On Tuesday night, the Ottawa Senators opened their doors for the first of their three-part town hall series that allowed fans to sit down and ask questions Pierre Dorion and Eugene Melnyk.
It’s not the first time the Senators have held events like this in the past, but in consideration of the backlash the organization received over Melnyk’s comments at the NHL 100 Classic, this was an opportunity for him to engage with his paying customers and try to make amends for the turmoil on and off-ice turmoil he helped create.
To the Senators’ credit, the organization was under no obligation to run this event, let alone two separate sessions on Wednesday. Originally, when this series of town halls was announced, my expectation was for these sessions to be structured in a way that mitigated the risk that Melnyk would speak off-the-cuff.
To my surprise, this did not happen.
When moderator Dean Brown introduced Melnyk and Dorion and explained how the event would run, fans were encouraged to ask anything they want and ask follow-ups if they weren’t happy with the response.
Carte freaking blanche.
I could not believe it, but the organziation should be commended for not cherry-picking questions that simply would have followed up Eugene Melnyk’s letter to season ticket holders and made this an easy exercise in positive PR.
The decision to open up the mic and make themselves vulnerable to criticisms and questions that they could not have prepared for could not have been an easy one. Their decision not to however helped make the first town hall one of the most entertaining events that the Senators were involved in this season, so for that the organization and its handlers deserve credit for it.
Similarly, the presence of Chris Phillips and the newly appointed ambassador Chris Neil at the event did not go unnoticed. Fans always appreciate photos ops or the opportunity to schmooze with popular former players. Other positive takeaways from the events included the announcement that the Senators’ hardest working award at development camp will be renamed to honour Jonathan Pitre, a 40-percent reduction in parking costs, the removal of the 300-level tarps and more terrace-styled standing areas that allow fans to mingle and socialize while enjoying the game.
Given the off-ice and on-ice struggles, I expected there to be an omnipresent level of tension in the crowd. It never really materialized during the event.
Maybe the numerous jokes made by Melnyk at the expense of the Toronto Maple Leafs softened them up, but whenever Dorion or Melnyk hit a key talking point or used a buzzword, it was met by applause.
When the mic was opened after the introductory statements from the general manager and owner, the first question wasn’t even a question. It was a statement telling Melnyk that he was appreciated and that the #MelnykOut billboards were not representative of the entire fan base.
There was a distinct contrast in the audience. The majority of the older demographic seemed to support the owner and throw batting practice fastballs to him whenever they grabbed a microphone while the younger generation of fan pressed him on questions and tried to hold the organization accountable for Melnyk’s comments at the NHL 100 Classic, the Erik Karlsson trade rumours and the size of its front office.
Interestingly, when the expectation was for the organization to toe the line on the promises it made to season seat holders in Melnyk’s letter in March, the talking points changed.
In the letter, Melnyk emphasized his commitment to “investing what is needed to identify, draft and develop the players that embody what it means to be an Ottawa Senator.” At the town hall, Dorion threw cold water on any misconceptions that this commitment would mean a reallocation of resources that would give the hockey operations better intel that would allow the group to make more informed decisions.
Dorion’s point that “numbers don’t equal quality” has a truth to it. Hiring people for the sake of having more warm bodies in a room, does not necessarily mean that it improves the collective worth of the front office. With that said however, it’s not like this hockey operations team is infallible. The Senators’ 30th place is the product of a philosophy that eventually caught up with the organization. Years of impulsive decisions that married short-term competitiveness or cost-savings at the expense of a long-term plan finally caught up with the team.
Easily identifiable personnel mistakes have been ignored and it’s impossible to look at the Senators’ draft record and ignore how the size of the scouting staff has influenced the team’s decision to shy away from European players who did not play in Sweden. In the past Dorion has discussed his organization’s preference for taking Europeans who have already played in North America because of the opportunity for more live viewings (read: cheaper) and a better grasp on the individual player, so it’s hard to understand why the organization wouldn’t commit to identifying and mitigating these gaps in coverage.
Mind you, it’s not like the general manager is going to come out and publicly state that he doesn’t have the resources he needs to be successful and in doing so, throw his boss under the bus. Dorion’s a company soldier and his comments over the past few days reflect that.
The weird thing about these town halls is that it would have been easy for the organization to say the right things and bring the fans on board.
When asked about Erik Karlsson’s future, all the team had to was state that they unequivocally wanted to keep Karlsson in the fold and that money was no object. Rather than state that the organization was going to do everything within its power to ensure that it could negotiate a new contract for Karlsson, it guarded fans against the reality that its competitors could offer Karlsson more money on an extension.
The following Melnyk quote is from the town hall Tuesday and was transcribed in an excellent Chris Stevenson article for The Athletic:
“Erik is a very, very special player. We all know that. He makes the ice light up. He makes the fans light up,” Melnyk said. “We will do everything we can to make an offer. We’ve discussed internally what we can do. There’s a word of caution: it’s a question of dollars. There are teams that can outgun us 5-1 … there’s a cap and that gives us a fighting chance to be able to make an offer within a certain range. But we could get outgunned. It’s just the reality of what the hockey world has gone to. Many times it’s the player who is the one at the end of the day who decides.
“I’m all for him. I like Erik a lot. I like his attitude. He’s an entertainer and he’s a great generational player, but there’s only so far you can go and we’re going to go as far as we can.”
Coming away from the event, the principle takeaways for me are the following:
- It feels like Erik Karlsson is going to be traded. Under this ownership, it sounds like the organization is either not committed to giving him max dollars or maybe it doesn’t even matter. Maybe the issue extends to his lack of faith in ownership delivering a winner. Regardless, it seems like the organization will be content to say that they offered him a fair amount to stay, but it was Karlsson’s choice to leave.
- It feels like Guy Boucher or at least some of his staff will pay the price for the Senators’ season. Over the three town halls, there certainly were a number of inadvertent shots thrown Boucher’s way. From describing the discontent for how a team featuring Erik Karlsson could finish 26th on the power play to describing his frustration with the phrase, “If I hear the words ‘Rest is a weapon,’ one more time,” it sounds like the honeymoon between Boucher and the front office is over.
- On a number of occasions, Dorion and Melnyk blamed the media for their portrayal of certain events. Melnyk encouraged fans to “look at the tapes” to revisit his comments at the NHL 100 Classic believing that they weren’t offensive or warranted an apology. It was a page straight out of the Trump playbook encouraging customers not to believe in the fake news. It didn’t matter that Melnyk said this fan base needed to prove itself or that he threatened to relocate the team, his comments were taken out of context by the media. Dorion took issue with the media for reporting on the rumours that the Senators were interested in dumping Bobby Ryan’s contract in a trade package involving Karlsson. Dorion blamed the lack of accountability for journalists and bloggers before encouraging fans not to believe everything they hear.
Town Hall No. 1:
Town Hall No. 2:
Town Hall No. 3: