After a press conference yesterday to introduce his philanthropic ‘The Organ Project’ – which, if you’re interested in organ donation and helping save lives, you should definitely check out at http://www.theorganproject.net — Eugene Melnyk held court with the media to talk hockey.
It’s been some time since Melnyk last talked puck, so his day started with a five-minute scrum with the local media before he took to TSN 1200 to be interviewed on ‘The Drive’ and the Fan 590 in Toronto to talk to Bob McCown on ‘Prime Time Sports’.
I’ve transcribed the appearances in the order that they appear in the paragraph above with each interview or scrum getting their own section. Each of the audio clips are embedded in the players accompanying their respective section.
As always, my thoughts are in bold.
On whether his perspective as an NHL owner has changed because of the liver transplant…
“Yeah, I think it has. There’s more of an urgency. It’s like, well, we can’t wait 25 years for this. I think that we’re now finally, (we’ve) dug out of a three-year hole. It was kind of sad. One out of three years get into the playoffs and you get blown out, the other (years) you don’t get in. Now, it’s exciting. I know last night, it was a tough, especially for me, a tough loss. I just think that we have the potential of really going, first of all, getting into the playoffs and secondly, potentially getting into the second, third even fourth round. I think this is… finally, I’ve become optimistic. Cautiously.”
To put things in perspective, the Senators are 25 years into their modern franchise’s existence, so I hope I don’t have to wait another 25 years for them to have another window of Cup contention again.
That said, it’s not surprising to see Melnyk wax poetic about his team’s chances this season. He can downplay this team’s previous iterations, but during the lockout shortened season when the team knocked off the Canadiens in the first round and then went on its miraculous run with the Hamburglar in 2015, he was expressing the same kind of optimism.
Fans just have to keep it all in perspective. He’s publicly evoking confidence and optimism in his club and really, when you’re in the sports entertainment business and you’re trying to sell tickets, who can blame him?
On whether he has talked to Pierre Dorion about making deals before the trade deadline…
“I think we’re waiting through (the game against Toronto) and then we’re going to sit down and see what we need to do.”
My biggest concern is that the Senators will look at their results and moderate success in a weak Division and weak Eastern Conference and overestimate how good they are or how far ahead of the curve they are in their franchise’s development curve. A tight budget and money may preclude them from making another short-sighted blunder that sees the team jettison more young assets for another fix, but maybe Clarke MacArthur’s health gives the Senators the flexibility to add more salary to their budget.
On what he believes this team needs…
“Did you see what they want for (Matt) Duchene and stuff? Oh my God. It’s going to be silly because there’s so many competitive teams, especially in our Conference. From bottom to top, if I was even at the bottom, I’d still have hope. But, I think it will be way too expensive and we’re not going to jeopardize our future because some of these … everybody wants our young stars. I don’t blame them. You’re talking about Chabot and White and I say, ‘Get out of here! Those are superstars in the making.’ We know it. Everybody knows it. I think we’re going to be smart about it to build a long-term base and long-term team. But, we’re urgently wanting to win, of course.”
The NHL’s tampering rules are pretty vague, so I don’t even know whether Melnyk’s decision to discuss another organization’s player or shit on his trade value constitutes tampering, but it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to openly talk about Matt Duchene – even if he’s doing so to play up the importance of players like Thomas Chabot (who Melnyk referred to as ‘Chabbo’ in his answer) or Colin White.
On his openness to help Pierre Dorion and beef up the size of the hockey operations department…
“Yeah, it depends on how we’re doing at the gate and how we’re doing generally with the team’s finances. So, that will drive it. It really will. So, it’s a catch 22: you need more people to come to the games to spend more to get a better team and the better the team is, the more people come. So you’ve got to sometimes make these small financial bets – and they’re not small, you’re talking millions of dollars – to take a shot on a player or two. I wouldn’t be against it to bring in players. Usually I’d say, ‘Nah, nah, nah,’ but, we’ve learned the hard way that other teams do it and they’re successful at it.”
