Some of the good work the Ottawa Senators do in the community.
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is a pretty angry guy right now.
And well he should be.
His organization is in the toughest Canadian NHL market. What not Winnipeg, you say? No.
That’s because while the Jets might have a smaller population from which to draw customers, that city has a larger private sector than Ottawa that will buy tickets, advertise and sponsor the team. Government can’t do that.
Yes, the Senators are the most economically precarious Canadian franchise. It is a credit to local fans that they fill the Canadian Tire Centre without the benefit of huge purchases of corporate season tickets. It’s a mom and pop and the kids crowd. This really is hockey country.
So based on my experience of covering the Senators at the Citizen when the club was a hair away from moving to Hamilton during the Rod Bryden years (saved ironically by the Toronto Maple Leafs invoking their “territory”) and covering Bryden’s CCAA, I’d say that Melnyk’s claim of losing $10 million a year out in Kanata are pretty accurate.
Years ago, Melnyk goes to the city with a Major League Soccer franchise in his back pocket and proposes building a new outdoor stadium in Kanata. The city instead opts for the Canadian Football League at Lansdowne and a huge core redevelopment. The process was faulty but that’s the way it goes.
Accordingly, Melnyk continues to be an exemplary corporate citizen and the Laurier Avenue politicians try to associate with the good publicity generated by the Senators as often as possible. Right, Mr. Watson?
Then Melnyk tries to bridge the $10-million gap with a casino out in the Kanata farm fields. He gets together a RFP bid only to find the city has sole-sourced the casino to Rideau Carleton Raceway. Now he’s angry. Not only does he not get the casino despite generating untold goodwill and business through the city, Melnyk can’t even get a chance to bid on the gaming parlour. Good grief.
So he pulls his Senator head honcho Cyril Leeder off four high-profile boards in the city. Those boards generate much good PR and connections within the close-knit business community in Ottawa. That’s not the kind of thing you do if you plan to keep your team in Ottawa over the long haul.
Melnyk tells councillors there is no Plan C (though he moderated that stance on Toronto’s Fan 590 recently … saying he’s looking for a Plan C but doesn’t have one right now). Essentially he was saying I need the casino or I will continue to lose $10 million each year into eternity, having already lost about $100 million on the team already.
Nobody will do that forever.
Remember that it is believed that Melnyk is not as rich as he once was in the great days of Biovail when it was thought he had more than a billion dollars. Even billionaires don’t like losing $100 million. Remember too that he has sold off some of his horse-racing interests, his junior hockey team and that he is holding firm on a Senator salary cap below the NHL ceiling. Remember Melnyk didn’t pony up more money for Senator legend Daniel Alfredsson, much to the dismay of fandom. Remember the team lost half a season last year to a labour-management dispute.
All this points to a team that is approaching a turning point about staying here. Highway 417 is right next door to the rink.
You have to know that Melnyk has talked to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman about the situation in a league where the Sens owner has been a good soldier. Melnyk knows all the talk of a possible NHL rink in Markham, just outside his Toronto digs. That’s a licence to print money if the indemnification to the Leafs is not too high. Another advantage is that Melnyk is a long way from his nemesis Jim Watson, though Rob Ford is no picnic.
Melnyk understands that some in Seattle would like a NHL team. No doubt the Senators would bring a hefty price with their good young club and outstanding management. And there is probably no one locally who will buy the Senators in good times let alone now. As well, now that the U.S. dollar is at 96 cents, that’s an extra cost in his U.S.-currency player salaries.
Here’s something Mayor Jim Watson has to know. Melnyk will not continue to operate a team losing $10 million a year. He just won’t. So Watson is likely pushing the Senators to the end of their relationship in Ottawa.
To put this in terms Watson will understand, that would be the end of his political career in Ottawa. Few will vote for the person who drove the beloved Senators from town. He would be dogged by that until the end of his days.
In fighting with Eugene Melnyk and the Senators, Jim Watson is looking at the political precipice.
Never has Watson’s policy weakness been so evident.
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