Senators owner Eugene Melnyk rarely does public interviews anymore so when he joined his former employee, Roger Lajoie, on his Sportsnet Tonight platform on the Fan 590 radio network in Toronto yesterday, I knew that I would have to bring back the red telephone and pen another Thoughts in Bold article.
If you are not familiar with the format of the piece, it’s quite simply. I have transcribed the interesting segments of Melnyk’s 25-minute long interview below. After each of Melnyk’s answers to a topic, I will include my own thoughts on what he said and they will be highlighted by the bold font.
For those interested in listening to the audio portion of Melnyk’s interview, you can stream the interview clip using the embedded media player at the bottom of this post.
Roger Lajoie Sportsnet Tonight
On how the Coronavirus affecting the Ottawa Senators and how close it hit…
“Yeah, we had the worst luck. It was one trip that we did out to California and that ended up being the last game of this shortened season so far. We did have a number of players and an announcer and some staff that did contract the virus and the whole team had to come back urgently from California. There was no stop in Chicago and went straight to Ottawa. But, I think after that happened… and that was in, I think, Santa Clara county is where it happened which is near where San Jose is. But, it could have easily also (happened) down in Anaheim, but we know it’s California. It put a shockwave through the league and all of sports. We were particularly hit badly because the Belleville Senators were on the cusp of running for a championship. They were one of the three or four favourites to win the Calder Cup and that kind of got pulled out from under them and now the AHL is completely cancelled, so those players won’t have a chance to play a playoff and or win a championship. But, you know what, life goes on and everybody is in the same boat as we are or I am and we just continue on as best we can to get to some sense of normalcy.”
I know Melnyk is speaking relatively when he makes a point about his organization having the “worst luck” because his team was the hardest hit by the virus in terms of numbers and the cancellation of the AHL season and playoffs obviously doesn’t help the groundswell of optimism that the organization needs from its fans to invest in its product, but I can understand how his “worst luck” comment could be appear to some as being tone-deaf.
Others may take him to task for choosing to appear on a Toronto radio station ahead of his team’s local broadcast partner here in Ottawa — especially since he should be trying to curry favour with the fans and those who cover his team – but, it’s a pattern of behavior that goes back some time. It should not really come as a surprise.
On the encouragement that Belleville’s performance and play this season and how it corroborates just how well the staff and scouts have done their jobs…
“It did and that proof is down there. A lot of times it will translate into a better team at the NHL level and it should because a lot of those players will be coming up to the NHL this year and we know for a fact that five or six will. It’s great experience for them to be on a winning team and come into our organization very young. I think we’re going to have one of the youngest teams in the league this coming year depending on who we draft and who can play right away if they can. But, of course you get excited. Finally, we’re going to get the completion pretty much of the plan that we set in motion three years ago and we’re now seeing the fruits of that. We’ve got nine draft picks in the first three rounds this year and that is a lot. We won’t use all of them. We’ll probably be able to trade and package some together and move up in some cases. I think we’re in a really good spot to become competitive again. It’s a very long-term strategy. We hope to be ready and competitive and a playoff team this year and then after that start competing in a serious way for championships. With a team with a lot of players are 20, 21 and 22 (years old), these (players) are all very young. As they mature, like any team, they should mature for the better and we look forward to getting the next season (going). We’re done pretty much for this year. Even if we do resume, and I expect us to resume, we can’t come out of the bottom – out of the basement. Starting next year, it’s a clean slate and we’ve got some great young players and we’re looking forward to it.”
The graduation of Belleville’s best young players is obviously, at least in the interim, going to make Ottawa a more entertaining team.
Having young players that fans can watch through their primes and become emotionally attached to is going to be paramount to this team’s off-ice success and marketability.
Of the five or six players that Melnyk is referring to, it’s easy to infer that it’s going to be some combination of Josh Norris, Logan Brown, Alex Formenton, Erik Brannstrom, Drake Batherson or even a Marcus (Hogberg) if he qualifies under this classification. Mix in one or two of the top five picks that the Senators could add to the mix at the 2020 NHL Draft and Melnyk’s right, the possibility of the Senators being one of the youngest teams in the league next season is a very real possibility.
Of course an by-product of adding young talent is that once their entry-level contracts (ELCs) expire, especially for lottery picks, the cost of doing business grows exponentially if the players are as talented as Melnyk and the Senators believe them to be. In the modern NHL, the window of transition from an inexpensive and rebuilding team to a contender shrinks faster than it ever has thanks to young players being paid commensurately coming off their ELCs.