Sens should use this for their marketing material:
“Concerned that the Senators’ front office is spread too thin and would benefit by adding more resources? Buy more tickets and spend more money at the rink, assholes.”
There’s nothing like throwing the blame on the fans instead of acknowledging that you can grow the business by investing more money into the product itself. Is it a calculated risk? Absolutely, but with the right move, you can get fans jumping on the bandwagon and believing in the process again.
On whether he’d be open to hiring more scouts or etc…
“That, on that said, that’s a very inexpensive investment compared to a very high-level player – in which you have to pay not in (just) cash, but in your future. You start giving up some of these draft picks and you’re empty in five years. Am I going to be around, hopefully? I’ll be around, but I have no problem… it’s all based on where he is in his plans, so…”
It’s a very inexpensive investment, but the Senators still acknowledge that they have one of the smallest front offices in the league. I understand why it’s easier for Melnyk to say that this kind of commitment is easier to absorb than the financial commitment to even the most average of players, but with Ottawa’s budget restrictions, they should be looking to get the most of their front office staff so that they can make the most informed and responsible decisions that they can.
A bigger blend of scouts and sabermetric analysts can help this organization cover more ground and ensure that the organization mitigates mistakes or sees fewer players fall through the cracks. When you can’t spend with the spendthrifts, you have to look elsewhere for whatever edges you can find.
Melnyk’s right when he talks about the opportunity cost involved and you just have to look at the Bobby Ryan trade to understand how quickly these kinds of deals can go south.
On whether he’s encouraged by the ticket sales of the recent home games…
“Yeah, people woke up. Even last night you look at it, those are real numbers. Before, they used to kind of add a couple thousand… not a couple of thousand, but a thousand seats and say, ‘Well, they were donated.’ But now, those are real, solid crowds coming in – fully paid, comps are going down like crazy. So I’m pleased, it’s nice to see. Even on a night like last night, it was brutal out there and you guys drove it.”
The Senators have made a commitment to not papering their building and they haven’t really deviated from that strategy. If rumours are believed to be true, this refusal to do so helped lead to Peter O’Leary dismissal as the team’s chief marketing officer.
That said, in Ottawa’s recent game against the Dallas Stars, the organization did give its season ticket holders free tickets as a reward or perk, which helped boost numbers.
On Gary Bettman coming to town in the middle of March and whether it can coincide with the announcement of an outdoor game…
“Where are we now, mid-February? No, we’ll have something out well before that. Yeah, I’m expecting (to announce something). We’re done as far as the Senators are concerned. We’re all in and we’ve made our deals and I think they have to – all the other parties which includes the City (of Ottawa), OSEG and NHL – they have to do their deal. That’s the only reason (it has not been announced yet). We’re done. We’re in. I want to do it. I’m excited about it. It’s going to be an interesting time out there. I hope it’s cold, cold, cold, so everybody experiences it. Like freezing. (Laughing.)”
It’s great news. I mean, I don’t get why he’d want the weather to be freezing cold, but yeah, I’m really looking forward to seeing this kind of event come to fruition.
TSN 1200 Interview (hockey discussion begins at the approximate 11:40 mark of the audio below):
On having to be happy with the fact that the team’s attendance seems to be on the rise…
“It has and it’s really great to see the fans back. Did you notice last night that it was louder? I noticed it. A lot more people were screamers and it’s really nice to see. I think the whole attitude is now getting back. It’s snowing outside and it’s really winter and people… you know, it’s kind of tough to sell hockey when you’re still all watching football in November. I don’t know how many games we had in November, but it was just too much hockey in one month. Now we’re just starting to see hockey fans come out. They’re getting louder, they’re getting behind this team and it’s kind of typical in any sports market: the better the team, the better the crowds. In our case, we’re doing great. Forget about last night, I’m going to throw that one out. The tests of course are the next couple of games and yeah, I truly believe we’re playoff bound and it’s going to be crazy, crazy here in April.”
