The Ottawa Senators fired new CEO Jim Little on Wednesday, continuing a string of executive departures for a club that has struggled on and off the ice in recent years.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk named Little the club’s CEO on Jan. 10.
The Senators say Little’s conduct was “inconsistent” with the core values of the team and the NHL.
However, Little said in a statement released Wednesday to multiple media outlets that the reasons for his dismissal were simply the result of a heated disagreement between himself and Melnyk.
“On Valentine’s Day, the owner and I had a personal disagreement over the approach that I had been pursuing,” Little said. “I am a strong-willed person, and the disagreement included me using some strong language with him over the phone, including some swearing, which he did not appreciate and for which I later apologized.
“It was these events, to my knowledge, which led to my dismissal. Any other inference from the statement is wrong.”
The club says a new CEO will be announced in the next few weeks.
Since 2017, the Senators have parted ways with CEOs Little, Tom Anselmi and Cyril Leeder, COO Nicolas Ruszkowski and chief marketing officer Aimee Deziel.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the reasons for Little’s dismissal were not related to what the league discussed at a board of governors meeting in December. At that meeting, Bettman told reporters that NHL personnel will be required to attend mandatory counselling regarding racism and anti-bullying following a string of incidents that surfaced earlier in the season.
“It’s not what you think,” Bettman said at the NHL’s general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. “I generally don’t comment on club personnel decisions. ... It has to do more with internal operations.”
The Senators were a goal away making the Stanley Cup final in the spring of 2017, losing in double overtime in Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The franchise’s fall from grace since that May evening has been fast and stunning.
The Senators, who have said they are in a deep rebuild, are on their way to missing the playoffs for a third consecutive season. However, they likely will have two lottery picks in this year’s NHL draft in Montreal.
Ottawa ranks last in the 31-team NHL in attendance, averaging 12,595 fans per game, just 65.8 per cent of capacity at the Canadian Tire Centre.
“Teams sometimes go through cycles for a variety of reasons, but I am not one who overreacts or is concerned when a team’s performance is less than the people of that community would like to see,” Bettman said.
“I know Eugene is passionate about the game, passionate about the team. And it wasn’t that long ago that the team was one game away from the Stanley Cup final. It’s really easy to criticize and second guess, and it’s harder to do. Every now and then a team goes through that kind of cycle.”
Little, 55, was most recently executive vice-president and chief marketing and culture officer for Shaw Communications. He also has held executive roles at Royal Bank of Canada, Bell Canada, and Bombardier Aerospace.
After being named Senators CEO, Little did several interviews with Ottawa media outlets, essentially becoming the club’s voice at the executive level with Melnyk scaling back media appearances in recent years.
Melnyk’s attempt to build a new arena closer to downtown fell apart in 2019 when the Senators owner and his business partners could not resolve internal differences.
Melnyk has faced criticism from fans in recent years. In 2018, four billboards with the message #MelnykOut went up across Ottawa thanks to a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $10,000 in less than a month.
Months earlier, on the eve of an outdoor game in Ottawa, Melnyk speculated the team could move if attendance didn’t improve.
Melnyk has since said he plans to keep the team in Ottawa.
With files from Joshua Clipperton in Boca Raton, Fla.