Senators must turn the page to a new, invigorating chapter in team history

Flags fly at half-mast at the Canadian Tire Centre, the home of the NHL's Ottawa Senators. (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

The long-awaited investigative story on the late Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was finally posted by The Athletic this week.

And it packs a punch.

Expected to drop at some point in 2021, and then put off well into 2022, the exhaustive tell-all was published Thursday, 17 days after Melnyk’s death. It’s not exactly an Easter card read for the Melnyk family, including Melnyk’s two young daughters, although the story offers a measure of good with the bad.

Melnyk’s generosity for charitable causes and his sentimental touch are presented as part of the man’s mercurial mix. One source suggested to me that the tyranny of Melnyk is somewhat understated in the piece, which was the culmination of months of investigative work by three reporters interviewing numerous ex-employees and former players.

Ian Mendes, the lead reporter on the project, said the work simply was not 100 per cent ready in 2021, “as people were afraid to help us for fear of retribution or litigation,” Mendes said, in response to a question about the report’s timing.

“After his passing, I think a few more people were willing to share their experiences and that got us to a place where we felt comfortable to report. But I do believe the tone and arc of our story changed quite drastically after he passed away. We pivoted. We said to ourselves, ‘How do we proceed from here?’ And the consensus was, ‘Let’s write the most accurate portrayal of this man’s legacy.’”

The timing of the online release has been debated in Ottawa. Is two-plus weeks an appropriate passage to dish on the deceased? Others are viewing the reading as cathartic and necessary, regardless of the date. Not surprisingly, the Senators were taken aback by the publication of the piece so close to Melnyk’s passing.

In a response to The Athletic, Senators president Anthony LeBlanc termed the timing of the story “remarkably insensitive,” and added that the rush to publish a piece with so little new information was “questionable and opportunistic.”

By Thursday morning, the team had prepared a statement to provide to reporters who requested one. But by the afternoon, the statement was withdrawn at the request of the Melnyk family. 

One ex-employee told me they had no issue with the timing – saying that if the story had been delayed until three months after Melnyk’s death, it may have been labelled irrelevant as the franchise moves on with new ownership.

And that is the wish for an entire community: that a new, invigorating chapter of the Senators may emerge as this chapter closes.

For those who have lived and worked in Ottawa during Melnyk’s 19 years as Senators owner, little of the contents of the feature come as a shock. Some of the details, however, will make a reader cringe.

Much of the investigative piece revolves around Melnyk’s personal dealings with Senators staff and players, which occasionally veered into the bizarre and crude. I got a taste of this while writing the story of Peter O’Leary’s lawsuit against Melnyk and the Senators in the spring of 2017. O’Leary, who had been chief marketing officer under president and co-founder Cyril Leeder, filed a claim in court for $1.5 million in unpaid wages and bonuses.

While the suit was settled out of court, the court document filed on O’Leary’s behalf provided an inside look at a toxic environment, where the owner could turn on an employee, even a senior executive, in a hurry.

The Athletic's feature delves into much murkier waters, including Melnyk’s vocal opposition to campaigns supporting inclusivity in hockey (Love is Love) and Black Lives Matter. These are important initiatives in today’s NHL and the game of hockey as a whole, and represent a fresh opportunity for a new Senators front office to seize onto.

Melnyk was unable to forge a successful working relationship with some of the biggest names in franchise history, including longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson and defenceman Chris Phillips, two players who have their numbers hanging from the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre. 

Alfredsson, who should be in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and should also have a team behind him pushing that cause, has rarely set foot in the CTC in recent years, but there he was in the flesh just last week – part of Swedish night at the rink.

And maybe ‘Alfie in the House’ is an appropriate symbol for the future, a turning of the page.

Even if Melnyk’s daughters, Anna and Olivia, in their early 20s, decide they want to be involved in the club’s ownership structure, there is a chance — indeed a glaring need — for a clean slate and a fresh start.

The Senators can once again hold a precious place in the community’s heart, with alumni and fans pouring back to an inclusive place where all feel welcome. They must restore relationships with local businesses after years of lost partnerships. Potential plans for a new and centrally-located arena fit this different type of “rebuild” — a rebuilding of a brand and a team.

To paraphrase Karlsson, upon his return to Ottawa: “The time is nigh.”

Melnyk once saved this franchise from bankruptcy, in 2003.

The new Senators can set out to prove just how worthwhile that act was for the Nation’s Capital.

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