No one will disagree that the Senators’ front-loaded home schedule was probably brutal for the organization when it comes to ticket sales. It certainly didn’t help that the Phoenix pay system and sure, even the RedBlacks’ Grey Cup run probably cost the Senators some more ticket sales, but I still get the sense from talking to friends and colleagues that many just haven’t bought into the product that this team is selling.
Maybe there’s an omnipresent level of cynicism regarding the Melnyk-owned club, but I know a lot of people who discredit this team’s chances of success based explicitly on the philosophy and way that this team has been operated under Melnyk’s watch over the past 14 years.
The rest of the circumstances can change, but I don’t know how this shaken confidence in Melnyk to deliver a winner can be overcome quickly.
On how proud he is of Pierre Dorion and Guy Boucher for stabilizing the organization…
“Well, that’s what you’re seeing. It’s the result of a lot of hard work, a lot of placement of good players and very, very good coaching; dedicated coaching, not that the others weren’t, but these guys have a little bit more attitude, I think. Guy (Boucher) and Marc (Crawford) are tough guys. If you look at Pierre (Dorion) and he’s on the phone, it’s plugged into his head all the time and he’s constantly on the phone trying to upgrade our team whatever way he can. So I’m very excited, but not only that, we haven’t mortgaged our future. I’m excited about guys like (Thomas) Chabot coming in and (Colin) White. Wait until those guys show up at (training) camp and, these (guys) were the leaders (in the World Juniors) and recently, we saw it. The MVPs. The future looks great. The crowds are going to increase. LeBreton (Flats) is getting close. The outdoor game is coming in and the possible game overseas is coming up, so we’ve got a lot going on and it’s really fun.”
In a sense, this season kind of reminds me of Ottawa’s first year under Paul MacLean. In that 2011-12 season, his Senators team finished second in the Northeast Division with a 41-31-10 record before being bounced in a competitive seven-game first round matchup versus the New York Rangers. MacLean was the toast of the town and far cry from the days of his predecessor, Cory Clouston.
In Guy Boucher’s first year, he’s also getting a ton of credit for his team’s on-ice success, but while his version of the team is stylistically very different from MacLean’s clubs, the underlying numbers aren’t particularly flattering either.
The Senators have been doing a better job of suppressing the number of chances that they’re giving up, but they’re not generating more chances than they give up either. Coupled with the territorial advantage that they’re giving up to the opposition, the team is still on the wrong side of a lot of underlying numbers.
Although the team can certainly iron out these kinks, the worry is that results-oriented success could fool management and ownership into believing that this team is a lot better than it actually is – which wound up plaguing the team’s decision-making during the final few years of MacLean’s tenure.
On whether Pierre Dorion has the financial flexibility to make a move at the trade deadline…
“He does and he will, as long as… but, what people are asking for, it’s not just unloading salaries. What people are asking for is a king’s ransom for okay players. Now, (Matt) Duchene is a whole different story, but what they’re asking for is off the charts and I can’t tell you that, but we’re not going to… the one thing we’re not going to do is mortgage our future and give up early round draft picks or some of our prospects. Those are pretty much untouchables unless (management) really believes that one player or two can really make a difference and if they can, he certainly has from me the financial okay to go ahead and do it.”
It’s hard not to read these kinds of comments (read: money is no hindrance in trade talks) as anything more than lip service when the organization has made promises of spending at some undisclosed point in the future when the time is right so many times before. All fans can do is judge this organization by its recent actions and because of their frequent dollar-in/dollar-out kinds of transactions, it’s hard to take these comments by Melnyk too seriously.
That said, I still can’t believe the owner would openly talk about another organization’s player like Duchene by name, but he’s right in saying that the opportunity cost to acquire Duchene, especially considering that he only has two-years of team control left on his contract beyond this season, just doesn’t make a ton of sense for this franchise.
