OTTAWA – Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk lashed out at critics who suggest it’s time to dismantle his struggling team and rebuild Wednesday, offering up an incendiary comment of his own in response.
“Anybody that says we should blow up this organization should get their own bomb and go blow themselves up, OK?” the Toronto billionaire said from the team’s practice at a suburban Ottawa rink.
Though the Senators sat 13th in the Eastern Conference before Wednesday night’s play, 13 points behind the Florida Panthers for the eight and final playoff spot, Melnyk refused to write off his team.
Melnyk also did his best to downplay talk of a crisis, even with the Sens constantly dogged by trade rumours and speculation over the futures of coach Craig Hartsburg and general manager Bryan Murray.
“This is not an organization that is completely crippled. It needs fine-tuning, it needs some tweaking, it needs a player here, a player there, a few good bounces and that’s it,” said Melnyk. “But we’re nowhere near that type of environment.”
Even with the prospect of a playoff-less spring for the first time since 1996 and a possible battle to fight slumping ticket sales looming, he still hasn’t given up hope of the Senators turning things around in time to salvage their season.
On Tuesday, before Ottawa returned from the all-star break with a listless 4-1 defeat to the New Jersey Devils, he stated that it would take some performance – 28 wins over the final 38 games of the regular season by his projection – to qualify for the post-season.
By the following morning, he’d revised his math, but not his optimistic message: The Senators aren’t dead yet, despite what most of the hockey world thinks.
“We know what we have to do. We’ve got to win 26 or 27 games with 37 games left,” Melnyk said. “Can it be done? It can, absolutely. If we get on a roll, it can be done.”
He used his own Ontario Hockey League team as an example of a team being able to turn it around in a hurry.
“I saw it happen with the Mississauga St. Mike’s Majors. We went 9-0 on the road and all of the sudden we were in playoff contention, we were fourth in our conference. Before that, we were out of the playoffs,” he said. “If we get the momentum, if we can players working hard and everything clicking our way, it can happen and I still am very optimistic it will.”
It seems not everyone in Ottawa shares his enthusiasm, which stands to be part of the reason for the ticket promotions announced Wednesday.
Speaking at the Kanata Recreation Complex, Melnyk was joined by a group of young fans who were part of a promotion in which the Sens will offer 10,000 tickets over 13 of its final home games to minor hockey players, students and their families at discounted prices.
In discussing other upcoming initiatives, which include five of the team’s practices being opened up to the public, Senators chief operating officer Cyril Leeder said season-ticket sales for this year were at 11,000, which is its second-highest total ever, but down from a high of almost 13,000 one year ago.
According to a report in a national newspaper, regional audiences for the team’s broadcasts on Rogers Sportsnet are down 33 per cent from last year to 67,000 per game.
The team was booed frequently by the Scotiabank Place crowd on Tuesday night and conducting business in a sagging economy with a struggling team isn’t likely to be a big draw, although Melnyk said that even during times of recession, people will still come to the rink to be entertained.
Winning some games would help ensure that, as well as spare Melnyk from having to do the talking.
Following the world junior hockey championship, one report linked the Senators with making changes at the coaching and GM positions and that forced Melnyk to issue a statement denying the claims.
On Wednesday, he was asked again about possible changes and while none appear to be coming, he did admit the team is at a “crossroads” as it embarks on a three-game road trip.
“I leave the hockey operations to the hockey people, I’ve always done that and we are going to continue doing whatever it takes to put a winning team on the ice and as far as I’m concerned, right now, we’re at a crossroads. This is it,” he said. “We have to win 26 to 27 games and it’s going to be done, and if it’s not done, well, we’ll have to deal with it.”
Before the all-star break, the Senators had won three of four games and picked up points in all four of those contests to ease some of the heat.
“We don’t want to have this team be torn apart,” centre Jason Spezza said before the Senators left for St. Louis, where they face the Blues on Thursday. “For us, we have to win hockey games and get back to playing how we were before the break, we were starting to make up some ground and feel better about our game.”