Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk stood in the House of Commons viewing gallery as his friend, Speaker Andrew Scheer, drew the chamber’s attention to his presence above.
Scheer, who had earlier lunched with Melnyk in the parliamentary dining room, formally recognized the “distinguished” Ukrainian-Canadian businessman and philanthropist, eliciting shouts of “Hear, hear!”
As Melnyk waved to the MPs in thanks, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird shouted: “Don’t trade [Jason] Spezza!”
It was March 4, the eve of the NHL trade deadline, and there were rumours the Sens captain was in for a move. Melnyk, who has played host to Scheer in his private box at the Canadian Tire Centre (the Speaker paid for his own tickets), smiled and said: “No chance.”
It was a light exchange at a tumultuous time.
Melnyk flew from Barbados to Ottawa on his private jet to meet that day with the Foreign Minister about the situation unfolding in Ukraine as Russia was in the process of laying claim to the Crimea region.
The pair also spoke by phone in December, ahead of the minister’s trip to Kiev. And the Toronto-born businessman discussed the crisis with Ukraine’s ambassador on March 4, too.
“What I said to [Baird by phone] is that I know my own people,” said Melnyk, a member of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) advisory council. “I told him it’s very important that everyone recognize we’re dealing with a whole new generation of people, some of whom only know freedom.”
As for his face-to-face meeting with Baird, “it was a private conversation,” Melnyk said in a phone interview from Barbados, where he has lived since 1991.
It’s not as though Melnyk is privy to cabinet secrets, nor is it clear the extent to which his advice carries weight. But another notable Ukrainian-Canadian, who has the ear of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the subject of Ukraine, called Melnyk’s political role an “important” one.
“It’s important for our government to hear that prominent Canadians are supportive of key decisions,” said UCC head Paul Grod, who is in regular contact with Melnyk. “We value Eugene’s input as an important stakeholder in developing, and communicating, the UCC’s message.”
Melnyk, whose parents, Vera and Ferdinand, were born in the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi, has long been involved in his community, both in Canada and in the former Soviet state. He recently invested $10,000 in a Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union leadership project as a “Ukrainian dragon,” a play on the CBC show Dragons’ Den.
And his nearly two decades of work with Help Us Help The Children (HUHTC), a Toronto-based initiative providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian orphanages, led him – literally – up a mountain with former Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, at the time a presidential hopeful.
Now 54, wealthy and no stranger to controversy or headlines, Melnyk grew up one of four children in what he described as a middle-class home. With his father’s “devastating” death when Melnyk was 17, he took on several part-time jobs, including pumping gas and working at a Styrofoam cup company.
His education stops, really, with a high-school diploma. He dropped out of Toronto’s York University business and economics classes because he found himself wondering: “What in God’s name is [the professor] talking about, and how is this relevant to me making money?”
By late 1983, Melnyk made his first million thanks to the medical publishing company he started a year before. By 2001, as founder and chief executive officer of a major pharmaceutical company, he made Forbes magazine’s billionaires list. He slipped off in 2004, though, as the value of his Biovail Corp. (which merged with Valeant Pharmaceuticals International Inc. in 2010) shares fell amid a series of securities investigations.
It was about a year earlier, when Melnyk went to visit the HUHTC camp in Ukraine, that he and Yushchenko “killed a bottle of vodka” atop a mountain. The pair, who met at a Toronto fundraiser, talked about Yushchenko’s upbringing, the country’s economic situation and its general future.
Melnyk said they spoke again by phone after Yushchenko suffered dioxin poisoning in 2004, shortly before the peaceful Orange Revolution that swept his coalition to power. Melnyk supported the protest movement, sending money to the international election-observer mission to supply demonstrators with tents, blankets and food.
“I’m kind of caught between generations, where I saw and understood the repression [under Soviet rule] and was thankful my parents got out of there, and then I saw Ukraine become free,” Melnyk said, adding, “but they have a lot of work to do.”
Melnyk said he didn’t financially support the recent uprising, but he did attempt to send hockey helmets to protect front-line demonstrators. (His Senators staff misunderstood his request, and rounded up 200 used children’s helmets, thinking the equipment was for Ukrainian orphans. He said the helmets were ultimately donated to an Ottawa charity.)
The helmet idea had come from HUHTC founder Ruslana Wrzesnewskyj, sister to former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, who happened to be in Ukraine to disperse 35,000 donated shoes when the demonstrations erupted in Kiev. Melnyk, a HUHTC honorary director, had offered to foot the local distribution bill after a sponsor backed out.
“He picks his battles within the community: children’s and seniors’ issues,” Ms. Wrzesnewskyj said, noting the divorced father of two has over the years provided orphans with medical supplies such as antibiotics and deworming medicine.
The shoes, finally released from Ukrainian customs after a series of bureaucratic roadblocks, are now sitting in a Kiev warehouse because of the uncertainty sparked by Russia’s military moves.
Melnyk called these the darkest days in his country’s history, but said he remains optimistic. If Ukraine can get through this pivotal moment and install “an uncorrupt parliament,” he said, it has the potential to thrive.
He said he is under no illusion, though, that he is best positioned to advise the Canadian government on how to nudge Ukraine toward that brighter future. “There are a lot smarter people than me who know what to do and what buttons to press, politically and economically,” he said. “But I think Canada should continue what they’re doing and be relentless – not give up on our people. And I don’t think they will.”
Asked, on a lighter note, whether his NHL team stands a chance at postseason play, Melnyk said: “Never say never.”
Editor's Note: An earlier headline on this story misspelled Mr. Melnyk's surname. The headline has been corrected.