Senators owner Eugene Melnyk passes away at age of 62

Eugene Melnyk bought the Ottawa Senators out of bankruptcy in 2003, and within four years they reached the Stanley Cup Final, a high point in an ownership full of ups, downs, and controversies. Kyle Bukauskas has more.

Eugene Melnyk, the businessman and philanthropist whose nearly two-decade run as owner of the NHL's Ottawa Senators covered the full spectrum of highs, lows and controversies, died on Monday from an unspecified illness "he faced with determination and courage," the team and his family said. He was 62 years old.

Melnyk purchased the Senators and what was then known as the Corel Centre, the team's home arena which would later be named the Canadian Tire Centre, in 2003 for $130 million after Rod Bryden's deal to reacquire the franchise was unsuccessful. At the time and in the intervening years, he has been credited with saving the franchise, which was mired in hardships and facing bankruptcy.

Under Melnyk's ownership, the Senators played in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, a high-point for the organization, and reached the Conference Finals in 2017. It was not immediately clear who would fill the ownership void for Ottawa.

"Eugene never wavered in his desire and commitment to bring the Stanley Cup to the nation's capital," a statement released by the team said. "Eugene was confident the current team of talented players and coaching staff that he and his organization built will challenge for and eventually deliver on that championship promise."

A Toronto native born to parents from Ukraine, Melnyk built his fortune in the medical industry, most notably as the founder and chairman of Biovail Corporation, a specialty pharmaceutical company which was once the largest in Canada. With Melnyk at the helm, the company's revenues grew from $19 million in 1995 to over $1 billion in 2006, fueled by a strategy of seeking out drugs with expired patents and reinventing them with Biovail's proprietary technology. He retired as the company's chairman in 2007.

“While successful in business, it was our game and his Senators that he was most passionate about," Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said in a statement mourning Melnyk's passing. "Eugene was often outspoken but he maintained an unwavering commitment to the game and his roots and he loved nothing more than donning a Senators sweater and cheering on his beloved team."

Melnyk's first venture into sports ownership came in 2001, two years before his acquisition of the Senators, when he purchased the St. Michael's Majors of the Ontario Hockey League. When he bought them, the club played at St. Michael's College School, an independent Catholic school in Toronto for young men, but Melnyk sought to move the team to Mississauga.

However, Mississauga already had an OHL team, the Mississauga IceDogs, complicating Melnyk's ambitions. Undeterred, Melnyk went on to purchase the IceDogs in 2006 and resold them a year later in order to facilitate the Majors' move from Toronto to Mississauga.

Away from hockey, Melnyk found notable success as a horse racing breeder as well, being named Canada's Outstanding Owner on two separate occasions. The horses he owned won coveted prizes, including the Canadian Triple Crown, the Travers Stakes in Saratoga and the Gold Cup in Barbados, where Melnyk took up residence later in his life.

But it was his complicated tenure with the Senators — and the vital work in the Ottawa community he did during it — for which he will be best remembered.

"The words ‘passion’ and ‘commitment’ define the man who has owned the Ottawa Senators since 2003," Bettman said. "Whether it was in the boardroom with his fellow governors, at the rink with his beloved Senators or in the community with his philanthropy, he cared deeply about the game, about his team and about bettering the lives of those in need."

The scope of Melnyk's philanthropic efforts primarily focused on helping the young and the elderly. The Senators Community Foundation has invested more than $100 million into charities and programs that help youth across the capital region, according to the Senators.

Personally, Melnyk was the lead donor of Anna House, a childcare facility in New York, and Roger Nielson House, pediatric palliative care facility in Ottawa. His $5 million donation to St. Joseph's Health Centre in Toronto, where his father, the late Dr. Ferdinand Melnyk, helped create the hospital's first emergency room department, was the largest private donation in the near 100-year history of St. Joseph's.

After Melnyk himself needed an urgent liver transplant in 2015 that only came to fruition after a public appeal for a living donor, he became a prominent advocate for organ donation.

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk stands near the ice as members of the media are given a tour of changes to the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa on September 7, 2017.

On the ice, the team experienced noteworthy highs and prolonged lows.

The franchise suffered several early playoff setbacks at the hands of the rival Toronto Maple Leafs prior to its 2007 Cup Final breakthrough, though the Senators had one of the highest average attendance figures early in Melnyk’s tenure – routinely drawing large crowds to an arena well outside the downtown core, which posed major traffic headaches. 

As the years went on, the team faced more challenges.

Ticket sales lagged – even for playoff games – and later that year at an outdoor game in Ottawa, Melnyk made the suggestion the team could look good elsewhere if attendance remained an issue and a new downtown arena could not become reality. 

That led to major fan backlash with the hashtag and subsequent billboard #MelnykOut starting. 

Meanwhile, several star players had messy exits – including the beloved Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson.  

An arena deal in the city core at LeBreton Flats fell apart in 2019 with a series of lawsuits from Melynk and business partner John Ruddy. 

Melnyk then mused about a rink in nearby Gatineau, Que., but that never came to fruition either. 

Ottawa mayor Jim Watson, who clashed with Melnyk on numerous occasions, acknowledged their differences while praising him for saving the team in a tweet on Tuesday.

Senators captain Brady Tkachuk also took to Twitter to give his thoughts.

"Mr. Melnyk provided me, my teammates, and many Sens players who came before us with an opportunity to live out our dream," Tkachuk wrote on Twitter. "The Ottawa community will miss you greatly. Condolences to your family."

Melnyk is survived by daughters Anna and Olivia.

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