After a touching Melnyk tribute and a rousing win, a new era dawns for the Senators

Ottawa Senators' Alex Formenton (10), Connor Brown (28), Nick Holden (5), Tim Stutzle (18), Nikita Zaitsev (22), and goaltender Anton Forsberg (31) celebrate after scoring an empty net goal during third period NHL hockey action against the Detroit Red Wings in Ottawa on Sunday, April 3, 2022. (Patrick Doyle/CP)

The game was a blend of farewell to the chief and the dawn of a new era in Ottawa Senators history.

Eugene Melnyk, the man who owned the Senators for nearly two decades, was remembered in a ceremony prior to the Senators' first home game since Melnyk’s death last Monday. The owner was honoured fittingly, in a 5-2 win over the visiting Detroit Red Wings, to complete the home-and-home sweep vs. Detroit.

That Josh Norris would score a hat trick, the second consecutive three-goal effort by a Senators player against Detroit in these two games (Mathieu Joseph had three on Friday), put a punctuation mark on a rousing afternoon in a nearly full Canadian Tire Centre. Norris says he hadn’t scored a hat trick since his peewee hockey days.

As fans walked through the arena parking lots, they noted the flags at half mast to honour Melnyk, before walking into the gates to be met with boxes of bizarre giveaway merch – ‘Happy New Years’ hats and noise-makers. Melnyk himself would have gotten a chuckle out of that odd timing, and the cleaning out of storage closets.

A decidedly more sombre salute took place on the scoreboard screen prior to the anthems, a four-minute visual trip down memory lane with Melnyk during his 19 years of owning the franchise. The most touching moment was a scene with Melnyk and his two daughters at centre ice in the months following Melnyk’s 2015 liver transplant surgery, as the girls, Anna and Olivia, thanked Senators fans for saving their dad’s life.

Indeed, it was an anonymous Senators fan who donated the liver, following a very public search to find a donor, launched by then-Senators president and franchise co-founder Cyril Leeder.

The Melnyk video displayed an empty Melnyk chair in his suite, and featured one of his favourite sayings, “Carpe diem,” loosely translated to “seize the day.”

Ottawa players did just that on Sunday, in front of the second largest crowd of the season, 16,402. The largest came on the previous weekend, 17,201, so the trend is positive.

According to Senators head coach D.J. Smith, Ottawa players were more than aware of the circumstances of Sunday’s game.

“Mr. Melnyk put his heart and soul into this organization to keep it in Ottawa,” Smith said. “He had a vision to put these young guys together and to build around them. It’s certainly not a finished product, there’s more growing pains, but you can see there’s an exciting group of players.

“It’s unfortunate he’s unable to be here to see it through, but we’re going to do everything we can to (see it through) and I think it was special to win that game tonight. Just honouring him and being able to leave the building a winner, on his night, is special.”

As the game ended and players celebrated, the scoreboard again displayed the empty chair in the Melnyk suite.

“That was definitely an emotional tribute, and coming off the ice and seeing the box,” said captain Brady Tkachuk. “We wanted to put our best effort forward to honour Mr. Melnyk and we felt that’s what we did – we’re definitely happy with the outcome.”

“Ka-ching” for Norris

Norris, who hit the 30-goal mark in just his 52nd game of the season, is due for a new contract this summer as a pending restricted free agent.

“Every time it goes in, Ka-ching,” Tkachuk said, to laughter.

“It’s impressive. He’s hot right now. So every time he touches the puck it’s got a chance of going in,” Tkachuk said.

According to Norris, he is riding a wave of confidence.

“I just kind of carry it with me game by game,” Norris said. “When you’re scoring, and playing with good players, it makes your job a little bit easier.”

It will take some time to sort out the Norris contract this summer, and hopefully prior to training camp, unlike the Tkachuk situation last fall.

It is also going to take time to sort out the ownership situation, and the league, the team’s board of directors and Ottawa fans need to allow this to be done properly, with all the time that is required.

The NHL has given every indication it wants to see a strong and stable Senators organization thrive in Ottawa, and preferably in a new arena that can be built on LeBreton Flats, close to the Parliament Buildings (Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman discussed this in a 32 Thoughts podcast this past week).

What can fans do in the interim?

Continue to support the franchise, with an even deeper resolve.

In an interview with Ben Ennis and Stephen Brunt on their Sportsnet Fan 590 podcast, TVA reporter Renaud Lavoie had some telling comments about the Senators and the discussions about playing a handful of home games in Quebec City next season.

The story got leaked ahead of schedule – Lavoie suggested the leak was designed to sabotage the idea, from a group with designs on buying the team at a discount – and that the five-game Quebec City trial probably won’t happen now. But Lavoie noted that the idea of giving away one’s home games to another city to boost revenues was a “wake up call” to Senators fans. Keep in mind that Lavoie used to work in Ottawa for RDS, covering the Senators in the late 1990s. He knows the market.

This next chapter for the Senators is a chance for fans to get re-engaged with a team they may have taken for granted.

For the time being, Melnyk’s daughters along with a board of directors will operate the franchise until it’s determined what the best long-term plan is for the Senators.

Sunday’s salute to Melnyk, in a festive, winning atmosphere, represented a first page turned.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.