Managing the roster and supplementing it with quality players who won’t burden the team with bad contracts is going to be just as vital to this organization’s contention window as player development.
On the level of excitement for the 2020 NHL Draft and the draft lottery…
“It can’t come soon enough. I think all of us cannot wait for hockey to come back. Every day that goes by is another day we wish that we could watch a game. I was sitting around last night and what does everybody do on Saturday nights, we watch hockey and it’s very unusual and it’s kind of disturbing when you don’t have that routine. It is a routine and it’s a very enjoyable one. Same thing today, look, you’re eating into my NASCAR time and I can’t believe that I’ve been waiting all day to see NASCAR, but it’s live sports. I’m going to flick back and forth between the golf if it’s still on, but we all miss it. Forget about ownership, at heart, I’m a hockey fan and I think like all the hockey fans in Toronto, also in Ottawa and all across Canada and the U.S., we’re just dying to see the game back and get back into it with or without fans in the stands. I think initially, if it’s going to be played without fans in the stands, that’s fine. But ultimately, there is going to be a way of seeing a game and I hope to be part of that process to come up with ideas that get us all back into the arenas.”
The idea of watching professional hockey teams play meaningful games in empty arenas will require an adjustment.
On expecting a decision anytime soon on when a draft lottery or draft could occur…
“Well you know what, there are so many moving parts, it’s incredible. You can’t even imagine it, especially if you’re going cross-border. You’re dealing with Canadian politics, you’re dealing with U.S. (politics), you’re dealing with state government, you’re dealing with provincial government… I mean, it’s a puzzle that I would not want to be the person that has to figure that one out. I don’t mind helping, but man, oh man, the decision is huge. But, I’m hoping that we have… we hear… every day that goes by, these guys are all working. I know in New York and in Toronto, they’re working their butts off trying to come up with solutions to all these different pieces and that includes everything from player safety to compensation to scheduling. I just hope that we can have some events happen in June to keep people interested and if that’s just a draft lottery, that would be great. If it’s a draft and a draft lottery, that is even better. The sooner we can get to playing, the better. There’s nothing wrong with watching hockey in June, July and August, my friend. It would be nice to be barbequing outside and watching a hockey game on a Sunday afternoon. I’d rather be doing that right now. I think everybody is this way and everybody is pushing in the same direction. Everybody is trying to get this out as soon as humanly possible and it’s for the better. If you jump too quick and you make a mistake, it’s one step forward and three steps backwards. You can’t let that happen and that’s where the patience comes in.”
Given the popularity and the ratings from the NFL Draft in April, I understand the league wanting to take advantage of the sports lull and air a live broadcast of the draft lottery and the NHL draft itself.
The idea will assuredly play well with fans and media who need some kind of instant gratification.
For the Ottawa Senators, having the lottery and the NHL Draft before the end sooner allows the organization to market the hell out of this this draft’s outcome. Imagine the Senators land the first overall pick in the draft and having months to promote the fact, interest in season ticket packages and renewals will inevitably be spurred.
From my own interest, I’m curious to see how big the gap is going to be between this year’s playoffs and the start of the 2020-21 season. Will non-playoff teams like the Senators have a competitive advantage because their playoffs understand how long their layoff is and how to manage their bodies? What kind of impact will there be on the bodies of players belonging to playoff-bound teams? Will these players have a hard time getting back in game shape and playing high-leverage games following this pandemic layoff? And what will the impact of these games have on players who won’t experience a full offseason to recover?
It is an unprecedented time for hockey and I’m curious to see how this season has an effect on quick twitch muscle injuries next season or whether players will fade down the stretch. Teams that are closer to normalcy in the sense of a longer offseason may be better suited to compete, but at the very least, load management for the game’s best players may start to resemble the model that we have seen in the NBA in recent years.
On his confidence that the NHL will award the Stanley Cup this season…
“One-hundred percent. No question. There’s going to be a season. I really, really believe that and that’s just not me being a promoter or anything like that. I just know that the resolve is there and I believe everybody is on the same mission. We will have a playoffs, we will have a Stanley Cup this year and we will have a full schedule next year. It may be a little different. You may have a different playoff this year… well, you will have a different playoff this year. It’s going to go down in history as one of these years that’s going to have the asterisk. Whoever wins, it’s going to have a little asterisk. Everybody in our generation and future generations will remember this. This is a historic time and we’re living through it. We’re actually living through a historic moment and we’ll remember what happened with hockey. We’re hoping to get as close to normal next year as we possibly can with a full schedule and a Stanley Cup both this year and next year. But, I can bet you anything you want that we will have a Stanley Cup this year, whenever that is.”
