The rich, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, “are different from you and me.”
Then there are rich sports franchise owners.
“When you’re a shipbuilder,” George Steinbrenner once said, “nobody pays any attention to you. But when you own the New York Yankees … they do, and I love it.”
When you own the Ottawa Senators, they pay a lot of attention to you – not all of it good. Eugene Melnyk, the billionaire who died Monday at the age of 62, pulled the Senators out of bankruptcy in 2003, saw his team reach the Stanley Cup final and received so much attention from fans that his name would eventually appear on billboards around the national capital.
Unfortunately, the message was far from love. “#MelnykOut” was code for Senators fans wanting the controversial owner to go away.
Steinbrenner also said that, “Owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa.” For Melnyk, owning the Senators was more like owning Edvard Munch’s The Scream – especially in recent years.
Melnyk’s family and the Senators issued a joint statement saying the owner passed away “after an illness he faced with determination and courage.”
Seven years ago, he had a life-saving liver transplant in Toronto, the anonymous donor hoping that Melnyk would recover his health and “bring the Stanley Cup home to the Ottawa Senators.”
It was not to be. The Senators entered a complete rebuild in 2018 and have not made the playoffs since. Heading into Tuesday’s match in Nashville against the Predators, the team stood second-last in the Eastern Conference. The fan base, long fragile, has turned increasingly bitter through this long season of losses, COVID-19 protocols and injuries to key players.
Melnyk did indeed save the franchise in 2003, when he purchased the rink and team for $130-million after a bankruptcy filing by former owner Rod Bryden. Melnyk had made his fortune through Biovail Corp., a pharmaceutical company specializing in generic drugs. The Toronto native was also successful in the horse-racing industry, winning all three legs of the Canadian Triple Crown and being named to the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2017.
With the strong backing of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Melnyk kept the team in Ottawa despite lures from several other centres, including Quebec City. He established Military Appreciation Night and supported a child-care facility in New York state as well as Roger Neilson House, a pediatric-care facility in Ottawa. The Senators Community Foundation has raised millions for local charities.
Melnyk craved for attention and approval, but it was always a hard sell in Ottawa.
The Senators had already been lost once, the financially strapped and losing team leaving to become the St. Louis Eagles in 1934. Many felt history was repeating itself, though there had never been any hard proof that Melnyk was in as much financial difficulty as local gossip liked to claim. (Canadian Business estimated his net worth in 2018 to be around $1.15-billion.)
Melnyk infuriated the Ottawa media by giving scoops to much-favoured Toronto reporters and commentators. He feuded with everyone from local broadcasters to the mayor.
In 2017, on the eve of the NHL 100 Classic, an outdoor game at Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park between the Senators and Montreal Canadiens to celebrate the league’s 100th anniversary, Melnyk spoiled the celebration by musing to reporters that he might have to relocate the franchise.
“The market has to prove itself,” he said, while denying the team was for sale. “If it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else, but I’m not suggesting that right now. That’s always the possibility with any franchise. If you open a grocery store and nobody comes, but one opens two blocks down and there’s a line outside, where are you going to have your store?”
Shortly after that, the billboards went up.
Melnyk had long talked about moving the Canadian Tire Centre from its suburban Kanata location to the downtown core, so he could better tap into the corporate and Quebec markets. It seemed this was going to happen when the National Capital Commission endorsed plans to redevelop LeBreton Flats through a partnership formed by Melnyk and Trinity Development Group. In early 2019, the partnership fell apart, with massive lawsuits ensuing from both sides.
“There’s a lot of frustration dealing with Melnyk on a number of fronts,” Mayor Jim Watson said at the time. “I think his musings about not going downtown, going downtown, hurt his credibility and hurt the team’s credibility.”
The Senators did have early success under his ownership, reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2007 under captain Daniel Alfredsson and making the Eastern Conference final in 2017 with captain Erik Karlsson. Nine times the team reached the playoffs but not since that fine run five springs back.
The rebuild announced in 2018 involved sending away players such as Karlsson and Mark Stone and stocking up with younger players such as defenceman Thomas Chabot, current captain Brady Tkachuk and young Tim Stuetzle.
Melnyk said in early 2019 that his team was “all-in” for a full rebuild and would soon embark on a “five-year run of unparalleled success.”
Hopes were certainly high. At the start of the current season, general manager Pierre Dorion told reporters, “I think we’re at a stage where, for us, I think the rebuild is over. I don’t want to hear the word anymore. We’re moving on. This team has to take a big step.”
Instead, it stumbled yet again, severely testing whatever patience the fan base had left.
It is unknown what will become of the franchise now. Bettman is determined to maintain a presence in the Canadian capital, but there will be plenty of interest in buyers, some of whom might wish it to stay in Ottawa and many of whom would want to relocate. The property Melnyk picked up for $130-million has most recently been evaluated at $544-million by Forbes magazine.
Melnyk once told the Ottawa Sun’s Bruce Garrioch that, “I’ve set this up so it’s in my family for generations.” However, his daughters Olivia and Anna are barely past voting age and it seems unlikely they would take over the franchise.
Let the speculation begin.