Last night, Senators COO Nicholas Ruszkowski joined Ian Mendes on TSN1200 during the second intermission for a short interview.
The interview started off talking about the citizenship ceremony that took place at the CTC yesterday, and asking about how this ties in to a broader effort to engage with the community in ways they haven’t before, especially given the current roster turmoil. Ruszkowski said that the push to do this started as soon as he started in his role, along with Aimee Deziel, and he felt they’ve built up a good track record of actions starting with the tornado relief fundraising in September.
There’s some truth to this — they were quick to roll out their tornado relief efforts, they had a presence at WinterPride beyond a handful of people from the Sens Foundation and Spartacat, and they took something they’ve done before (the citizenship ceremony) to new levels in terms of the number of people involved and the anthem. But they’ve also still got a long way to go. Hockey is for Everyone Month has been one big example of poor execution. Other teams outline their HIFE events before the month starts, but did you know that yesterday’s citizenship ceremony was part of that? Did you even know they were doing a “New Canadians” night more than the day before, or maybe even before the anthem? Probably not. Do It For Daron night wasn’t mentioned by the team until the day it was happening. Bonus points if you knew that Mark Borowiecki was the team’s HIFE ambassador this season before we found out he attended WinterPride - the league published a list, but the team never announced it.
Their lack-luster “Love is Love” take on a Pride Night wasn’t advertised until several days before the event either, but also had deeper issues. I’m not part of the LGTBQ+ community, but the general response I saw from people who are was that the night came across as solely focused on those in same sex relationships (backed up by how the photo shoot for the advertising campaign went, and by doubling up on the “date night” promotion in that game for Valentine’s Day), while still excluding those who are transgender, non-binary, asexual, or just not in a relationship.
In the end, baby sized steps for a 26 year old franchise deserves baby sized credit.
Mendes asked Ruszkowski what his message would be to the fans right now, given the roster moves the team has been making. After some boiler-plate words about understanding how the fan base feels, he went back to the talking point about the team not being about one player (how about four and counting), one season (how about two so far with another several on the way), or one place in the standings.
He said it’s about a 26 year track record of involvement in the community, and he hopes that if they keep up what he feels is their end of the bargain with communication, engagement and more proactive interactions that it will earn them the benefit of the loyalty and patience of the fan base during the rebuild.
Let’s start with talking about the 26 year track record of community involvement roughly a minute after talking about how when he was hired he knew they needed to do better with community involvement and that he thinks they’ve built up a track record this season. If you want loyalty and patience in return for communication, it helps to keep a consistent message from one answer to the next. It also helps to provide fans with at least a rough outline of the rebuilding plan - of course you can’t give all the details away or it puts you at a disadvantage when trying to make deals, but when the extent of what has been said can be summed up as “it’s a rebuild” and an extremely rough timeline you’re not asking for loyalty and patience, you’re asking for blind faith.
When asked about Mark Stone, Ruszkowski understandably wasn’t able to provide any further details on his status, but took the time to heap some praise on Pierre Dorion’s work leading up to the deadline and pump the tires of the future pipeline and wealth of future picks.
To wrap up, he was asked if there were plans for more town halls similar to the ones that took place after last season. Ruszkowski said they’ve already started those before each home game, starting with season seat holders, and have held 12 sessions with 20 to 40 SSHs attending each one. He promised more of those, eventually expanding out to the fanbase beyond the SSHs. He also made the claim that they have had roughly 83,000 new casual fans this season that have attended their first ever game at the CTC.
There’s a whole lot to unpack from that claim. That’s a little over 6% of the region’s population. It’s a little tough to believe that there is that big of a segment of the population that both hasn’t attended a single Senators home game in over 22 years (assuming we’re sticking to just the CTC) and decided to start now. If the number is close to accurate, you have to wonder how many of those were free tickets, and subsequently just how many were entertained enough to be willing to pay to go to another game.
It’s also a sign of just how bad the picture is with ticket sales to the existing fan base. 83,000 tickets is close to 20% of the attendance this season, and another 83,000 new casual fans attending a game so far this season still wouldn’t bring the attendance up to capacity. It means repeat customers, be they SSHs or single game buyers, aren’t even enough to have the building 2/3rds full.
That ties in well to the follow-up Mendes had - was he worried about alienating the hardcore portion of the fan base during their attempts to broaden the fanbase? No - that’s why they’re starting with the season seat holders. I’d like to point out that not every die-hard is a SSH, and that they’ve already alienated a significant number of now-former SSHs.
Ruszkowski gave an example of a question he was asked during one of those SSH sessions, “Why should we believe you, why should we believe Eugene Melnyk?” He talked about how while Melnyk or the organization haven’t spoken as often as the fans or media would like (see previous talk of holding up their end of the bargain on communication), but that the they have been quite transparent “for better or worse” and that they’re not a group with a tendency to spin.
Excusez-moi? (and several other French words we really shouldn’t publish) No tendency to spin? At this point Nic Ruszkowski nearly qualifies as an honourary member of Dead or Alive. I’m still a little dizzy from the spin in his last TSN1200 interview.
To claim that they don’t spin things is an insult to every fan’s intelligence. That’s not a good way to earn loyalty and patience, and quite the point to end the interview on.