"You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain" -- Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight
I'm not someone that's apt to quote pop culture, nor do I think our understanding of the sports world can be neatly explained through its lens (hello, Bill Simmons!). But the above came to mind immediately when I first sat down to write this piece. April 15, 2014 will go down as the day that Eugene Melnyk finally fulfilled his destiny and became enemy number one to fans of the Ottawa Senators. Eugene has long had his detractors, but there were many corners loyal to the man that saved the team from bankruptcy and the specter of relocation. I can understand a lot of that: I lived through all those bad old days, too. A borderline maniac running the team was better than the alternative of not having a team at all. In conversations, I'd often run into this line of reasoning: "Yes he's a bit nuts, but he spends the money he can and without him we'd be back to cheering for the Buds or Habs". To that second part, I still have no reasonable retort. Today though, I see fewer and fewer fans defending Melnyk against the growing storm of criticism. We've reached critical mass, the dam has been breached, and there's no going back.
Most fans want their owner to care about the team. The theory goes that an owner that cares will try to put the team in the best possible position to win. I have no doubt that Eugene Melnyk cares deeply about the Ottawa Senators; in fact, he might care too much. Scott (aka @wham_city on Twitter) shared the following tidbit from an old The 6th Sens podcast with Elliotte Friedman. Give it a listen, but the money quote to me is Friedman saying:
"You know, he reminds me of a lot of your fans, [chuckles] he's a fan like you are, except he's a fan who happens to have a lot of money and the ownership of the club. And I think sometimes that gets in the way, because when you're an owner, you can't always be that emotional, you probably have to be the most rational guy of everybody in the organization".
For many fans, that kind of passion can be a good thing -- "he cares like we do!". Results aside, that passion will resonate with people as long as it's seen as being sincere. Melnyk has long been trading on the goodwill built up by his purchase of the team and the subsequent boom years, which were punctuated by a run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. The acrimonious departure of Daniel Alfredsson was the first time, in my memory anyways, that some of those same longtime supporters began to question whether Melnyk was really sincere about all this. Sure, he had long been complaining of financial difficulties in operating the team in the nation's capital, but that was a familiar refrain to Sens fans. And besides, he had rescued the team from oblivion once before. Who cared if his stated financials seemed a little wonky? Walking away from Alfredsson, though, was bad. Today, when Eugene Melnyk essentially gave fans the big "eff you" with these quotes from a conference call with the media, via SensExtra: "It’s very, very easy to increase payroll," he said. "Any idiot can do it. Lots of idiots do" and "You don’t just spend money because you have it in your pocket", there was no mixed reaction. It was a uniform outcry.
Why the change in tone from the team's fans? Because earlier in that same call, Melnyk claimed the club was on sound financial footing. Furthermore, if we think back to when the Sens' new TV deal was signed, Melnyk called the new revenue "significant for the Senators, our fans and the future of the franchise." This season was one of extreme disappointment for Senators fans, and so much of it can be traced back to the team playing the cheapskate on payroll issues. The defense was so thin and inexperienced because cost containment necessitated it. Daniel Alfredsson was let go because cost containment necessitated it. A lot of fans grinned and bore it because the alternative to Melnyk was always worse, and he was at least (mostly) consistent in his message: "I don't have the money to spend". On April 15, 2014 that reasoning became "spending is stupid" and that's the crux of the issue. As fans, there's always been an understanding that Ottawa is a small market team and spending to the cap might not be possible. Financial hardship was just part of the price of admission, the endless coffers of a parent organization like MLSE just a dream.
But in a world of sky rocketing revenues, and the shadow of a lockout that we have been told would assure the financial stability of the league for years to come, it's been getting harder and harder for Melnyk to cry poor. So he's changed his talking points. It's too bad that doing so essentially amounts to calling his fans stupid.They're not, and they're angry. Melnyk's heel turn is complete: it's not that he can't spend money to improve it's that he won't because it's "stupid" to do so. And that's a critical distinction not lost on those that have been paying attention.