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The Sports Daily > The 6th Sens
Eugene Melnyk Speaks on ‘Hockey Central’: Olympics, LeBreton, Habs fans “driving him nuts”

It is not like there was a particularly compelling reason for Eugene Melnyk to join Jeff Marek, Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean yesterday on ‘Hockey Central’, but I’m not complaining. Every time the Ottawa Senators’ eccentric owner goes radio in Toronto, entertaining things happen.

For the purpose of this piece, I didn’t transcribe everything within the interview. The interview started with the hosts asking for information on Melnyk’s important ‘The Organ Project’ initiative that he launched this past February. If you’re interested in organ donation, you can find more information via https://www.theorganproject.net.

To listen to the full interview, you can scroll to the bottom of this post for the embedded audio.

As always, my thoughts are in bold.

On Ottawa’s difficulty drawing crowds and the challenge financially that the team faces and whether Melnyk would be affected financially by the league having its players play in the Olympics…

“The financial side of it? I think that the early part of the season, I can’t count. I can’t remember the count, but we had a bizarre schedule this year that somebody dropped the ball on – not at the NHL (level) but on (our end) – that didn’t notice that we had something like 20 games in November and people get fatigued. There’s only so many games that you can go to and now we’ve been selling out. The last, I think three games were sellouts or close to it. I know for sure that the Chicago was a sellout and the last one was a sellout as well, so we’re doing well now. It was that early part that when I saw empty seats, I was about to throw up. You have the opener with the (Maple) Leafs and it wasn’t a sellout. So what happened there? We made some changes to how we do things and I think that now we’re doing well, especially since we’re very competitive and people are actually talking playoffs. We’re in a good spot.”

We’re literally two sentences into the interview and he’s already thrown a Senators employee — someone who I took to be former Senators president and COO Cyril Leeder – under the bus for the team’s schedule.

On NHL owners not wanting to shut down the league and business for two weeks while the Olympics go on…

“It’s not that. I can tell you right now and I’m very vocal about this. Just, I’m telling you, it has nothing to do, for me, shutting down. I’m completely paranoid, and rightfully so, about injuries. We had this happen to us. The (New York) Islanders, remember when they lost (John) Tavares? I mean, after that, it was a disaster and I can’t imagine what happens at our level, for example. You lose these guys and you’re done. And your fans are the ones that hurt the most because here they are cheering on and talking playoffs and all of a sudden, that sinks. I don’t have to tell you what a key player gets knocked out of the game, so that’s my biggest worry and it’s happened to me. That’s the thing, it has happened and we were looking forward to the Stanley Cup coming to Ottawa. I think it was in (2006) when (Dominik) Hasek was our goalie. He goes over and plays a preliminary game against some country I can’t even remember and he’s done. He has never played a game since then and we were tanked.”

Let the record show that Dominik Hasek not only went on to play two more seasons (97 games) in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings after the Senators’ disastrous collapse to the 2005-06 season, but he won a Stanley Cup in 2008.

The chapter on Hasek’s time and how the adductor injury that he suffered in Turin ruined Ottawa’s Stanley Cup chances is well-documented.

Even though Hasek wanted to return to the Senators and make amends for how the 2005-06 season unfolded, his fate was sealed when the team’s leadership group asked Hasek to play with the Senators being down three games to none in their Eastern Conference semi-final series versus Buffalo and had their request rebuffed.

According to Bruce Garrioch, “then-coach Bryan Murray told Muckler the Senators couldn’t bring him back. That closed the door on Hasek’s stay in Ottawa.”

I can understand the frustration that comes from a desperate team asking its star goaltender to return from an injury, especially when Hasek reportedly looked more than capable in practice. It did not help that Ray Emery wasn’t playing well and the team was already in a relatively insurmountable hole. Nobody but Hasek understands what his pain tolerance is or how uncomfortable his injury made him feel, but his reputation as a player who refused to play if he wasn’t 100-percent healthy preceded him and probably didn’t help his situation here.

The locker room held his refusal to play against him and it led to the Senators compounding their decision to walk away from a cheap extension with Hasek by signing Martin Gerber that summer to a three-year deal worth $11.1-million.

It really makes you think however, what if the Senators brought back Hasek for the 2006-07 season? Could his presence have made a bigger impact in the postseason? Could they have won the Stanley Cup against Anaheim with him in goal? Would we still be talking about the potential negative impact of injuries in the Olympics if the Senators had?

On making it clear that he doesn’t want Erik Karlsson to go and Erik Karlsson voicing his preference to play in the Olympics…

“Yeah, at this point, I think you have to come to some kind of agreement, but there’s a whole override here. I can talk all I want and he can talk all he wants. It’s not like we’re adversarial about it. I just have a view about it and he’s got his view and I understand. I totally get his view. I would do the same, but at the end of the day, the NHL does have the override and if they decide this is a policy that they’re going to take, that’s it. I mean, they override everyone, so (there’s) no point in discussing it until that happens and after that, we’ll see.”

It’s weird listening to an owner talk about the possibility of injuries in non-NHL games influencing his thoughts on Olympic participation when this year’s World Cup created a condensed schedule where players have fewer days of rest between games to recuperate.