At least nobody will hang an asterisk on the Senators if they wind up with two of the top three picks this summer because of the reconstituted draft lottery odds.
On whether the AHL can move forward if fans cannot attend games in the early portion of the season…
“I think that everyone is looking to see what the NHL is going to do first. The AHL is not completely unique that way because there is a lot of college football and college sports in general, they also count on filling up some of those big stadiums to fund themselves. They are very well-funded these universities, but it’s not just the AHL but it is a huge problem because their only revenue is from fans showing up. They don’t have a TV contract, so what are you going to do about it? How are you going to bring something in? The players are paid for by the mothership. The Ottawa Senators for example or the Marlies, that’s all paid for by the NHL teams – the salaries are. As far as I’m concerned, it’s really the arena cost, the cost of actually putting on the show and it’s important that we have the AHL because that’s where all of our future is. That’s our prospects’ (development site). Without them, I don’t know it in the God’s name we would do. We have to have a farm system and they have to play hockey games. There has to be a solution. What that is, I don’t know. When that is, I simply don’t know. It may have to be at least initially done without fans. I can’t see it not happening because you’ve got players that are going to be ready to rock and roll in September, so what do those guys do? They can’t be sitting around and waiting around for this pandemic to go by. They need to play and we want them to play for our teams and (be) controlled by our hockey operations. It’s a bigger problem, believe it or not, than we even have at the NHL (level). We can survive playing the NHL without fans in the stands because it’s such a great television sport. The AHL just doesn’t have that franchise, so we’re going to have to come up with something to do for them and it’s very important. Places like Belleville, we are the only real sport in town, so what are they going to do? People need to see it and want to see it. Maybe it’s going to become close-circuit. Who knows? I just hope for the best that we can get this thing rolling. We want to start with the NHL and get that solved and then move right to the AHL and get that solved.”
“We can survive playing the NHL without fans in the stands because it’s such a great television sport.” Remember these words should this owner ever complaint about fan loyalty or waning attendance in this market again.
On whether he has a direct message to Ottawa Senators fans and having a chance to speak directly to them…
“Well, let me tell you this, without getting everybody – all the Leafs fans upset or anybody else, the Habs or anybody – we have spent three years basically putting up with a lot of criticism in doing something that is extraordinary. I don’t think in the history — if you can find me one, I’d like to hear it – but I don’t think anybody in sports has ever done the kind of rebuild that we have done. I haven’t seen anybody gut their team the way we did. If you can imagine, take the top five Leafs players or top six players and you announce, ‘I’m about to get rid of these six guys and we’re going to do a rebuild and we’re going to be lousy for three years. Is this the right plan?’ There would be riots in the streets. We had our version of riots in Ottawa and I’m saying to the fans in Ottawa, this is the time you appear. You were very patient with us. Some people weren’t, many were. There is a core group of fans that number in the thousands and thousands that are now going to have the opportunity to really be able to put their chests out, chins up and be able to walk around and say, ‘I’m an Ottawa Senators fan and we are going to be champions.’ I’m telling you, you will see it sooner than later. In the next year, you will see glimpses of it. You are going to see a competitive team and in the years after that, you’re actually going to have visions of us winning a championship and that’s what we’re after. We’re not in it to come second, third, fifth or tenth, we’re in to win championships and this is the only way that we figured out that we could do this. Gut the team, go all youth, get the best possible rebuild that you can with all the great prospects and this is where we are. We are going to be there. The funny part is going to be, there’s going to be a lot of people that say, ‘Oh my gosh, look what happened. How did they do this?’ It’s like, ‘Hey dummy, we’ve been doing this for three years. Didn’t you see the billboards in Ottawa (that said) #MelnykOut? No, we worked our butts off to get to where we are and we’ve been doing it for three years. Now is the time to enjoy the fruits of our labour. And I’ll tell you what, I believe that all the other Canadian teams… this is going to be the decade… this coming ten years, you’re going to see Canadian teams starting to win Stanley Cups. This drought is over because I said years ago that the Leafs would start being competitive, the Habs are starting to get competitive, the West coast teams? You’re going to start seeing them step up as well. The days of five of the seven teams being at the bottom of the league are over. I think Canadian teams are going to start doing incredibly well and deservedly so because we’ve got the best fans in the world.”