Obviously it makes sense for a small market club to be guarded when it comes to parting with cheap and inexpensive players who have controllable contracts, but I don’t have a problem with the Senators parting with these kinds of assets if they’re targeting quality young talents in return. (Ie. another Kyle Turris-like deal.)
On the perception that the Atlantic Division is so wide open that Ottawa can not only get into the postseason, but win the Division…
“Yeah, of course it is. I mean, if this is the year to take your shot, I’m all in. I love this kind of action, but again, you’ve got to be careful because if you blow this one, you blow a few years of prospects. So it’s got to be a smart deal. That’s what I’m after, we’re not going to be silly. I think you’re right. I think we can overtake Montreal, much to the chagrin of all the Habs fans. I think that Boston is not the same Boston that it was five years ago. The pesky Leafs are always there. They need to be taught a lesson on Saturday and we will do that. And other than that, I think if we play .600 hockey, we’re in. I think we need about 100 or 102 points to get in and I think we can do that with a 60-percent winning percentage.”
Would I rather this team be patient and play for a bigger window of contention when it’s underlying numbers and a lot of factors point to this team punching above its weight? Yes, absolutely. I’d hate to see the Senators mortgage the future while hoping they can luck into a couple of favourable playoff matchups and be some one-off like the 2011-12 New Jersey Devils. I’d rather the team bide its time and look for trades that can keep it competitive now while also positively impacting its chances moving forward.
On what his opinion of the jerseys is and what jersey he likes or is in favour of…
“I do, but I won’t share it with you. How about that? Listen, I don’t care what they wear. For all I care, they can dance around in tunics. All I want them to do is win. I know that everybody is curious about the jerseys and what works and what doesn’t work. We’re going to do a ton of research over the coming months to see what the fans like. The fans have to like it, the players have to like wearing them and at the end of the day, I honestly, personally don’t care what they wear as long as they win.”
Give me a return to the day of the black and white home aways featuring the two-dimensional logo.
Fan 590 Interview:
On the LeBreton Flats development and where the Senators are at on this…
“Ugh, we were expecting it not to be easy and it never is. It’s a massive, massive, massive project and we’re just… everybody is getting in after taking some time to reflect on what they have to do and that’s with the NCC and that’s the current negotiations that are going to be going on virtually, pretty much almost to the end of the year, we figure. We were hoping that if we could get this done by the fall or by puck drop in October, that’d be great. But, we’re all in. There’s still a lot of negotiations still to be completed and we’re at the early stages of that. So it’s going to take some time there. We’re hoping to speed it up. We’ve got Tom (Anselmi) now on board and he’s extremely familiar with… you know, he built what was called the Sky Dome, he has built the (Air Canada Centre). He knows his way around these kinds of hockey developments and I really needed him for that plus running the hockey club. We’re now well-positioned, but we need to hire a couple more people and after that, then the work gets down to negotiating and then we’re hoping to get all our permits and then shovel in the ground. We can build an arena fairly quickly. We think we can do it within 18 months once you have all those approvals. So there’s a lot of, I guess, paper that have to flow and I’m confident.”
I’m not alone in this, but I still really want to hear how Melnyk plans on financing a new arena and what the immediacy is for Melnyk to get shovels in the ground so quickly. Considering how slow any process involving the City of Ottawa and the NCC can be, coupled with how important LeBreton Flats and a prospective can be to the Senators’ bottom line, you’d imagine it’s imperative for the organization to get their LeBreton footprint right, irrespective of how long the process takes. Then again, maybe this immediacy is rooted with concerns for how long Melnyk believes he can keep the team afloat in Kanata at the Canadian Tire Centre?
On whether the site needs an environmental cleanup…
“It does, but we can start on the… the way we’re planning it is to start with the arena first, all-in, like very quickly because we have plans for arenas. There’s multiple plans, multiple designs and we just have to pick one and they can start. We have time for that, but that’s going to be the first order of business. The rest is going to flow right with it, but we’re going to be very focused on getting the arena up and running and then the balance of it because that will be a real showcase for us.”
