Earlier this week, the Ottawa Senators had a significant departure from their front office.
Roger Lajoie — who held the title of director of marketing for the hockey club — announced he was resigning from the position.
The writing was clearly on the wall after Lajoie — who doubles as a radio host on FAN 590 in Toronto — was tweeting about how the Maple Leafs should pursue Barry Trotz as a head coach. (Lajoie has since deleted the tweet, but it certainly caused an uproar amongst Senators fans).
In hindsight, the whole situation was peculiar. to say the least. The fact that Ottawa’s marketing director was simultaneously employed by a Toronto radio station should have served as a massive red flag. Imagine if the Oilers’ marketing director held a side gig as a Calgary radio host?
But now, there is clearly an opportunity for the Senators to move ahead with a new marketing plan and strategy in the months ahead.
So, what should that vision look like?
I’ve devised a 10-point marketing plan for the Senators this summer, with the objective of trying to re-engage the fan base. If I was sitting in the vacant marketing seat, this is how I would tackle the four months.
1. Bring Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips back into the fold
This is the easiest and most simple solution for the organization. Alfredsson and Phillips are two franchise icons who have the rare distinction of having their jerseys retired, but have severed ties with the hockey club. The fact that both men live in Ottawa and have no relationship with the team is a damning indictment of the instability that has plagued the Senators for the past several seasons.
Alfredsson and Phillips are pillars of the community who would bring instant credibility back with the fan base, corporate sponsors and charitable sector. Both men carry themselves with class, dignity and respect — three crucial elements the franchise has been lacking in recent years. If Alfredsson and Phillips felt comfortable reconnecting with the organization, a lot of fans would view that as a sign the franchise is operating smoothly under the hood.
Let them choose their roles and allow them to be involved as much as they want or their schedules will allow. Give them advisory titles, ambassador titles — whatever it takes to bring them back inside the doors of the Canadian Tire Centre. With more than 2,000 NHL games between them, they could provide a wealth of experience and advice to this young Senators core. Alfredsson’s recent meeting with Brady Tkachuk over lunch is a perfect example of the type of influence the older generation of players can have with the new group of Sens stars.
Just find a way to bring them back and make them feel comfortable and welcome each time they step into the Canadian Tire Centre.
And once you’ve got Alfredsson back, the club should be wholeheartedly supporting a bid to put him into the Hall of Fame. The organization has not touched Alfredsson’s Hall of Fame candidacy in recent years, but now it’s time for the Senators to throw their weight behind this endeavour.
2. Start hyping the franchise’s 30th anniversary season
This October will mark the 30th anniversary of the Senators’ return to the NHL, providing the marketing department with endless possibilities for promotions and ideas.
They should start by creating a summer contest with fans to select the Top 30 moments in franchise history. These could be iconic moments, like Alfredsson’s goal to put them into the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Or they can lean into fun and weird stuff, like Kaspars Daugavins’ unique shootout attempt. Whatever the case, there are certainly 30 memorable moments that will evoke warm and nostalgic feelings for this fan base.
After fans have voted on the 30 moments, the team can try and highlight them over the course of the regular season.
The organization should be pushing hard for an October 8th home game against Montreal, so they could play on the exact 30th anniversary of their first game back in the NHL. Have Neil Brady drop the puck and invite as many members of the 1992-93 team to attend the game.
When San Jose comes to town, arrange for all the former captains in franchise history to be on hand for a photo op at centre ice, so that Erik Karlsson can be part of the moment. (This would be even more meaningful if Jason Spezza retires this summer and could attend such an event).
And this could be the perfect time to repair the relationship with Dany Heatley. Surely one of his moments would make the Top 30 list for Ottawa fans. Pick one of his 50th goals — or even his four-goal performance against Toronto. Invite Heatley back for a night and I suspect it will be a warm reception. Each time I’ve connected with Heatley over the years, he speaks of his time in Ottawa with great fondness. I suspect he’s ready to repair the relationship and it would be great if the organization felt the same way.
The 30th anniversary season provides a natural and organic way for the franchise to reconnect to its past. The planning and legwork for such a massive undertaking needs to be happening right now.
3. Induct some new members into the Ring of Honour
Speaking of reconnecting with the past, it’s time for the Senators to induct a new member into its Ring of Honour.
There is currently one member — Bryan Murray — who received the honour back in January of 2017. And in the five-plus years since that happened, it’s gone eerily quiet. To quote Erik Karlsson, the time is nigh for some new members to join Murray in the Ring of Honour.
And there are no shortage of terrific candidates if we’re just thinking off the top of our head. Jacques Martin, Bruce Firestone, or Wade Redden. Maybe even Spezza or Craig Anderson if they retire this summer.
Whatever the case, there are many worthy candidates of this honour who have helped positively shape this franchise over the past three decades. And adding a new member or two to join Murray in the Ring of Honour is long overdue around here. The organization should be canvassing fans to see who they think is deserving of that honour and invite some of them to have a voice in the selection committee. The original selection committee was comprised of 18 men, so hopefully they diversify the panel and get some different perspectives this time around.
