On a day when the weather is as inconsistent as the team – sun followed by ice pellets followed by sun – the Ottawa Senators are once again the top news item in the country’s capital.
At the nearest corner to the Canadian Tire Centre, a billboard announces “New Project Coming Soon.” Such seems forever the case around here.
Wednesday morning, just before the ice pellets, the NHL franchise sent out a curt press release announcing that Jim Little – introduced as the team’s saviour on Jan. 10 – had been shown the revolving chief-executive door and was out. His crime: “conduct inconsistent with the core values of the Ottawa Senators and the National Hockey League.”
“It’s not what you think,” league commissioner Gary Bettman told TSN, without revealing what he himself might be thinking. It was an “internal operations issue” and the league would have no further comment.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Little released a statement claiming his dismissal was tied to a Valentine’s Day argument with owner Eugene Melnyk about Little’s approach. “I am a strong-willed person,” he wrote, “and the disagreement included me using some very strong language with him over the phone, including swearing, which he did not appreciate and for which I later apologized.”
The hockey world is well known for its aversion to swearing.
It had, ironically, been the best two-week run in months – heck, years – for Canada’s worst NHL team. On Feb. 15, it had retired Chris Phillips’s No. 4, saluting the community-minded defenceman, who had played all 1,179 of his regular-season NHL games in a Senators jersey. It had been a moving ceremony, followed by a 7-4 beating of the visiting Buffalo Sabres.
Happily, Ottawa then proceeded to lose four in a row. (We’ll explain later.)
Then, on Feb. 27, Bobby Ryan played his first home game in three months after entering the league’s player-assistance program to deal with an alcohol problem. Ryan celebrated his new sobriety with a hat-trick, as he led the team to a 5-2 victory over the Vancouver Canucks.
That Cinderella story took some of the sting out of the team having dealt three days earlier its top scorer, Jean-Gabriel Pageau. A tiny, fourth-round draft pick with local roots, Pageau had blossomed into the team’s No. 1 centre and a crowd favourite. On Thursday at Canadian Tire Centre, they will again be chanting his signature “Pageau! Pageau! Pageau!” – but this time in tribute to his years in Ottawa. Pageau will be wearing a New York Islanders jersey.
With a 23-32-12 record, the Senators have no chance of making the playoffs. Even so, a complicated mix of Little’s arrival, the Pageau deal and past star player sell-offs was seen, by some, as the start of something new and better for what has been the franchise from hell.
Just to refresh what has taken place since 2017, when the Senators came within a double-overtime goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final: two fired presidents; a threatened move; an assistant general manager arrested for harassment; the wife of the captain seeking court protection from the girlfriend of another player; an Uber video of players trashing a coach; a botched attempt to move the rink closer to downtown; dueling lawsuits. On top of that, star players Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene, Pageau are all gone, their names left on the jerseys of young fans as reminders of what has been lost.
What has been gained, however, is a net full of draft picks. Pageau alone brought in three – a first-, second- and conditional third-round pick. General manager Pierre Dorion will have a stunning nine picks in the first three rounds at the June draft, 13 picks in all. Two of the first-round picks – their own and one they got from the San Jose Sharks in the Karlsson trade – will be lottery picks, meaning it’s possible the team could land the given No. 1 draft pick, Alexis Lafrenière.
(That’s why losing four in a row was good news.)
Already, the team has two of the best under-25 players in the game in 23-year-old defenceman Thomas Chabot and 20-year-old Tasmanian-devil forward Brady Tkachuk. There are fine prospects developing in the team’s AHL affiliate in nearby Belleville.
This is where Little was to come in, not as a player, but as an enabler. The former executive with Shaw Communications, Bell, RBC and Bombardier was to focus on community engagement. One of his first acts was to lower the price of pregame beer. Bring back the upper-level fans, fill up the corporate suites again.
The situation in Ottawa may be unparalleled in sports. The town actually loves the team it refuses to watch. After years of sellouts, the Senators are dead last in average attendance, playing to 65.8-per-cent capacity. The Winnipeg Jets, on the other hand, play to 108.5-per-cent capacity. Ottawa used to sell out regularly.
The issue is ownership and promises. The fan base became disenchanted with Melnyk when he threatened to move the team if the locals didn’t start buying tickets. They didn’t buy either the threat or the tickets. They became suspicious when the best players were moved when contract discussions were active. Pageau, for example, was immediately signed to a six-year, US$30-million deal by the Islanders, a length of time and amount of money he would not have seen in Ottawa.
The questions raised are obvious: Is it truly a “rebuild,” as fans have been promised, or are the Senators an annual garage sale of assets? The city seems deeply split on this, with half believing the Senators are on the right road, and the other half believing they long ago ran off the road – now with no tow truck in sight.
The curt news release on Little’s surprise dismissal added only that a search is already underway for yet another top executive to try to square these conflicting circles.
As the sign says, “New Project Coming Soon.”
For the Ottawa Senators, it can’t come soon enough.