The Ottawa Senators appear poised to emerge from the painful, dark days of a long rebuild.
Featuring a talented young core of exciting players, the club has more high-end prospects coming down the pipeline after putting up the North Division’s third-best record following a disastrous start to the NHL’s pandemic-shortened season.
While there are encouraging signs on the ice for a team that has resided at or near the bottom of the league standings since getting within a goal of the 2017 Stanley Cup final, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk continues to make waves off it.
Melnyk, however, is not commenting on separate lawsuits related to a Caribbean vacation he took over Christmas during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statements of claim filed in a Florida court last month by his travelling companions against five defendants allege the trip aboard a $500,000-per-week yacht quickly deteriorated into disagreements with the captain, “reckless conduct” and “abuse” that resulted in “panic attacks” on rough seas.
The lawsuits do not name Melnyk specifically, but he released a statement to The Canadian Press acknowledging them and declining to comment while they are before the courts. He added he and his family’s travel respected all public health laws in Canada and abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they continue to do so.
CBC was first to report Melnyk’s girlfriend, Sharilyne Anderson, and his mother, Vera, are seeking a combined US$10 million in damages, alleging the captain of the 60-metre M/Y Dream was “an odorous, ill-tempered man who was curt and dismissive with the guests and outright angry and abusive to the crew.”
The plaintiffs allege the captain “was easily flustered and overwhelmed and seemed completely unfamiliar with the area, the crew or the vessel.”
The lawsuits, which both name companies connected to the boat, an agent with Dynamic Yacht Management and the captain, allege the voyage aboard the Dream with Anderson, who lives in Toronto, and Eugene Melnyk began Dec. 22 in Nassau with much of Canada under lockdown to escape their “isolated existence and spend the holidays with family and friends.”
The couple planned to spend five days together before being joined by their guests, but the situation, the lawsuits allege, began to unravel when the captain refused to travel between the island of Andros and an archipelago — instead taking the yacht east out to open ocean.
The statements of claim say the captain charted a route that led to a “harrowing 10-15 hour ordeal” where the two passengers “became violently ill, vomiting throughout the night.”
None of the allegations have been tested in court. Messages left with Gurmeet Ahluwalia, the agent who works for companies that own and manage the Dream, were not immediately returned. An email was also sent to the lawyer representing Anderson and Vera Melnyk seeking comment.
“(The captain) appeared angry and resentful that a charterer would deem to intrude on his alleged specialized knowledge, experience, and authority,” the statements of claim read. “(The captain) sought instead to punish the charterer and his party for their insolence through intentionally piloting the yacht into the open ocean.”
A lawyer representing the yacht’s management company told CBC the 12-passenger luxury boat was too large to navigate the route requested.
“It would have been nice had the boat been able to go the inland route,” Chris Fertig told the public broadcaster. “But you can’t. It’s just a physical impossibility.”
After a few days on calmer waters, the yacht picked up Vera Melnyk and the rest of the guests, but the lawsuits say they were also forced to deal with “violent bouts of vomiting and illness” because of “intentional and reckless conduct” by the captain.
Anderson and Vera Melnyk, who lives in Barrie, Ont., are each seeking $5 million for negligence, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The suits allege “the passengers were again subjected to hours of rough sailing, some having to crawl on all fours to be able to safely walk the decks of the ships” and that the captain once again ignored the charterer’s request to take the boat on the west side of the archipelago.
“Less mobile passengers, like Vera, were functionally prevented from moving for fear of severe physical injury,” the lawsuits read. “Almost all passengers suffered violent bouts of vomiting and illness from the sailing conditions.”
The suits allege waters were so rough that “an improperly secured deck chair on the upper deck of the vessel crashed into the glass partition above the dining area, raining down shards of broken glass that narrowly missed the guests but caused severe emotional distress over the likelihood of being injured.”
The lawyer for the yacht company told CBC strong winds are common at that time of year, adding that sea swells were hitting two metres, but the boat was never in any danger.
With the voyage set to end on Jan. 1, the claims allege the captain declined to allow anyone off the boat at the island of Exhuma because of rough waters, which led to another 18 hours of sailing back to Nassau on open ocean — an act of “false imprisonment” that resulted in “panic attacks, trauma and fear of death by drowning.”
News of the lawsuits connected to Melnyk, who has owned the Senators since 2003 and been a resident of Barbados since the 1990s, turned some of the attention away from his young team’s promising end to another playoff-less campaign that culminated with a surge up the standings.
Led by the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Tim Stutzle and Thomas Chabot, the future appears bright in the nation’s capital.
Ottawa was a double-overtime goal in Game 7 away from reaching the Cup final four years, but highlights have been few and far between since — often with Melnyk at the centre of the storm.
It started ahead of Ottawa’s showcase outdoor game in December 2017 when he mused the team might be forced to relocate if attendance didn’t increase.
With some fans furious at ownership, four billboards with the #MelnykOut hash tag went up at four locations across the city thanks to a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $10,000 in less than a month as attendance issues persisted.
In May 2018, then-Senators assistant GM Randy Lee was charged with second-degree harassment after allegedly making lewd comments and rubbing the shoulders of a 19-year-old male hotel shuttle driver in Buffalo during the NHL’s pre-draft combine. He was suspended by the team in June and stepped down in August. Both the team and Lee eventually settled the lawsuit out of court.
A month later, news emerged that the wife of Senators captain Erik Karlsson had filed an order of protection against the fiancee of Senators forward Mike Hoffman, alleging harassment and cyberbullying. Hoffman was traded a week later.
And just prior to the Lee and Karlsson-Hoffman stories breaking, franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson was quoted by a blogger saying he hoped the team would be sold to ensure its future in Ottawa. The blogger opted to publish the quote after Alfredsson told the writer they were off the record.
Prior to training camp that fall, defenceman Mark Borowiecki and Melnyk appeared in an awkward team-produced video focusing on the franchise’s rebuild that went viral. With just one year left on his contract and after he didn’t accept an offer for an extension over the summer, Karlsson was dealt to the San Jose Sharks for four players and two draft picks shortly thereafter.
A report then emerged in November 2018 about a video from an Uber vehicle featuring seven Senators players discussing their ineffective systems and mocking assistant coach Martin Raymond.
Despite all the drama, fans were still buoyed by the fact the team was working toward securing a downtown arena to replace Canadian Tire Centre, which is located in suburban Kanata, far from city’s core.
But that deal to redevelop the Lebreton Flats site fell through as Melnyk and his former partners on the project started suing each other. Since then, Melnyk has been involved in more lawsuits, including separate claims involving his private jet and a Connecticut casino.
The team has also burned through a number of high-ranking executives since Cyril Leeder, a member of the organization since 1992, was abruptly fired in January 2017.