars in penalties. This a huge problem. It’s political – it’s not, do we have good entrepreneurs, do we have good ideas? We do. But we’re constantly battling with our own city and really shooting ourselves in the foot.

OBJ: You had some suggestions for how Ottawa can achieve a lasting legacy with its Canada 150 celebrations in 2017. What are your thoughts on the progress of the Ottawa 2017 plans?

BF: I said back in 2013, “Look, we’ve got the longest skateway, let’s build the longest boardwalk in the world and connect the wonderful institutions and rivers and canals that we have.” It would be a lasting project for 150 years. If you read between the lines of everything that’s been said up until today by the (Ottawa 2017) committee, they’re really saying, “Well, gee, wouldn’t it be great if somebody had an event in a park and we all lit candles” or something. I mean, there’s nothing going on as far as I can see that’s going to be special about 2017. Canada, I think, has lost some of that energy and vision that we had when (former National Capital Commission chair) Douglas Fullerton said, ‘Hey, we’re going to create the longest skateway in the world,’ when we did things like Expo 67 in Montreal, where we thought as Canadians, ‘We can do something that’s world-class.’

OBJ: What do we have to do to get back on that path?

BF: If you don’t have political will, you cannot achieve anything today. You need to be able to say to people, “Look, we know that not everybody wants a boardwalk or not everybody wants Expo 67 or not everybody wants the Palladium in Kanata. We get that, because there are differences of opinions, but we’re going to do it.” Unless you have that from your political leadership, you’re going to really struggle over the next generation. I used to teach architecture at Carleton for 14 years, and I would see these wonderful talented 22-year-olds and I was thinking, “Wow, I’d like to see them 10 years from now after maybe they’ve got one or two projects off the ground.” That’s not good enough. It’s logical and sensible if you’re an elected official to do nothing, because then you don’t get anyone mad at you and you probably will get re-elected. That is a political problem and to be honest with you, I don’t know how to fix it.

OBJ: Walk us through the thought process that led you to bring the NHL back to Ottawa.

BF: When I first started building office buildings (with real estate firm Terrace Investments) in the early ’80s, I think we were getting $18 or $19 a square foot for suburban offices, which was a pretty good number. Then it sort of tracked downwards, and I think by 1987 or ’88, it had dropped down to $6. So I said to Cyril (Leeder, who was then president of Terrace), “We just can’t build any more office buildings. The writing’s on the wall.” Office space is just a tough, tough game. You’re competing against pension funds and REITs. We were facing that back in ’87. That’s why I asked myself, “What do we do next? Let’s look at what Toronto’s doing. Maybe we can predict the future by looking there.”

I think we had a good plan. Cyril Leeder is a sensible individual. (Former Terrace vice-president and Senators co-founder) Randy Sexton is as well. Everybody thought it was a doable plan because we had done that sort of thing before. But we just didn’t anticipate a change in political direction when David Peterson, the Liberal former premier of Ontario, called an election two and a half years early. He was riding well over 50 per cent in the polls and he lost.

OBJ: Do you think things would have turned out differently had the Liberals stayed in power?

BF: I think so. I think yours truly would still be with the Sens and we’d be having quite a different conversation today. That was a pivotal point for me.

OBJ: Bob Rae’s NDP government ended up fighting your arena plan at the Ontario Municipal Board. Was there ever a time when you thought, this whole thing is going to go up in smoke?

BF: No. I never felt that way. I never doubted we would win that (OMB hearing). The Ontario Municipal Board is about land use, it’s not about one backing one political party of another. I also knew that it would be the end of me as the owner of the team at one point because we took an $80-million writedown. We built the (Highway 417) interchange and we had to pay for it, and you can’t finance that. And we took a $50-million writedown on the value of our property. I knew at that point I wouldn’t be the owner for much longer, but we would get hockey in Ottawa.

OBJ:  What was it like to be there at the Civic Centre on opening night against Montreal on Oct. 8, 1992?

BF: That was really quite special. That building at that time held about 10,500 people, but I bet you we had 12,000 people in there that night. And I’m sure there’s 120,000 people living in Ottawa who claim to have been there that night. The most magical moment for me was when the team was introduced for the first time. There was a standing ovation that went on for, I think, five and a half minutes. It just went on and on and on. I remember watching (original Senators) Brad Marsh and Mike Peluso and Laurie Boschman and the others looking up in the stands as people just kept applauding. Then it occurred to me that people in the audience weren’t really applauding me or our team, they were kind of applauding themselves. It was really a coming together for Ottawa.

