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Warren: Ottawa’s dream of a downtown arena is suddenly within reach

While you’ll forgive us for being a little cautious with our optimism, the Senators seem to be riding a wave of good news

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With the arrival of summer, Ottawa’s head winter sports team is riding a wave of optimism.

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Maybe, just maybe, long-suffering Senators fans can finally shake off what has already been a seven-year itch of waiting for a new arena at LeBreton Flats.

As we move down this path towards a potentially brighter future, talk of former star captain Daniel Alfredsson’s possible return is also gaining momentum.

The National Capital Commission’s Thursday announcement that a downtown entertainment and development complex is back on track – a welcome change from ongoing accusations and doubts amid the investigation on the LRT – raises hopes the Senators could skate the banks of the Ottawa River by 2026.

There are countless moving elements involved in the project, which would see the team lease the rink from the NCC, with a host of experienced arena and entertainment managers helping to run the show.

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It should carry traffic east-west and on the Quebec side of the river. This in turn could help recoup some of the losses incurred by businesses and season ticket holders.

This could all add up to a pretty image of civic pride as an architectural gem to accompany the new library on the site.

Strong partnerships, never a strong suit for late former owner Eugene Melnyk, will be key to making it all work.

Sterling Project Development, Populous, Tipping Point Sports and Live Nation Entertainment, which have helped build and manage new arenas for the New York Islanders, Seattle Kraken and Vegas Golden Knights, are all on board.

For all that, excuse a once-bitten, twice-timid tone of caution here.

We’ve been through a soap opera on the downtown arena drama dating back to 2015, when Melnyk took his first steps toward getting a new home.

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There was initial excitement over the partnership with John Ruddy, followed by the failure of that syndicate that inspired Melnyk’s $700 million lawsuit and Ruddy’s $1 billion countersuit.

For years the city endured Melnyk’s verbal fights with Mayor Jim Watson, then last year Melnyk suggested he could forego LeBreton altogether in favor of a new rink in Kanata or Gatineau.

All in all it’s been a rollercoaster of confusion and it’s all kinda chilled.

After Melnyk’s death in March, the team is currently in the hands of Melnyk’s daughters, Anna and Olivia.

There remains uncertainty as to whether they will choose to keep the franchise or sell some or all of it.

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The current environment and the possibility that shovels will actually be in the ground at some point in 2023 suggest that an influx of capital would be needed to get things done.

After the collapse of the previous Melnyk-Ruddy mess, the NCC is to be commended for its revised plan for the entire development, which ticks off residential, commercial and parks requirements. The arena represents only 10% of the big project.

Still, anyone who has paid attention to the NCC’s history on this front should recognize that timelines are always subject to change – Watson joked about the “Groundhog Day” nature of past non-developments – and hold account of all partners and levels of government involved .

At some point, you can bet on controversy over whether taxpayers will be responsible for all of this.

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Meanwhile, the arena talk comes amid what is shaping up to be a pivotal 2022-23 on-ice season for the team.

The organization’s rebuilding effort has attracted top talent including Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stuetzle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and up-and-coming rookie Jake Sanderson, but impatience is growing among fans.

The Senators haven’t made the playoffs since 2017, the longest postseason drought in franchise history, including the terrible start-up years of the early to mid-1990s.

As a result, the heat is rising on both general manager Pierre Dorion and coach DJ Smith, who has been behind the bench for the past three seasons.

Dorion has been open about trading the club’s seventh pick in the July 7 National Hockey League draft to get a veteran forward or defenseman who could take on a front-line role immediately.

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What further adds to the intrigue is the current stripped-down nature of the senators’ office and Alfredsson’s looming presence in the community.

Assistant general manager Peter MacTavish left the club last week, returning to his old life as a players’ agent. In May, Pierre McGuire was fired as senior vice president of player development. He was originally hired by Eugene Melnyk last summer.

All of this has given rise to suggestions that Alfredsson could eventually return to the organization at some point.

Alfredsson spent the first 17 of his 18 NHL seasons with the Senators, before leaving for the Detroit Red Wings in a contract dispute with Melnyk.

Alfredsson returned to officially retire in a Senators uniform and spent one season as senior hockey operations adviser before stepping down after another battle with Melnyk.

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He’s stayed out of the limelight in retirement while focusing on coaching his kids, but recently discussed the possibility of playing Senators colors again.

“I would be interested in joining under the right circumstances,” he said at the David Feherty Golf Classic earlier this month. “They have a young core, with a lot of potential. I hope we will see a lot of good hockey in the years to come.

All of this has senators trying to read the tea leaves on what it might mean whether the Melnyks stay in the property chairs or not.

Interestingly, Alfredsson could potentially be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. It would serve as a welcome link between the Senators’ best years and the present.

If the deal with LeBreton goes as planned, many questions about the club’s long-term future in Ottawa will also be settled.

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