Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk died Monday.
He was only 62 years old, and he leaves behind a family, a legacy of philanthropy and the support of his parents’ homeland of Ukraine, and a mixed bag of results as a professional sports team owner.
We can chronicle his highs and lows with the Senators on another day, in another column. But, first and foremost, our sincere condolences to his two daughters, and the rest of his family and friends.
That said, the business of sports continues. And with Melnyk’s passing, his Senators have come to a crossroads.
The Ottawa Sun reported that Melnyk intended to keep the Sens in his family after his passing. But, suffice to say, whoever takes control of the franchise will face immediate pressure to add high-end talent to a promising, young foundation. Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion has assembled a lineup in need of a veteran star – like, say, current Florida Panther, Ottawa native, and soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Claude Giroux – and the manner in which Sens ownership pursues free agents and trade targets this summer may well be a harbinger of their long-term strategy.
If they bow out of the free agent or trade block sweepstakes, claiming the price for a Giroux-caliber player is too high, that would be reason to suspect the Sens will remain a “budget” team, and their fans will not be pleased to see the Melnyks putting profit before progress. But if ownership steps up and makes a statement move to help them jump into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, they will be lauded for it, and attendance at the Canadian Tire Centre will surge.
Melnyk owned the Senators for nearly two decades, and he occasionally talked about potentially relocating the team if he didn’t see increased fan support. Naturally, the Sens fan base was enraged at the not-so-veiled threat, and some of them started a campaign in 2017 to publicly plead for a change in ownership. That resentment could bubble to the surface again if the organization stays well below the salary cap ceiling..
Is it possible the Melnyk family chooses to sell the team? Of course. Melnyk left a huge fortune to them, and in Forbes magazine’s most recent valuation of NHL teams, the Senators were estimated to be worth $525 million – 28th in the league, but still a very healthy return on the $130 million Melnyk spent to acquire the team and the arena in 2003. The Melnyk family easily could decide they want to cash out, but the question is, who would they sell the franchise to? A pair of super-rich power brokers, like Mark Chipman and David Thomson in Winnipeg? Or a more corporate conglomerate, like the Fenway Sports Group that just purchased the Pittsburgh Penguins?
In reality, it doesn’t matter who is next to pay the Senators’ bills. The spotlight is going to zero in on the bottom line – wins and losses – and if Ottawa fails once again to make the playoffs (for the sixth consecutive season), the fury and frustration of Sens fans will be readily apparent. Melnyk did a lot for hockey in Ottawa, but he knew as well as anyone that, ultimately, fans want to believe ownership is doing everything in its power to make it back to the Stanley Cup Final. He got the team there once back in 2007, but after that, on-ice success was largely elusive.
At the end of his time as Sens owner, Melnyk committed to a full-on rebuild of the roster, and now that patience is paying off, with a terrific core of skilled youngsters. But the Senators aren’t yet true Stanley Cup contenders. The new people to take the reins have to push harder to get better results. Anything less would be awful optics, and a public relations nightmare. They can’t cut corners and expect to rise above all other teams.
In many ways, the future has arrived in Ottawa, and while it’s a shame Melnyk can’t see the full blossoming of the group, it’s crucial that his family, or new owners, invest a sufficient amount of money to give them a boost in the standings, and reassure the fan base that the Senators are not only in Ottawa for the long term but in the mix of legitimate championship frontrunners for years to come.