Well, it was a nice break but Eugene Melynk is back doing the media rounds. The intent was to talk about a new (non-Senators) business venture, but of course there was a lot of questions about the Senators asked.
First up, Melnyk was on Toronto’s Fan 590 last night.
Out of the gate he was asked about the status of LeBreton. He talked about disappointment in the original process falling through and said that there may be opportunity in the new process but the team can be happy in Kanata for now. When asked for details on the collapse of the partnership with Ruddy he reiterated his issues related to 900 Albert but wouldn’t go into more detail due to the lawsuits.
As nkb covered in Five Thoughts, when asked about fans being mad at him and the team Melnyk questioned how many of those are “real fans” and suggested 99% of it could be ignored. He then went back to the well of the team’s record over his entire ownership, and talking about the various events (draft, all-star game, etc) that have been hosted by the Senators.
Melnyk also talked about how the kind of rebuild the Senators are going through, with the scale of tear-down involved at the start, is extremely rare. Not mentioned is that it might be rare for a good reason. He also pumped up the depth of the prospect pool, and the number of draft picks. He did specifically mention the possibility of using some of those draft picks as trade pieces.
All said, this one really was mild by Melnyk’s standards.
That brings us to this morning, where he joined Bill Carroll on CFRA. The main reason for this interview was to talk about a new concussion diagnosis device developed by a Melnyk-owned company, but Carroll did it on the condition of not just talking about that. The several minutes of the interview did focus on this device, which automates the process of measuring the eye movement in an attempt to identify concussions quickly and to track recovery process. It sounds like interesting stuff, but we’re not a medical blog so on to the Sens portion of the interview, starting around the 8:40 mark.
The first question on that front was asking a follow-up question about the “real fans” stuff from the Fan590 interview. Melnyk basically lumped any and all criticism from twitter into the not-real-fans group, and clarified that the “real fans” they listen to are the ones that have participated in their market research and focus groups. In a rare moment of humility, he did admit that even those fans “are pissed” and that the team has done a terrible job communicating the plan for the rebuild. He went back to the talking point about it being rare to have this kind of intentional rebuild. He recognized that many people were upset about the team trading away Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel but questioned the idea of having guys in their mid to late 20s signed to 7 or 8 year deals at the start of a rebuild. Melnyk said they have 10 potential stars on the roster in Belleville and the hope is that three or four of them meet that potential.
Carroll asked about the salary cap implications of a youth strategy using the Leafs as an example (Carroll is a Toronto native, and a Leafs fan), where the young players who haven’t necessarily proven a lot yet are signing big contracts that take up large chunks of the cap. Melnyk took this opportunity to take a shot at the Leafs suggesting that they’ll have a difficult time winning the cup without defence and are “stuck” up against the cap now. He implied that the pieces in Belleville and the stock of draft picks give the Senators the flexibility to do a rebuild right.
Following up on that, Carroll brought up the concern among the fan base that when it comes time to pay up for the next contracts of the young talent on the team that the budget won’t be there. Menlyk denied that, saying he was in this to win and recognized that you have to pay your young superstars. He did go on to say that the existing criticism on this was because the team didn’t want to spend “stupid money” and then “spend the time trying to unload these terrible contracts that other teams are stuck with”. He didn’t provide names or examples.
The discussion then turned to the challenges specific to the Ottawa market - the lack of corporate dollars to be had. Melnyk talked about having to fight for every single dollar when it comes to ticket sales and advertising. He mentions having spent over $100m on operating losses with the team since buying it. He moved back to the rebuild and having a five year outlook and not a short term view. He took another opportunity to take a shot at the Leafs rebuild saying “mistakes were made and somebody forgot about defence”.
Switching to the Senators rebuild, Menlyk had the following to say. “This next six months is going to be critical for Pierre (Dorion), and his team, and the whole hockey operations to get their act together in a big wig big way to be able to use these assets”. Is he suggesting that hockey ops don’t currently have their act together? It may have been just a poor choice of words, but it’s reminiscent of the “We’ve gotten rid of all the bad guys” comment he made after the trade deadline during the last rebuild. Going back to the concerns about paying the current crop of prospects when the time comes, Melnyk changed his tune compared to the comments from the Alumni game stating that he is prepared to step up to pay the core group and intends to do it if “we get support at the attendance or not.”
Talking about public perception, Melnyk brought up the Leafs for a third time mentioning how their fans were throwing things on the ice and wearing paper bags on their head just a few years ago and how performing on the ice can change the narrative quickly.
Carroll asked about how Gary Bettman feels about LeBreton falling through and if he was okay with the Senators staying in Kanata long term. Melnyk said he thinks Bettman is okay, and that Bettman lets the owners do what they think is best for their franchise. He mentioned having to make it work if they have to stay in Kanata and that they have lots of marketing ideas to make it work and get attendance back to where it was a few years ago. When asked about if there was anything he would do differently with LeBreton Flats in light of the comments from Mayor Watson being critical about how Melnyk handled that, things started to go off the rails.
”You know, he is so lucky that I keep my mouth shut, he should keep his. I have a lot to say but I don’t say it. I would be very careful if I was him walking around mouthing off. It’s A, very very counterproductive. I’m trying to do everything for the city and with him opening up like that and with him opening up like that do you know all he does? Is the NHL offices look at it and say hey, do we really want to bring more events to this city. Right in the middle of him opening up I just put in a submission to the NHL to please give us another All-Star Game.”
Threatening language, even mild, directed at the Mayor of Ottawa doesn’t do anything to help the relationship between the team and the city move forward.
When asked if he could elaborate more on a comment from the previous day’s Fan590 interview about being approached by other developers over future LeBreton plans Menlyk said he has had three “Five Star” developers come talk to him about the possibility but he doesn’t want to get his hopes up right now and the focus is on building a Stanley Cup winning team right now.
The last question from Carroll was about the fact that Melnyk was on Toronto sports radio instead of Ottawa’s, if that was a deliberate strategy and if so - why? Menlyk’s response was that sometimes opinions are ill-informed, and that he doesn’t like the tactics used by some of Carroll’s colleagues (CFRA and TSN1200 are both Bell Media stations, and operate out of the same building) so he just won’t talk to them anymore. Unprompted, he offered the example of trying to ambush Pierre Dorion by attempting to play a recorded clip of an irate fan, called it “bush league stuff”, and wrapped up the comment by saying the announcers need to be better informed then he would be happy to go on with them. That attempt was made by Ian Mendes when he interviewed Dorion on deadline day to demonstrate a disconnect between the team and the fans, and calling him bush league for it has not been well received.
It may also not be a good idea to take a very public shot at one of the team’s primary business partners while trying to drum up more business with other companies in the area, or when looking for potential partners for a new arena development.
So there you have it. 99% of fans don’t matter (just the 1% that go to focus groups), Stone, Duchene and Dzingel are too old for long contracts, the Mayor needs to shut up or else, hockey ops may or may not currently have it’s act together, and TSN1200 (and Ian Mendes in particular) are bush league. It took two interviews to get there, but Eugene Melnyk delivered exactly the type of thing most of us were expecting.