Who says that being prime minister – trying to strike a trade deal with U.S. President Donald Trump, figuring out what to do with a pipeline you own but can’t build, dealing with provincial premiers in revolt over a carbon tax – is the toughest job in Ottawa?
Just try selling tickets for the Ottawa Senators’ 2018-19 season.
One day before the opening of training camp, nine months into the worst and weirdest annus horribilis any NHL team in memory has passed through, the Senators traded away their top ticket draw, their best player and their captain, Erik Karlsson.
For the player twice awarded (and twice runner-up for) the Norris Trophy, the Senators received from the San Jose Sharks draft picks and a gaggle of players who had to be Googled by head-shaking Ottawa fans.
In the Senators news release – slugged “Ottawa Rising” – the team called it “the most important trade" in the organization’s rebuild. Off to San Jose goes the 28-year-old Swedish defenceman in return, essentially, for younger unknowns and future possibilities. The Senators get an NHL journeyman in Chris Tierney, 24; a stay-at-home defenceman in Dylan DeMelo, 25; Latvian Rudolfs Balcers, 21, who is in the minor leagues; and a 19-year-old first-round pick in centre Josh Norris of the NCAA Michigan Wolverines. The Senators also get the Sharks' first-round pick in 2019 or 2020, depending on circumstances, and a second-round pick in 2019. As well, if the Sharks can sign Karlsson to a contract extension beyond the coming season, Ottawa will get another first-round pick in 2022.
Reaction was immediate. “As a Leafs fan,” the first caller into TSN 1200 sports radio put it, “I’d have to say you guys got cheated.”
The results of any trade of such magnitude can never been known for years, of course, but what was certain Thursday afternoon in Ottawa was that Karlsson’s departure from the only NHL city he has known – he called Ottawa “my forever home” – was wrenching.
“Sad,” he told the assembled media before choking and briefly breaking down.
He then went about the room shaking each and every hand and thanking, just as he had thanked the city, his former general manager, the late Bryan Murray, and his long-time friend and previous Senators captain, Daniel Alfredsson.
It did not pass notice that he did not thank club owner Eugene Melnyk, general manager Pierre Dorion or coach Guy Boucher.
To describe this franchise’s past year as “dysfunctional” would be a disservice. A better description might be “bizarre.”
Fifteen months after Ottawa came within a double-overtime goal of going to the 2017 Stanley Cup final, the Senators went into freefall, crashing to 30th out of 31 teams in the league.
Unbelievably, it was even worse off-ice than it was on-ice. To cope with declining attendance, they put a massive black tarp over 1,500 seats at Canadian Tire Centre, foolishly thinking out of sight would be out of mind. It had the reverse effect, the tarp symbolic of the black hole the team had fallen into.
Following the owner’s less-than-veiled threats to move the franchise if people didn’t start buying tickets, several furious fans used crowdfunding to erect billboards throughout the city with the hashtag “#MelnykOut.”
Fans complained about parking ($30) and they moaned about the product. Head coach Boucher operates as though he would be happier coaching table-hockey players, where he could control their every move. It was clear well before Christmas that Karlsson, a creative genius on the ice, was tuning out his oppressive coach.
The captain had, it turned out, far more important matters on his mind. He and wife Melinda were about to become parents for the first time. They even announced the baby’s gender in a video in which Karlsson smashed a golf ball that exploded into blue powder. When the boy was stillborn, the city grieved with the Karlssons, all unaware of what additional hell the family was going through.
At season’s end, it became known that Melinda had been cyberbullied about her lost baby, the bully even calling for someone to “take out” her husband’s legs to “end his career.” She filed an order of protection, alleging that the attacker was actually Monika Caryk, girlfriend of the team’s second-most crowd-pleasing player, Mike Hoffman.
Hoffman was quickly traded away and is today a member of the Florida Panthers. As for Caryk, who says she had nothing to do with the social-media attacks, she has turned to the courts in search of a Norwich order seeking information on what proof the Karlssons had that she had been the cyberbully.
Summer also began with assistant GM Randy Lee being charged by Buffalo police during the NHL’s special camp for young prospects. According to police, Lee allegedly harassed a 19-year-old hotel shuttle driver by continuing to rub the young man’s shoulders after being told to stop. Lee has proclaimed his innocence, but resigned mid-summer and no replacement has yet been chosen.
With the franchise in such disarray – and we haven’t even mentioned the difficulties with the planned move from their Kanata suburb to downtown Ottawa – it was no surprise that action would be taken. Season-ticket sales were widely believed to be in the tank.
Melnyk brought in new senior staff over the summer and they began a campaign to sell the only thing a foundering franchise has to sell: hope. Parking prices would come down. GM Dorion had issued orders to coach Boucher to give younger players more opportunities and to stress speed.
In a particularly strange move late Monday night, the franchise released a video that quickly went viral. It featured one of the team’s more popular players, defenceman Mark Borowiecki interviewing Melnyk in a casual setting. It was an awkward position to put an anxious-to-please player in and, predictably, it did not accomplish much.
“It landed with a thud,” wrote Ottawa Citizen sportswriter Ken Warren, “providing more punch lines for those who can’t stop taking shots at the franchise.”
Melnyk and Dorion later met with local editorial boards and rights holders, talking up youth and rebuilding. The team’s two best forwards, Mark Stone and Matt Duchene, are 26 and 27, respectively and, presuming they both sign contract extensions beyond next year, will be expected to lead the new and unknown players. Karlsson, at 28, was hardly old but was deemed worth far more in trade than in play – something that disgruntled season-ticket holders are not expected to embrace quickly.
As for Karlsson, the fact that he is leaving an admittedly broken franchise that has decided to start all over again for a franchise that may well get him to that elusive Stanley Cup final seemed little comfort on Thursday.
“Never in my wildest imagination was I ever going to be leaving this place,” he said, his voice breaking.
Never in anyone’s wildest imagination, of course, was there ever going to be a year quite like the one the Ottawa Senators have gone through.