When Eugene Melnyk speaks, the punch lines tend to write themselves.
For the first time in months, the owner of the Ottawa Senators spoke on radio shows in Toronto and Ottawa Thursday and Friday, and the interviews left the expected trail of carnage.
On 580 CFRA in Ottawa Friday morning, Melnyk said that Ottawa mayor Jim Watson should keep his mouth shut, in the aftermath of the collapse of a plan that would have created a new downtown NHL arena for the Senators. Melnyk ripped the Toronto Maple Leafs rebuild — “somebody forgot about defence.” He also called the Ottawa sports station that broadcasts Senators hockey “bush league” for asking general manager Pierre Dorion to listen to a taped call from a concerned fan.
On social media, the “bush league” remark went viral as popular Ottawa radio host Ian Mendes tweeted, “So, Eugene Melnyk just called me “bush league” on the air. So there’s that…”
Dozens of sports personalities, journalists and fans rallied to the defence of Mendes, who has a reputation for being fair and decent in his approach to a hockey team that has been at or near the basement of the NHL standings the past two seasons.
Just when hockey had forgotten about the Eastern Conference cellar-dwellers, the Senators again became the butt of national jokes.
Melnyk started his mini-blitz on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto Thursday evening, agreeing to speak with Prime Time Sports host Bob McCown, on the understanding Melnyk would get a chance to promote his newly-acquired company involved with eye-tracking for concussion victims, Neuro Kinetics.
From there, Melnyk addressed a variety of hockey and state-of-the-arena type questions, implying that there was now little chance the hockey club would be involved in the LeBreton Flats project near downtown Ottawa. Melnyk did say he has heard from developers interested in creating a downtown arena, and may have interest at some point.
“I’m still trying to pursue it, but if it doesn’t happen, I’m just as happy to stay in Kanata and do what we’re doing out there and actually expand up what we’re doing and what we have.”
Melnyk told McCown and co-host Richard Deitsch he ignores “99 per cent” of the fan vitriol on social media, saying that the Senators tripped up one such fan, who turned out to be “some 12-year-old in Toronto.”
This is just the kind of comment that further alienates the fan base in Ottawa. At least, during the CFRA interview Friday, Melnyk admitted that even his season ticket holders who take part in marketing focus groups are outraged with the organization.
“There’s no question, they are pissed,” Melnyk said of his team’s fans. “I think we did a terrible job communicating exactly what the plan is on a rebuild.”
And just what is that plan?
“We need a team that is consistently young,” Melnyk told CFRA host Bill Carroll. “We need a handful of veterans to take them through some of the rough patches . . . but our average age two years from now is going to be 23, 24. It’s going to be the youngest team.
“And I’m hoping to have a five- or six-year run with these players.”
Melnyk alluded to 10 outstanding prospects on the the AHL Belleville Senators, plus 17 draft picks coming in the first three rounds of the next three drafts. However, Ottawa doesn’t own its own lottery pick this summer, having traded it to Colorado for Matt Duchene.
To Ottawa fans disheartened that the team lost its top three scorers at the trade deadline, Mark Stone, Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, Melnyk argued that these 27- and 28-year-olds seeking seven- or eight-year deals were not a good fit for the rebuild. They would be in their early-to-mid-30s when the rebuild blossoms in about five years, Melnyk said.
“We’re not going to pay stupid money and then spend all this time trying to unload all these stupid contracts that other teams are stuck with,” Melnyk said.
Again, the owner vowed he was committed to spending to the cap in a few years time and ultimately winning a Cup in Ottawa.
“I’m not in this to be a participant . . . I’m in this to win. And to win, we know what you have to do. You have to have a young, vibrant team. You have to have the superstars and you’re going to have to pay them. If you don’t pay them, somebody else will.”
It’s a fine line between “paying the superstars” and not getting stuck with “stupid contracts.” A lot of fans and media believe Stone was the ideal future captain around which to build.
“These next six months are going to be critical for Pierre and his team and the whole hockey operations to get their act together in a big way to be able to use these assets . . . This core group we have sitting in Belleville are all going to stay, and yes they’re going to need big contracts and I’m prepared to step up for that,” Melnyk said.
“Whether we get support in attendance or not, I’m going to do this, because it’s something I’m committed to. We intend to win a Stanley Cup and I don’t have another 50 years to do it.”
Melnyk said he believes the negative narrative can change quickly, if the team starts to perform better on the ice, as the prospects grow and improve.
Here’s a sampling of Melnyk’s ‘He Said It’ moments:
• On whether NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is OK with the Senators staying in Kanata, in their 23-year-old arena: “Yes, I think he is. He lets his owners do as they — not as they please — but try to do the best they can for the franchise. They don’t want the laggards. And currently we are a revenue laggard for the rest of the league. Whatever it takes to do better on the revenue side is important to him and the other owners and to us, of course.”
• On the rebuild of the Toronto Maple Leafs: “look they’re stuck. OK, I better not say what I was going to say, but they’re going to have a very hard time winning a Stanley Cup without defence. Because they are hitting the cap. They can’t bring anybody new in. They’re stuck. And that’s where you have to be extremely careful . . . mistakes were made. Somebody forgot about defence.”
• On his commitment to the Senators: “I’ve invested more than $100 million, on top of buying the team, just in operating losses.”
• On Ottawa’s mayor, who criticized Melnyk for being difficult to work with: “He is so lucky I keep my mouth shut, he should keep his (shut). You know, I have a lot to say, but I don’t say it. I’d be very careful if I was him, walking around and mouthing off. It’s also very counter-productive. The NHL offices, say, ‘do we really want to bring more events to the city?’” (Melnyk says he was bidding for another All-Star Game for Ottawa at the time Watson spoke out on Melnyk).
• On why he dislikes Ottawa media: “Everybody has an opinion, but sometimes it’s an ill-informed opinion. I don’t like some of the tactics of a couple of your colleagues. I just won’t talk to them anymore. To try to ambush Pierre Dorion, in an interview, and say, I’m going to show you — the guy was going to play some irate fan’s recording on the show.
“I mean that’s bush league stuff. You do that in little towns in the middle of nowhere. Not in a G7 capital.”
And with that, Melnyk rode off, the latest in a long line of hit-and-run audio performances from the owner of the Senators.
In Ottawa, this will tear off a lot of scabs that had been healing in the relative quiet after the trade deadline, while future stars like Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson and Erik Brannstrom have been thriving in Ottawa and Belleville.