Of course, Melnyk is the same owner who bragged to Ian Mendes during a fall interview from the Senators’ home opener about being at every World Cup game where he complimented Gary Bettman and told him that the tournament was “one of the greatest things we’ve done.”

I guess so long as it’s an NHL sanctioned event wherein the league and its owners can make money, owners aren’t worried about the impacts of those events. I mean, this is the same owner who has no concerns about the impacts of having his team travel to Sweden in the middle of the 2017-18 season to play two regular season games against the Colorado Avalanche.

On clarifying his position that if Olympic participation came down to an NHL ownership vote, he would vote against NHLers playing in the Olympics…

“Well, hold on. If the NHL comes down, they will first of all fully describe why they make a certain decision either way. Either way, I would support whatever (decision) the NHL comes down with because this is not individual teams deciding, this would be a collective group (decision) that this is good for the league and this is good for all of the teams, so let’s do ‘X’ or ‘Y’. But, my vote if it came down to a vote and I think I’ve been verbal about it is that I don’t like the Olympics because I don’t like the risk to our players – which turns into it’s a huge disappointment if things happen and they have happened. I think it was like 10 guys just in Sochi have been knocked out at least and it happens. It’s the reality of our game that you’re going into a risky situation against some players that you do not know and they don’t care about you. At least we protect our own players in the NHL to a certain extent. You don’t go slamming your captain into the boards with his head. If you go to the Olympics, these guys really don’t care. They just (laughing) superstar anywhere. So there’s risk, that’s all.”

The NHL, a place where you can launch a forensic investigation into how your star defenceman got his Achilles tendon partially severed and where you don’t have to watch star players smash other star players’ heads into the boards:

On Ted Leonsis giving Alex Ovechkin his blessing to play in the next Olympics and whether that impacts his decision on players like Erik Karlsson…

“Well, I hope he sends his best skaters. No, my point is if he wants to send Ovechkin over, God bless him. He’s more of a gambler than I am. To me and our fans, it would be devastating to lose a player of that stature. It really would – on the ice in points and also in the popularity of the player. Speaking as a fan myself, I would be depressed if something happened even if it was for only a few weeks, it could make all the difference in the schedule and performance.”

As the sport of baseball has taught us through the passing of incredibly gifted young talents like Oscar Taveras, Yordano Ventura and Jose Fernandez is that incredibly tragic events can happen off the playing field at any time of year.

Fortunately these kinds of events have been relatively limited in hockey, but as the Dan Snyder tragedy showed, they can still occur.

I understand the reasons why owners would be hesitant to send players, but fans love the national pride and romanticism of watching these international tournaments that pit the best against the very best.

On knowing Gary Bettman and whether this Olympic participation dilemma is more about negotiating a better deal or whether the sentiment is that owners don’t want their players to go…

“You know, I can’t tell you what happens in these Board of Governor meetings, but there are very broad discussions about it. People voice their opinions and he takes the collective ideas of everyone and there’s an executive committee. It’s a very formal process there. It’s not to be messed with and it’s well thought through. So whatever they come up with as a decision, they’re going to tell us first. I don’t think there’s a formal vote, basically it’s the executive committee can do it. There may be a vote. I don’t know how the process works, but I think every owner is looking at what has traditionally happened with superstar players – what happened with us, what happened with the Islanders. There’s more stories like that where you send your best – the crème de la crème – in the situation that you really, as a franchise, I can’t see the benefit, but look, I’d like nothing more than Canada to win or my players to go out there and win. But you wouldn’t do that in any sport – to send your best of the best, the crème de la crème – with the risk that they get hurt at an event that is a non-NHL event.”

I’m not the most informed regarding NHL player participation in these international tournaments like the World Championships (where NHL players from non-playoff teams participate each year) or the Olympics, but in football, it’s my understanding that if a player gets injured while on international duty during major tournaments or friendlies, the national governing body through agreements between FIFA, UEFA and the ECA “will be required to compensate the (domestic) club which the player plays for.”

Maybe the NHL should look into developing similar agreements with organizations like Hockey Canada or USA Hockey.

On the risk that the owners are taking by not trying to find untapped revenue overseas by not going to the Olympics…

“Well, it’s a global game now. We’re lucky and consider ourselves lucky. I actually feel very proud that it’s Canada’s game because when you go around (the world), if you go to China, people play hockey. They have got a huge, huge, HUGE, minor hockey league there. Huge.”

With the market in North America essentially being maximized, there’s an opportunity to grow revenue stream over in Asia. Hell, with so many billions of people there, even if just a fraction of the population base are turned onto the sport and invest in streaming service packages, there’s a ton of money to be made.

On risking not going to China years from now…

“Well, that’s another… you’re talking about another Olympics.”

On the idea that the league shouldn’t pick or choose when to go to the Olympics…

“No, no, no, I’m not talking about going to the Olympics. I’m talking about actually playing in China (without the Olympics). No, not the Olympics because you single out the best of the best and every single one of the owners has got to look at his own team and say, ‘Am I prepared to risk in a no-impact exhibition my best player?’ That’s the bottom line. Go through the top players in the league that would go over there and you’ll see. ‘Would you really risk this guy going over?’ And you’ll say, ‘Absolutely not!’”