And once they decide on a potential new inductee, select a date on the schedule that works to honour that person and create some hype and interest around it.
4. Conduct a town hall with season ticket holders
The Senators held a town hall meeting with season ticket holders back in the spring of 2018. They did that mostly as a PR move designed to help disseminate the message about their new plan to rebuild. The town hall meetings in 2018 also came in the shadow of Eugene Melnyk’s controversial comments on Parliament Hill, so there was a sense of needing to control the messaging with fans at that particular point in time.
As I wrote at the time, I actually thought Melnyk and Pierre Dorion handled themselves quite well under the circumstances. Senators management struck a fairly even-handed tone that evening, despite the cloud of negativity that was swirling around them. This was at the height of fan angst over the future of stars like Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone and Sens management answered the questions as honestly as they could. I sat in the room and really got the sense that fans appreciated the ability to ask direct, unscripted questions to management and ownership.
And it feels like we’ve reached another critical juncture where fans would love to see some accountability and transparency from the key members of the front office. In an ideal world, Dorion and D.J. Smith would take live and unscripted questions about hockey-related issues from the fans in a town hall setting. And then there could be another session with Anthony LeBlanc and Erin Crowe to tackle some questions that are more focused on the business side of the operation. I would suggest holding this town hall meeting at some point shortly after the draft and free agency when you can explain the moves you’ve made to the hockey club.
This organization has been awfully quiet over the past couple of seasons. LeBlanc has avoided most interview requests. Pierre McGuire never made the media rounds as promised. The pandemic could certainly explain away part of that, but there is still a lack of messaging in this marketplace.
5. Create a fan council
You may be sensing a bit of a trend here, but giving fans a voice should be a foundational element for the Senators in the future. And so the organization would be well served to create a fan council to bounce ideas off and generate discussions.
This council should be comprised of a wide spectrum of ages and demographics. Make sure this is a diverse group so that LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities feel like they have a seat at the table. And then on a monthly basis, meet with this council and see what feedback they have about the gameday experience.
The over-40 crowd might want to express how the music is too loud inside the building during games.
The under-25 crowd might give you an idea of how you can use the Skip The Dishes or UberEats app in order to avoid long concession lineups.
Fans with young families might have thoughts on start times for weekend games — or ticket packages for families of four.
And maybe somebody has a brilliant idea on how to minimize the number of Leafs fans who are in attendance at Canadian Tire Centre when Toronto comes to town.
More voices and more opinions are often a good thing — especially when you’re struggling to gain traction with season ticket holders.
For far too long, the Senators have run their organization as an echo chamber, with a small group of like-minded people making key decisions. Open things up, diversify and embrace the valid opinions of your customers. It’s okay if a great idea comes from outside the walls of the Canadian Tire Centre.
6. Restore the charitable arm of the organization
This one also feels like a slam dunk and a way to generate some free and easy publicity in the months ahead.
In the summer of 2020, the Senators abruptly terminated their relationship with the Ottawa Senators Foundation, becoming the first major pro sports team in recent memory to have a messy divorce from its own charitable arm. In the two years since, the new iteration of the charity has really struggled to make inroads, as Phillips abruptly walked away from the venture less than a year into his new job.
The pandemic has certainly played a role in limiting the club’s ability to host charitable events, but that hopefully won’t be the case next season. The Senators should be spending a significant amount of time this summer looking at ways to re-invigorate the charitable side of their business. With players like Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson and Thomas Chabot committed to long-term deals, the organization should work with them individually to find out what charities have a personal connection for them.
What made the Senators teams of the early 2000s great was the personal connection they had with various organizations in the city. Players like Alfredsson, Phillips, Wade Redden, Chris Neil and Mike Fisher were highly visible at functions and charitable events during their tenures with the Senators. Again, it’s been impossible for players to participate in such events during the pandemic, but we should be on the doorstep of a return to these types of things.
When you watch Tkachuk handle himself with natural ease around children, you just know he would embrace the idea of spending more time around kids.
7. Invest more money in creating social media content
The Senators have done a terrific job in re-establishing their social media identity over the past season. The hype and excitement over that 7:31 pm tweet this week was a great example of the interest level in anything the Senators’ Twitter account is pumping out.
During the season, those post-game bike helmet videos became must-see TV for a lot of fans after every Ottawa victory.
The practices where Drake Batherson and Josh Norris were mic’d up created instant moments that went viral on Sens Twitter.
And the interview with Austin Watson and his partner about their mental health challenges was an example of powerful storytelling.
All of these were done in-house, with the Senators retaining complete creative and editorial control over the product.
But the Senators are running their social media and content production with a small team when compared to their counterparts around the league. The Pittsburgh Penguins, for example, have a team of roughly 10 people who help coordinate and produce their digital content. The Los Angeles Kings appear to have eight people dedicated to content and digital production. The Senators don’t have their staff directory posted anywhere, but I believe it’s basically a two or three-person operation that is pumping out all the content and handling the social media feeds. That’s a heavy workload and it makes their work even more impressive under the circumstances.