From 1995 to 1997, Wayne Huizenga, the owner of the Florida Marlins executed a plan.
Huizenga made his fortune in hauling garbage and eventually expanded his business portfolio by purchasing the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and Blockbuster Video. He also happened to own Joe Robbie Stadium – now known as the Hard Rock Stadium – and took sports-related revenue and put it into the separate corporation that owned the stadium rather than pump it back into the teams that he owned.
His strategy was simple: he wanted a new stadium that the taxpaying community would pay for.
Like many other owners of the era, he wanted to portray his baseball organization as poor to create imbue the notion that unless his team received a new building, they would never be able to create and sustain long-term success.
To generate sympathy and rally more fans behind his cause, Huizenga had the idea to spend frivolously between 1995 to 1997 to try and deliver a World Series so that he could have an easier time with his publicly-subsidized stadium efforts as fans were caught up in the championship honeymoon period.
In 1997, the Marlins won the World Series and a few short weeks after, they dealt Moises Alou. He was the first casualty of Huizenga’s scheme that eventually saw players like Robb Nenn, Bobby Bonilla, Al Leiter, Kevin Brown, Gary Sheffield, Charles Johnson, Devon White and Jeff Conine move on.
Huizenga literally tore down a championship roster in the pursuit of a new stadium.
Interestingly, the remnants of a few of these trades eventually wound up helping the Marlins win another World Series in 2003, so for Melnyk to say that a teardown of this magnitude has not been done before is a bit disingenuous.
The Senators did not invent the tank. They certainly did not invent the rebuild. Teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Edmonton Oilers or divisional rivals like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings have done this to varying levels of success in recent history.
For me, it is still a little early in the process for Melnyk to beat his chest and brag about what the Senators are doing when the organization has simply finished the easiest part of its plan: to be purposefully bad and sell off the most talented pieces of its roster over a short period of time.
Any hockey fan could have stepped into Pierre Dorion’s shoes and auctioned off pieces like Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, Erik Karlsson, Mike Hoffman, Ryan Dzingel and Jean-Gabriel Pageau to the highest bidder who offered the best combination of draft picks and prospects.
But most importantly, there needs to be an explicit understanding of why there is fan unrest in Ottawa.
Three #MelnykOut billboards were not crowdfunded because of the organization’s philosophy and decision to rebuild. The idea was born out of frustration with an absentee owner who relishes in the limelight and celebrity that comes with being part of the NHL circle and blasted this fan base’s loyalty and commitment on a very large platform at the Heritage Classic.
Make no mistake, this community loves the Ottawa Senators.
While attendance has waned, fans still watch and listen to the games on television and radio. They want to love this team unconditionally, but many are struggling are struggling to. As much as they want to believe and trust in what management is doing, they struggle to believe and trust in you as a person and as an owner.
It has nothing to do with the rebuild and any portrayal of such is a distortion of the facts.
It all has to do with you.
It’s a you-thing.
It’s a Yougene thing.
On the five-year anniversary of Melnyk’s liver transplant…
“Look, I feel as fortunate as anyone in the world because rarely do you get this kind of second chance. My prognosis at the time was very specific. They said, ‘You have eight days left to go,’ and there were no more options. We had to do a public appeal and luckily, if I didn’t own a hockey team I tell you, I (would have been) buried a long time ago because we did go out to fans and we had over 2,000 responses from people wanting to step up and give me their liver – their live liver. I was fortunate that one person at the front of the line was a perfect match. It went without a hitch. I had a couple of hitches, small ones, along the way but it’s been five years and they say after five years, you’ve basically crossed a very, very important line and that is, your liver is fully integrated into your body. I still have to take, every day, twice a day I have to take immunosuppressing pills which makes me a very high risk (person for) the Coronavirus. But, I thank God every single day that I’m alive that I was able to fortunately have the great doctors and nurses along with a donor and I just hope that other people can have that opportunity as well as I did. I’m trying to do everything I can to promote organ donation and organ transplant, so thanks very much for mentioning that. I would not have forgotten, but it’s nice to mention it and hopefully people do tick the box and put themselves up for organ donation because it gives life to people. And it gives life to people like me and thousands and thousands of people get a second chance because of the donations of individuals, so I can only be thankful.”
Organ donation is very important. If anyone is interested in becoming a donor, it is pretty simple. All information on the matter can be found at beadonor.ca.
Enjoy the rest of the long weekend, everybody.