Given Melnyk’s urgent desire for an arena, it’s no surprise that the arena development is phase one for the plan.
Hopefully the arena’s architectural plans involve a direct connection from the LRT station to the arena itself. The last thing people want to do during the cold months is have to walk or spend more time outside in bad weather than they have to.
On the “balance” being 50 acres of property and this project being more than an arena…
“Oh, God yeah. It’s about a $4-billion project and just picture I’m here in Toronto as well and I’m just looking out at the CN Tower and the dome. This is like taking from Jarvis to Spadina from Bloor to Lakeshore, roughly. Ah, maybe not that big, but pretty close to that. It’s big and it’s downtown. It’s just off of downtown, so it’s a massive project with residential, commercial, open-air space, the whole condos, the food and beverage, entertainment, an outside possible bowl, hotels and skating rinks. You name it, it’s a massive project.”
It’s big. It’s so big. It’s like massive, huge. *lots of hand gestures*
On the Senators project being twice the size of the one in Edmonton…
“Yes, it is and I can’t wait to go there. It’s supposed to be totally off the charts.”
Probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about Edmonton.
On the patience he’ll have to have to see the entire project be completed…
“Yes, that’s why we’re starting with the arena and the rest will flow through. For anybody who’s ever been to (Los Angeles), if they haven’t gone to see (a game in Los Angeles live), they’re really missing (out). Forget about Disney, go to L.A. live. That’s where the Staples (Centre) is there, I was there for the All-Star Game, you’ve got 25-star… not five-start, but pretty great restaurants, you’ve got a skating rink in the centre, you’ve got headquarters of ESPN there and you’ve got so much going on and take a quarter of that or half of that and that’s LeBreton (Flats). But, that thing is just unbelievable. It’s a whole neighbourhood. It would be like taking Etobicoke or almost Etobicoke, it’s huge. Half of Etobicoke, but it’s huge and they did it right, but they have a population of almost 10-million people in that surrounding area, so it’s a little different than our little Ottawa. But, we’re going to do our best and I think it’s going to be gorgeous and beautiful and I think people will come.”
I hope people will come. They’ll be fresh out of excuses if they don’t.
On whether an outdoor game is happening next winter…
“Ugh, yeah. There’s some things to work out. We’re still, if you can believe it or not, at the stage of trying to figure out what teams are going to play because there’s multiple teams. We know we’re showing up and we are going to be there and we’re hoping that Montreal is going to be there. But, we need to do final negotiations on it. As far as the Senators are concerned, we’re in. We’ve negotiated our contract. This is not a (financial) windfall, I’ve got to tell you right now for anyone. Everybody is kind of realizing that this is a great, great fan thing, but that’s the only reason we’re doing it.”
It’s nice lip service to the fans, but by now, I think most people realize that these games are put on to generate money for the league.
On when he says negotiating, he’s talking about the league buying him out of a home gate…
“That is correct and also, there are some residual things that we have to take care of. Like, we have sponsors, there’s conflicting sponsors, there’s sponsors that already paid their fees and what are they going to do, but those we can manage. The big contract, as far as we’re concerned, is done. The rest is all dealing with sponsors and things like suite holders because it’s different. If you’re a suite holder in Ottawa, what’s your cut-in on this? Do you get a suite? Well, you don’t, but this is what we’ll do for you. So, you’ve got to make sure there’s nobody complaining too much and nothing so far.”
Poor suite holders, I guess?
On whether the game is at TD Place…
“Yeah, that’s the plan. You know where I wanted it. I was very vocal about it. I wanted it right in front of Parliament Hill and they couldn’t get their act together. Honest to God, they just didn’t. They said, ‘No, we can’t do it,’ for all the reasons that we could have solved, but I guess that decision was made at another level and I said, ‘You know what, for the fans, let’s do it outdoor at (TD Place).’”
