On the surface, at least, things had been running rather smoothly for the Ottawa Senators.
Perhaps too smoothly.
General manager Pierre Dorion, according to “The Plan,” had been stockpiling draft picks with such efficiency that his pockets were spilling over with selections for the highly rated June draft — as many as three lottery picks, seven picks in the first two rounds and nine over three rounds. The Senators rebuild is on track, the AHL team in Belleville is loaded with young talent and for the first time in the last couple of years, fans are excited for the future.
And though the team on the ice is undermanned and lacking top-end skill, especially among its veterans, new head coach D. J. Smith has his young players and aging warriors playing a compelling style, one that could mesh nicely with an influx of fresh talent.
As for the mercurial owner, Eugene Melnyk, he has done his club a great service by staying away from microphones and video cameras throughout the 2019-20 NHL season. He seemed to recognize his unpopularity with a large segment of the fan and business base in Ottawa, and was backing away from controversy. Silence was golden.
It was nice while it lasted. Last week’s announced firing of new CEO Jim Little after 54 days on the job re-opened a lot of old wounds in the organization, which has a checkered record of hanging on to executives, to put it mildly.
As reported by Elliotte Friedman on Hockey Night In Canada on Saturday, and covered in a National Post story the same day, Little was fired after a couple of massive, peel-the-paint-off-the-wall arguments with Melnyk, in which he essentially told the owner the team would be better off if he “disappeared for 12 months,” Friedman said.
Not exactly Office Politics 101 when it comes to speaking with one’s boss.
Little and his lawyer claim he was fired over an argument, though not right away. The second of the two blowups was on Feb. 18, the night of Chris Phillips’ jersey retirement, and Little wasn’t let go until March 4, in an announcement by an outside communications firm.
Nevertheless, the Senators insist they didn’t fire Little over a heated discussion but because of a violation of the team’s code of conduct involving Little’s behaviour in the organization, plus past behaviour.
Following the arguments with Melnyk, Little was served with an “investigation letter” concerning his behaviour, the fruits of which were the public and unproven accusations in a blog written by Little’s ex-wife, which he disputed to the Post through his lawyer.
This could get even messier, with rebuttals and court cases and, well, what else is new?
Litigation seems to be a business practice around this organization as contractors, ex-business partners and former staff have pursued court action for one reason or another, including getting their severance pay or salary.
Regardless of the reasons why, there is no avoiding the frightening degree of turnover at the executive level, with Cyril Leeder (a Senators co-founder), Tom Anselmi, Nic Ruszkowski and Aimee Deziel, and now Little, having left or gotten fired since 2017. For the sake of brevity, we won’t get into the club’s history of chief financial officers.
If Little was a poor choice, why was he chosen? He seemed to have a decent track record in business and sport management. One source says the company that vetted him on behalf of the Senators was a company Little had past dealings with, therefore it was not an independent evaluation.
As for “core values,” some would question the values of an organization that would allow actor Mel Gibson, with his track record of anti-semitic comments and statements about women, to sit in the owner’s suite during the Phillips ceremony and game.
Also, investigating divorce histories can cut both ways. As a colleague tweeted the other day, be careful throwing stones in glass houses.
We could discuss dirty laundry all day, but why bother?
The challenge for the Senators, as usual, is to get past the off-ice distractions and continue on their current path of rebuilding.
It doesn’t get easier to sell tickets, attract staff or sign free agents when court cases and allegations abound, but then again it has been this way for years.
For those who have learned how to work with Melnyk — think Dorion and his predecessor Bryan Murray — it is possible to find stability with the Senators. Allison Vaughan, manager of hockey administration and a key office staffer for every GM in franchise history, has been here from Day 1.
Unusually, the Senators actually have more stability on the hockey side than many teams in the NHL, whose GMs and coaches grind through the turnstile. Dorion has been with the Sens for 13 seasons as a scout, director of player personnel, AGM or GM — every one of them with Melnyk at the helm. He doesn’t complain about ownership, his hockey budget or limited staff, he puts his head down and gets to work.
On the whole, Dorion and AGM Peter MacTavish have done a terrific job setting the franchise up for years to come by stocking talent in the system and trading players for draft picks. All they need now is the wherewithal to get young forward Brady Tkachuk extended to a long-term deal and the mood around this organization will change overnight.
These are the priorities:
• The draft lottery (likely date April 9).
• A strong June draft, ideally with the ability to bring home Alexis Lafreniere, who could be the focus of a massive off-season marketing campaign.
• A long-term extension for Tkachuk this summer, to mesh with the deal handed to core defenceman Thomas Chabot.
If these boxes get ticked, the latest fallout in the CEO office will get classified as so much background noise.
Let us pray — one of these days/years the Senators will have stability at the highest levels of the organization. Combine that with a foundation of talent and proper contracts to keep their core players and the hockey club can again become relevant in the NHL and a source of pride in the National Capital Region.
Fans have to believe it’s possible.
Without faith in a sports team, there is nothing.