OBJ: You spent several years in Australia in the 1970s, earning your master’s degree in engineering and PhD in urban economics, and your oldest son Andrew was born there. At one point, you write, “I should have stayed in Australia.” Do you really think so?

BF: There were two future-shaping moments in my life. One was my decision to leave Australia and the other was to leave Los Angeles (where first serious girlfriend Ava lived). I’m 64 now, and you do some looking back. Those were two forks in the road. One would have continued to allow me to develop as an academic in Canberra at the (Australian National University) and the other would have been maybe to stay in L.A. I came back to Ottawa to help my dad out for six months (in the early ’80s), and here I am 30 years later.

OBJ: If you had to do it all over again, would you still bring the Senators back?

BF: No, I would not. That was a one-time deal. I had some fun. There were 20 major things that had to happen to make the Senators a permanent fixture and if each one of them is a 50-50 shot, that’s 0.5 to the power of 20, which turns out to be a one-in-a-million shot. As an entrepreneur, you don’t want to take too many one-in-a-million shots in your career. You could live a million years and only one of them would be successful. That’s not gonna work. When I coach young people, I’m not telling them to take moonshots. There are very, very few people on this planet who can take moonshots. There are seven billion people on the planet, and there’s really only one Elon Musk.

OBJ: Still, you argue that Ottawa is a better place today because the team is here.

BF: I do think that’s true, especially if you’re trying to attract and keep young people here. That’s everything. I deal with communities that are literally vanishing, where the average population age has gone from 30-something to 50-something, and in 20 years it will be 80-something, because there’s so much political obstruction and so little economic opportunity. What are the things that motivate entrepreneurs? One, they want to be loved. Two, they want to be close to family. And three, they want to be appreciated. When you go into a planning or economic development office and all they do is express one concern after another, it’s a big-time downer.

OBJ: What is the biggest lesson you learned from all of this?

BF: If I were to do my career over again as an entrepreneur, I would’ve spent a lot more time understanding the field of finance. The average Wall Street 30-year-old is making $900,000 a year. For people like you and me, we’re in the wrong business. The people who are making the most money on this planet are clearly on Wall Street or Bay Street or in Shanghai. Finance is something I would’ve acquired more expertise in.

OBJ: In 2005, after the Senators went bankrupt, all you were left with was your car (a Saab 9-5).

BF: I still have it (chuckles). It’s so old I call it a collector car.

OBJ: You write in the book that you were owed $57 million in your exit deal from the Senators. But you ended up with just $3,500, and you were actually hundreds of thousands in debt to the bank and the Canada Revenue Agency. You argue you were worse off after the team’s bankruptcy than you were as a 20-year-old university graduate. Looking back, what were your emotions at that time?

BF: You know, I was flabbergasted when I got the settlement from the (bankruptcy) trustee. I still don’t know how you can have $485 million in liabilities and $650,000 in assets. That I never was able to understand. You’d have to ask Mr. Bryden (Rod Bryden, the former CEO of Terrace Investments and president of the team at the time). I tell people, you’ve got three days to be upset: the first day you can be mad, the second day you can be sad, but the third day, get up, get a little bit of exercise and get on with the rest of your life. That’s what I did. I’ve worked every day of the last 10 years – every single day. I had to go back to school and get my real estate licence so I could support my family. It’s been a long haul. (Editor’s note: His debt to creditors was finally paid off in October, when he was still writing the book.) You just have to recognize that you have one life, and you have to get up and dust yourself off. You cannot be an entrepreneur if you can’t sell, you cannot be an entrepreneur if you can’t execute and you cannot be an entrepreneur if unhappy events are going to derail you permanently.

After this book is written and launched, the chances of me revisiting this subject are zero. I will move on with my life and I will never look back.

OBJ: What can you say about your family and their support through all of this?

BF: It makes it sad when you ask me that, to be honest. I think they deserved better. I have five kids. They went from a life that was pretty good in many ways to one that was more difficult. They have all said it’s made them tougher and stronger as adults. But obviously as a father, that’s not something that you would ever wish for your children. You want the best for them, and when you’re not able to provide that, that’s obviously something that you regret.

OBJ: But they stuck by you, as did your wife Dawn.

BF: (At the book launch on Dec. 6, the 25th anniversary of the day the Senators’ franchise was granted), I was able to thank my wife in front of the Sens staff and the original investors. Something happened at that moment that will make me forever grateful. The entire audience stood up and turned to Dawn and gave her a wonderful, amazing standing ovation. There were a few tears, and it was a great moment. I was really grateful.

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