I think he means, “Absolutely not until we get financially compensated for their services.”

On whether there’s a specific date when he anticipates he’ll know whether the league’s players will participate in the Olympics…

“No, there is no date, but it would probably be summer/fall. No, summer or fall. I would say that is when… there is some form of deadline, but I’m just not aware of it.”

Well, which is it?

On getting the outdoor game and how everyone would have preferred to see it be played at Parliament Hill…

“So did I. I’ll give you the minister’s name to call. Of course, that was the genius idea and I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. This hit us from left field, but the whole idea was to play a game on Parliament Hill and that got quashed. Listen, Ottawa’s a great place to play. It’s going to be sold out. I’m hoping for a very, very cold evening and it’s going to be nationally televised and fans will have a lot of fun. In playing Montreal, it couldn’t be better because you’re probably going to have 10,000 Montreal fans showing up.”

“I wouldn’t have done it otherwise”? But Eugene, by playing a game at TD Place at Lansdowne, you are doing it otherwise.

On what the latest news is on LeBreton Flats…

“Well, we can’t talk much about it because there’s this gag order in place.”

On not wanting to say too much because he got in trouble the last time he talked about it on ‘Prime Time Sports’…

“I did get in trouble, but we have to be respectful of the process so I’ve got to be careful. But, I’m hoping that this is negotiated throughout this year and completed, I hope, this year. It’s got to be and then we move to a very rapid process of getting approvals and building. It’s going to be gorgeous. All you have to do is go out to Edmonton and that’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t seen it yet. That’s what I hear.”

Rather than rush the construction and development of a new rink, I hope the Senators emphasize getting it right and creating a footprint that not only affords this organization an opportunity to have sustained success, but creates a wonderful game-day experience for its fans.  

On whether Edmonton’s new rink is the blueprint for what Ottawa can do…

“It could be. I mean, I haven’t walked it. I’ve walked and I’m here at ‘LA Live’. Now that’s four times the size of what I would do, but still, the whole concept of having a place to go, to eat, to live and to go to games, concerts… it’s a spectacular idea. I think there’s only three teams left in the NHL that don’t have a downtown arena and we’re one of them. It’s tragic that we don’t, but I bought the team out of bankruptcy, that’s where the arena was and that’s what I bought. But, we need to move things downtown. If it’s Ottawa, we’ve got to be downtown.”

If it’s Ottawa”, what the hell does that mean?

On why the arena in Kanata isn’t a success…

“Well, it’s all relative. I think from the get-go, the idea was a good idea, but things change and I think changed on the guys that initially had the idea of doing a real-estate development around an arena isn’t bad. The problem is where the heck it is. For people that know the suburbs of Ottawa, this is out there. It’s a solid 30-minute drive out from downtown and that’s without a lot of traffic. It’s not easy. Now people say that Toronto isn’t easy to get to either. Yeah, but you have public transit. In this case, this downtown (arena) will have the light-rail line going right… there’s two stops right on the site, so it’ll make it so much easier. For us, I really believe that it’s location, location, location. It’s tough. When you start comparing it to sitting back at home and getting a cheap 2-4 and kicking back with your friends, you’re fighting that battle versus driving 45-minutes, going to the game and then driving back 45-minutes.”

It’s a tragedy that the land around the now-Canadian Tire Centre wasn’t developed to its fullest potential to create a memorable game day experience for its fans. Instead of developing projects that entice fans to come to that area early, walk around and spend the day being near the rink, there’s no entertainment or bar and restaurant options. There’s only a massive auto-park, a gas station and a bunch of high-tech commercial properties – none of which entice fans to come to the area.

On what he saw in the team’s back-to-back series against Montreal…

“Well, you know, what I think you’re seeing is a team, our team that is, came off of a couple of key injuries and a couple of tragedies. But we are, I think, in full gear and we’re correcting ourselves and I think that we’ll be very, very competitive through here and into the playoffs. Yeah, it was disappointing. I mean, those (Habs) fans drive me nuts. They really do. They’re even more annoying than some other fans, but look, it’s always competitive. We made a couple of mistakes that are being corrected and I really believe that we have a very competitive team that will do well to get into the playoffs.”

Habs fans drive everyone nuts.

On how Bryan Murray is doing…

“He’s looking good. I just saw him last week. This guy is a great example of somebody that is a tough nut. He looks really death in the eyes and laughs. He’s just out there and he continues to work hard, continues getting his various therapies and is out there promoting his cause. It’s really great to see and everybody loves the guy. We love when he come to the rink and hangs out. He’s on the phone with Pierre (Dorion) every day. So it’s not like he’s out there kind of being touched upon every once in a while. He’s actually… I go to him for advice. It’s nice to see him doing well and continuing living a full life.”

I guess my joke about Bryan Murray going rogue and trading for Alex Burrows while Dorion was out for lunch on deadline was closer to the truth than I had hoped.  

 

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