It was supposed to be a nice weekend. The Ottawa Senators were hosting the Montreal Canadiens for an outdoor game at Lansdowne Park. The alumni game brought the ghosts of the past back to Bytown, as Alexandre Daigle and Alexei Yashin returned alongside more traditional team legends like Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher. And for the game itself, it was pure hockey weather (well, it seemed perfect from my couch – may have been a tad cold for the players themselves).
But as the Whos of Whoville watched their team blank the rival Habs 3-0 for a much-needed victory, there was still a bit of a stinging sensation around the whole event. Because owner Eugene Melnyk had decided before the event that he needed to make a statement.
Much to the dismay of Ottawa fans, Melnyk cast a pall on the weekend by going off on the team’s fan base and bringing up the possibility of franchise relocation if things don’t change.
Coming off the heels of Kyle Turris’ comments about his exit from Ottawa, it goes without saying that Melnyk hasn’t been endearing himself to the locals recently. I know rich folks don’t like to lose face, but let’s first establish that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be allowed to move the franchise anytime soon. Carolina is getting a new majority owner in Tom Dundon and part of that transaction included the caveat that the Hurricanes must stay in Raleigh for at least seven years. Soon-to-be minority owner Peter Karmanos pointed out that the NHL doesn’t like moving franchises and if that’s the case in Carolina, it’s also going to be the case in Ottawa. So I’m calling Melnyk’s bluff.
Now, I’m not saying that Melnyk cares about what people in Ottawa think of him, but if he did, there is still time for him to build his reputation back up in the city. We know the team has a major arena problem due to the remoteness of the Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata and the LeBreton Flats area of Ottawa has been pushed as one option. My advice? Melnyk needs to go pay for the damn thing himself.
I know, I know – get the fainting couch ready – but he’s literally a billionaire and one of the richest men in Canada. Just because Edmonton gave Daryl Katz a sweetheart rink deal doesn’t mean the rest of the country should follow and as we’re seeing in Calgary right now, politicians are waking up.
And look; if Melnyk is given tax breaks on the land or whatever, that’s fine. But he has to put in the nut. Ottawa may not be the biggest NHL market, but you can certainly fill the arena with concerts and other events when the Senators aren’t playing. If Melnyk pays for the rink, he gets the spoils when Rihanna comes to town.
Realistically, a new rink for the Senators could follow the Winnipeg template. The MTS Centre holds around 15,000 for hockey and that’s great for the market. The Jets have excellent attendance numbers (in terms of percentage of capacity, they’re right behind Toronto – Winnipeg is fifth in the NHL at 102.1 percent) and the atmosphere is rocking because the building’s always packed. So what if there are 6,000 fewer people than there are at a typical Chicago game? Loud is loud and packed is packed. Be realistic and you’ll have success.
This year, the Senators have an average of 16,448 fans willing to brave bad traffic and rough parking tolls to see their team in the suburbs. Cut the supply slightly, put the building in a place that people can get to, and the demand will fill your bowl.
Melnyk claims that he doesn’t want to throw a lifetime of “hard work” away on a hockey team and I’m certainly not saying he needs to. A new arena that he controlled would be an investment. Sure, it might endanger his membership in the Three Comma Club momentarily, but he’d make it back eventually.
There’s a lot of bluster and bravado in Ottawa right now, but in the end, the Senators aren’t going anywhere. How Melnyk decides to be regarded when all is said and done? That’s up to him.