If Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk actually goes through with a couple of town hall meetings with fans, here is some free advice for him: Start with a good, long grovel. And then get more apologetic from there.
Though Melnyk has never seemed like one to accept blame for the struggles of his hockey franchise, and while he might be inspired by the sight of Don Cherry rallying to his defence on Saturday night, it would not be wise to bring a combative mood to a talk with the ticket-buying public, even if it would be highly entertaining.
Though he might think he holds the ultimate bit of leverage in terms of a possible relocation (he doesn’t), Melnyk finds himself having burned through just about all of his goodwill among local fans. And he’s going to need to restore a lot of it, if he’s going to be able to get through the next few months without touching off a wholesale revolt.
This is not simply a situation where a team goes through an unexpectedly bad season and angry fans want someone to blame. Though the Sens went from the conference finals last year to almost dead last in the NHL this year, a lot of that can be explained by woeful goaltending, which is not generally the kind of thing that starts a campaign to oust ownership. It’s deeper than that, and in the same way that politicians can sometimes see their public support crater as a result of decisions that they didn’t think were a big deal, Melnyk’s various missteps appear to have resonated with a chunk of the fan base far more than has its win-loss record.
There was the departure of Daniel Alfredsson, first as a player, and then, when that fence was mended, as a member of the front office. There is the general tight-fistedness of the Sens in a league where every team’s biggest expense, player salaries, is strictly controlled. (It’s one thing when a baseball team says it cannot compete financially with its wealthier rivals; it’s quite another when an NHL team chooses not to do it.)
There was the ouster of team president Cyril Leeder, replaced by a guy from Toronto who presided over the absolute worst days of that city’s soccer team, who has since left and was replaced by Melnyk himself. There was the decision to jack up parking prices in Kanata. I have no idea if Melnyk himself was even aware of that one, but anecdotal evidence is that it was a public-relations disaster. The owner wouldn’t have caused himself any more ill will if he had shown up at the Canadian Tire Centre and personally poked fans in the eye on their way in the door.
Cap that off with his spectacularly ill-advised December musings about moving the team if attendance problems worsened, and you have an owner who has seemingly gone out of his way to make himself the focus of fans’ ire. The subtext of those comments: This is my team, and if you people can’t make it profitable enough for me, I will take it to those who can. (Side note: If the idea was to provide cover for his coach and GM, then to Melnyk I say, well played, sir. We’re out here screwing around with checkers and you are crushing a game of four-dimensional chess.)
The thing is, it could still get much worse. There is the looming spectre of Erik Karlsson’s next contract, and even as Melnyk was rowing back his relocation comments in January, he avoided an enthusiastic endorsement of keeping the captain in Ottawa beyond next season. He might even be right. If Karlsson is determined to test the free-agent market in 2019, and if the Senators are offered a package that blows them away — NHL talent, high-end prospects, and a willingness to take salary-cap ballast — then there is a strong argument for taking that rather than risk losing Karlsson for nothing.
But teams rarely get that kind of offer for a player who is a year from free agency. And even if the haul is great, dealing a franchise player is the kind of thing you do when you have earned your fan base’s trust. Dealing him instead of giving him a big contract is definitely not the thing you do just months after complaining publicly about having to “underwrite” the team.
With all of that going on, there remains the question of the Senators’ arena, which has probably been solved with the LeBreton Flats development agreement, but could yet blow up as those negotiations proceed. Will the final deal include a significant dollop of public money, which is so often the case when professional teams seek to build a new stadium? More to the point, will Melnyk and partners end up with a sweet taxpayer subsidy for the new building shortly after the team has moved its star player at a steep discount?
Forget sticking a finger in the eyes of fans. That would be like using a hot fireplace poker.
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