At last night's home opener, Eugene Melnyk took the stage to a mixed chorus of cheers and boos. This was a different reception than he would have gotten at any time in his tenureship before the summer of 2013.
It is something of a surprise that we got to this point, and even more surprising how quickly it happened. The "Euge" always seemed like a pretty good owner. Under his ownership the Senators spent to the cap for a long time, and for the most part iced competitive teams. There were some down years too, but I don't think anyone is chalking those up as Melnyk's fault. I think it's also fairly safe to say that the current management team Eugene has put in place has done an excellent job (at least from a hockey operations perspective - the person who OK'd "#Fearless" should be left in a cage with an angry Lehner).
So until this summer, our biggest gripe with the Euge was with his tendency to give eccentric interviews, which are often embarrassing, but which we also used to find at least a bit endearing.
Then Daniel Alfredsson went off in a huff, and every indication is that his decision to leave was at least partly related to money. Things have been crazy ever since.
As we now understand it, and without getting too deep into details which have received plenty of electronic ink elsewhere, the team is (somewhat inexplicably) skint, and has had (oh, Alfie) and is going to continue having (uh oh, Joe) a detrimental effect the Senators' on-ice product.
So last night the Senators finally had their home opener, Melnyk put on a party for the fans, and they booed him. Which brings us to the question of the day: was this right?
This is not, I will note, an issue of whether we should fear the consequences of booing Melnyk. I suppose that if he were really petulant he could punish us by failing to invest, or by taking his ball and going home. But I don't think that's a rational fear: not with a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars. And besides, the days of not being able to find an owner for an NHL franchise are reputedly behind us, and hopefully stay that way.
The question is whether Senators fans were wrong to do it.
As a starting point, let's all just accept that it's rude to boo someone. You are literally yelling wordless disapproval at someone's face. If you don't believe me, do it to someone at work and see how people react. The only real issue is whether the rudeness can be justified.
It is undeniable that public figures are more open to criticism--including booing--than your average joe in the street. It is also indisputable that the owner of a modern sports team is a public figure. But that doesn't mean that rudely voicing your criticism of that figure is always justifiable.
And please don't try to throw up a "freedom of speech" defence on this issue. The question here isn't whether you can boo someone without fear of legal persecution by the government, which is what freedom of speech entails. The question is whether doing so makes you a boorish moron, which society protects but doesn't endorse.
Personally, I don't think that booing Melnyk is justifiable ... yet. I do think that his decline in popularity is entirely justifiable: Alfie never should have been allowed to leave, the Casino Wars are grating in the extreme, and one can't help but feel that there's a lot of emotional manipulation going on whenever team finances are discussed. But annoying and somewhat worrisome do not equal "terrible".
At the moment, we've also got a team that is well-built, well-coached, well-managed, and is already a dark horse contender only a few years after being stripped down for a rebuild. Honestly, the on-ice product can't be that bad, or else you wouldn't all log in here every day to talk about how great the team is.
In my opinion, it's pretty callous to boo an owner who has achieved all of that because you're a bit nervous about where things are going.
I think also owe the Euge at least some small thanks for an era of relative financial stability after the calamitous period that preceded his purchase of the team. I am not suggesting it was altruistic, and it certainly doesn't mean we can't be critical, but it probably should buy Melnyk a little bit of latitude on the, "should we all be rude to this guy's face?" question.
Things can change of course. If I show up on opening night in 2015 to welcome Jason Spezza and the Toronto Maple Leafs into town, I'll be yelling "Boogene" with the best of them.
But until then, maybe we should save our booing for people who deserve it, like Jason Spezza and his drop passes (am I right, idiots who always seem to sit near me?)