OTTAWA – On the eve of the grandest celebration in modern Ottawa Senators history — what Eugene Melnyk predicted would be “the greatest outdoor game to date” — the owner of the National Hockey League team brought up the idea of moving his franchise.
“I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team. It’s not gonna happen,” Melnyk said at Parliament Hill, prior to puck drop on the Senators alumni game.
“The bigger question is whether I’m prepared to blow all that money I made over many years in a different industry in a different country.
“How long can you underwrite a team?”
The 58-year-old Melnyk is the sole owner, governor and chairman of the Senators and one of the top 100 wealthiest people in Canada.
Melnyk vehemently denied rumours that he is looking for a buyers or equity investors in his team, which is struggling financially and, so far this season, on the ice.
“It just won’t happen. It’s a franchise. Imagine if you own a McDonald’s franchise, but you can move it. Why would you sell it? It’s something that’s very difficult to buy,” said Melnyk, prior to watching an all-Senators alumni game.
“It’s just too much fun. What else are you going to do? I’m a Canadian. I’m a hockey fan.”
There have been proposals to relocate the Senators from Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata, Ont., to a LeBreton Flats redevelopment downtown, but Melnyk is not convinced that’s the best option.
“I’m not sure downtown is necessary,” Melnyk said. “All those Kanata people, are they going to come downtown? Are you just moving an arena closer to [civil service] people who can’t get tickets?
“We have options for us, that’s the main thing. A lot of options,” he said, adding, “I don’t bluff.”
A number of North American cities, including Seattle, Houston and Quebec City, are interested in acquiring an NHL franchise.
Would Melnyk, who now resides in the Barbados, actually consider moving the Senators?
“If it becomes a disaster, yes. If you start not seeing crowds showing up, yes,” he said. “But, for now, we are on the cusp of doing OK.”
Melnyk tarped over 1,500 seats at Canadian Tire Centre this off-season in hopes to increase ticket demand. It hasn’t happened.
The 29th-place Senators have averaged 15,281 fans per home game (or 81.3 per cent capacity), according to ESPN. That puts them 25th league-wide and lowest in Canada, despite pushing the Pittsburgh Penguins to Game 7 in the 2017 Eastern Conference Final.
“Here, we’re fighting every day to sell a ticket, honest to God. When you get to the third round of the playoffs and you’re begging people to buy a ticket, something’s wrong with that picture,” Melnyk said.
The owner himself says he attended a game as regular customer in the 300 level to get an everyman experience and was frustrated by the arena parking: “What a hell to get out of that place.”
Melnyk was cited by former No. 1 centre Kyle Turris as the reason he was not re-signed by Ottawa. Erik Karlsson, the team’s captain and best player, is due a significant raise in the summer of 2019.
Melnyk insisted he’s not cheap but increasing player salaries within his hockey budget doesn’t make sense.
“Even at $68 million [in annual player salaries], that’s way too much over a revenue base that we have. If you want to go bankrupt, have the cheapest product on the market and the best product. We’re giving the best product.”
Melnyk endorsed the work being done by general manager Pierre Dorion and tireless coach Guy Boucher. He insisted Ottawa’s players are capable of rallying from their slow start and qualifying for the playoffs.
That rampant speculation over the direction of the franchise was coinciding with the outdoor game celebration, Melnyk said, did not bother him.
“All of a sudden you win three or four, and you’re heroes again,” Melnyk said. “We’re going to get out of this, and we’re going to get out it stronger than we were.”