Ottawa Senators turn to veteran comms exec to boost business as COO

Editor's Note

This story was updated with news of Ottawa Senators assistant general manager Randy Lee's arrest and not guilty plea.

With their sights clearly fixed on shoring up the business side of their operations, the Ottawa Senators have hired a veteran communications and marketing expert to be the club's chief operating officer.

The NHL club announced Thursday that Nicolas Ruszkowski will start in the newly created position effective June 14. The Senators said Ruszkowski’s job will be to boost the team’s bottom line – on the balance sheet, not the ice – and he will have no role in hockey operations. 

The bilingual Ruszkowski, who has a degree in mass communications from the University of Ottawa, has held key roles at communications firms in Canada, the United States, Slovakia and France. The Senators said the Ottawa native “will be instrumental in enhancing our presence in the market.”

Most recently, Ruszkowski worked in the New York office of global public relations giant MSLGROUP, where he was the executive vice-president in charge of strategy and growth for the firm’s U.S. operations. Before that, he was managing director of the company’s Paris office, overseeing digital content marketing and social media engagement.

Ruszkowski also has extensive work experience in his hometown. Before joining MSLGROUP, he was a senior partner and general manager of multinational marketing firm FleishmanHillard’s Ottawa office for four years and spent three years as VP of communications at the Ottawa Hospital.

Ruszkowski also has a background in the political sphere – something that could come in handy as the Senators continue to negotiate with the National Capital Commission on a plan to redevelop LeBreton Flats that would include a new downtown arena for the NHL team. He was national director of the Young Liberals of Canada from 1996-98 and later spent a year as director of communications for then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion.

Long road ahead

His newest job might be Ruszkowski’s most challenging yet.

Although the RendezVous LeBreton group led by Trinity Developments’ John Ruddy and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk reached an agreement in principle in January to redevelop LeBreton Flats, the two sides have yet to reach a finalized deal. The Senators did not say if the new COO will play any role in those talks.

Meanwhile, the NHL club struggled both on and off the ice this season, finishing second-last in the overall standings while ranking 24th out of 31 teams in total attendance. Former chief executive Tom Anselmi, who was brought in partly to help shepherd the arena deal to completion, abruptly quit in January after a little more than a year on the job, and Melnyk himself has been serving as de facto CEO since then.

Under Anselmi’s leadership, the organization reduced the number of seats in the Canadian Tire Centre by 1,500, a move he defended as “right-sizing” the team’s current arena as the Senators struggled to fill the 22-year-old facility. The team recently said it will remove the tarps for the upcoming season.

Anselmi’s departure was just the latest in a series of major shakeups in the Sens’ front office. He replaced longtime CEO Cyril Leeder, who was fired in early 2017 after serving the club since its inception. Other top executives have also left the organization in recent years.

In an effort to restore the Senators’ lustre with fans and the business community, Melnyk – who briefly mused about moving the team in December – wrote a letter to season-ticket holders in March.

In the letter, he acknowledged the Sens’ struggles on the ice frustrated him but said his dedication to the team and its home city has never wavered.

“Today, I am just as committed to the Ottawa Senators and to keeping them in the City of Ottawa as I was in 2003,” he wrote, adding he will “continue to work towards realizing our vision” for the Senators’ new home at LeBreton Flats.

Assistant GM Randy Lee arrested in Buffalo

The Sens’ front office faced challenges elsewhere on Friday as assistant general manager Randy Lee was charged with harassment following an altercation in Buffalo on Thursday night.

A person speaking to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity said Lee was arrested after an incident on the shuttle bus taking him from a downtown restaurant back to his hotel.

The Senators confirmed Lee’s arrest in a statement.

“The Ottawa Senators will always hold all members of the organization to the highest standards of behaviour, regardless of the environment in which they operate. To this end, we are reviewing the situation with the greatest of care, and will provide an update as soon as one is available,” the team said.

Lee is in town with other NHL team officials attending the league's annual pre-draft scouting combine, which runs through Saturday. He has spent 23 seasons with the Senators and just completed his fourth as assistant GM.

Lee appeared in court on Friday. The Senators said he pleaded not guilty and was released on his own recognizance.

With reporting by the Associated Press.