The Senators’ digital and content team has basically been operating with one arm tied behind its back.
But now it’s time to pump some more money into storytelling and engage the smart, young and eager social media crowd in the process.
Hire Gatineau Greig from Twitter to create some unique videos for you.
Get the Locked On Sens guys to conduct a couple of interviews per month with players and share it on all the Senators’ platforms.
There are dozens of young broadcasting and journalism students from Carleton and Algonquin that would probably be salivating at the opportunity to work with the Senators. Tap into this market and pump out even more fun and unique content.
(P.S. — More Artem Zub content please)
8. Repair and enhance relationships with the local media and blogging community
I’m putting this towards the bottom of my priority list because I don’t want people to think this is a case of bellyaching and complaining from a media member.
But I want a share a tweet with you from four years ago, when I attended that Senators town hall meeting in April of 2018:
One thing that is crystal clear from tonight: There is a complete lack of trust and respect from the Sens organization towards the mainstream media who cover them on a daily basis. Organization believes we misreported and blew several things out of proportion.
— Ian Mendes (@ian_mendes) April 11, 2018
I still believe these words are true and it’s time for the organization to mend the fence with the local media. There are far too many people who have strained or awkward relationships with the hockey club.
It’s my belief that as the Senators hit their 30-year anniversary, it’s time for them to grow a thicker skin as an organization. They need to be able to withstand fair and objective critiques of their hockey club within the marketplace. You cannot have five consecutive seasons finishing near the bottom of the standings and expect to have the coverage of your team be flowery and positive. It simply doesn’t work that way.
The Senators are the biggest sports entity in town and they need to start behaving accordingly. Take fair criticism when it’s warranted and soak in the positive coverage when you deserve it. It’s really that simple. It’s time for everybody to lay down their swords and work towards re-establishing that trust and respect.
One idea to help smooth the waters would be to create a media council comprised of some recently-retired sports media types in Ottawa. (I hope people appreciate I’ve gone full Ottawa mode by suggesting so many sub-committees in this column). But respected reporters like Roy MacGregor, Terry Marcotte and Dan Seguin spent a lot of time covering this franchise and could probably provide some great insight into how some of the broken relationships can be fixed.
The Senators should consider opening up a portion of the press box again to local bloggers and podcasters. I know this is a touchy subject with some mainstream media members, but we’re far too guilty of gatekeeping in this industry. I’m not saying the bloggers and podcasts should have access to every press conference and media availability, but I think there is an opportunity to engage them in a positive fashion. The Senators have tried these before and should consider going down this road again.
There is a terrific opportunity for the Senators to move forward with a fresh outlook in regards to the media.
9. Consider bringing back the summer caravan
Prior to the pandemic, the Senators ran a fun “Hometown Tour” event in conjunction with Canadian Tire. Various players would show up to store locations around the city, signing autographs and doing media interviews. It was a really fun way to keep the team in the news cycle during the summer.
The Senators should think about bringing back a version of that for this summer.
And they should make their top prospects available in a similar fashion when they come to town for development camp in July. Imagine a tour stop with Jake Sanderson, Ridly Greig and Tyler Boucher?
Speaking of summer activations, the Senators should consider hyping that development camp as much as possible. It’s unfortunate they remove the ice from Canadian Tire Centre over the summer, but they should figure out how to get as many fans into a venue to watch these kids practice and play scrimmages. If the venue is too small, consider charging an admission fee for one of the coveted spots — with all of the money going towards the Senators Community Fund.
10. Sell your star players — on both sides of the river
I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a billboard with Brady Tkachuk’s face on it here in Ottawa.
The Senators now arguably boast the most likeable collection of players they’ve ever had in franchise history. The vibes/60 are off the charts with this group. They genuinely seem to love playing with each other — and more importantly, they seem to love playing in this market.
It’s time to start plastering their faces and images all over the region. When people come to the arrivals section of the Ottawa airport, they should be greeted by a large picture of Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stützle, Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Jake Sanderson that says “Welcome to our city.” I would even figure out a way to have Tkachuk and Chabot record messages in English and French to greet passengers when they land.
And the Senators should also concentrate their marketing efforts in Gatineau, an area that has been neglected for far too long. Make Chabot’s face recognizable at bus stops. Hold a town hall event at the Slush Puppie Centre with Chabot, Dorion and LeBlanc exclusively in French. Acknowledge and embrace the fans on the Quebec side of the river. They are desperate to be included in anything related to this fun, upstart team.
The Senators have a collection of outgoing, vibrant personalities and the marketing department should be trying everything in their power to put those players front and centre this summer.
Whenever they fill that vacant marketing position, hopefully they do it with someone who has Ottawa roots and an intimate understanding of this marketplace.
(Top photo: Minas Panagiotakis / NHLI via Getty Images)