Reports suggested that the federal government was more than willing to house a game on Parliament Hill, but the scope of the game and the amount of seats that the feds were willing to acquiesce to wasn’t large enough for the league to generate the kinds of revenues it needs to be financially motivated to put on one of these games.
For all the parties involved, it came down to business and money and unfortunately for everyone, we lost out on the possibility of a marquee sports event at a historically unprecedented venue. It’s a shame.
On John Shannon getting a text that the Senators will be playing the Avalanche in Stockholm next season on November 8th and 10th…
“Is that announced?”
On it not being formally announced…
“Good because I didn’t sign a contract.”
On a source telling John Shannon that those are details that he’d being fed…
“October? (November 8th and 10th against the Colorado Avalanche)? Okay, if you say so. I think there are a few things that we need to still negotiate there. I really want to do it. I think it’s great for everybody. I did the last one when we went with Pittsburgh and got to Gothenburg and to Stockholm and it was a blast. I think anybody who went on that trip had a lot of, lot of fun.”
I don’t understand why the Senators would ever agree to play these games in the middle of the season instead of at the beginning of the season when the team has a chance to acclimate itself well ahead of the actual games. Considering how Melnyk has played up the importance of his players’ health and the impact that an injury at the 2018 Winter Olympics could have on his team’s playoff run, it’s interesting that he’d be willing to miss out on a home gate and send his team to Sweden where long flights and time changes could have negative effects on his club during the middle of November.
Looking ahead at the calendar, if John Shannon’s dates are correct, it means the Senators would be playing on the Wednesday and Friday, which means that the games would probably be televised here at times when most fans would still be at work.
There’s no doubt that this would be a hell of a trip for fans that make the trek to Sweden, but I don’t know what the motivations are for the Senators to participate, unless it’s a giant cash grab for the club.
On Erik Karlsson being thrilled to play at home…
“Yeah, the fact that you’re saying it’s supposed to (happen) at Stockholm, somebody made the decision at some level to say, ‘Well, we’re not going to do…’ because they were looking at Malmo as well. They were looking at Gothenburg where Alfredsson and Karlsson are from. But, Stockholm is the big arena and it’s where they get the best crowds.”
Best crowds. More money. Same thing.
On whether Melnyk has told his general manager to do what he can because the team is in second place in the Atlantic Division…
“Yep, yep, yeah, yeah, yep. If this is it, I mean, at one point you’ve got to make the big bet that you go for it and if you lose, you lose. But yes, he has that mandate. He knows not to move our future around – that’s what everybody wants and that’s not what we’re going to give. So if it’s a money thing then you can’t be so off the charts that we can’t afford it. We can certainly play in that world.”
I’ve talked about this before, but I’ll believe it when I see it. The organization should have money to play with thanks to insurance picking up most of the tab on Clarke MacArthur’s contract, but I don’t envision this organization absorbing much salary beyond the flexibility that MacArthur’s injury created.
On whether he’s surprised by the performance of his hockey team…
“Well, you know, you never with these guys because I thought we were a contender for three straight years and it turns out we only hit the playoffs once and it got blown. I think I’m pleasantly surprised, that’s for sure. But, we’ve always had the talent. You’ve got one thing after another. You get (Clarke) MacArthur and he’s wiped out. You get (Craig) Anderson with his family issues and it’s horrible. You can’t do anything about that or protect yourself. Under the circumstances and I think in general, I think we’ve done really, really well. I’m really pleased with everyone who’s played and we just need a baby streak somewhere in here over a 10-game period and I think we’re right there to be in the playoffs. I don’t want to be too optimistic, but I really believe we can do it.”
The Senators can definitely make the playoffs and this year, I expect it. The bigger question and what I’m more focused on is how that development affects the team’s management philosophy and what they choose to do from a player personnel standpoint leading up to the trade deadline and how they approach the offseason and expansion draft. Will they believe this team’s record is a true representation of the talent level on this team or will they be more guarded by their underlying numbers and see this as a bit of an outlier season?