The Ottawa Senators at the Crossroads

The time for real change has arrived

The Ottawa Senators have a momentous opportunity to change the trajectory of their entire franchise. With any luck, the on-ice portion of the transformation will mostly take care of itself by next season: the Sens have been stockpiling young prospects for the better part of the last five years, and there’s reason to believe that a rise up the standings is within their reach. The harder part will be rebuilding the severely damaged relationship that the organization has with its fans, with the community, and with its own employees — but make no mistake, now is the time to make real, meaningful change. The question is whether whoever leads the charge is willing, and able, to seize the opportunity.

Last Thursday, Ian Mendes, Katie Strang, and Dan Robson published a mammoth behind-the-scenes look at Eugene Melnyk’s time as owner of the Ottawa Senators. It is a thorough investigation, and the level of detail in some of the anecdotes evinces a deep level of reporting.  Mendes and Strang are also journalists with sterling reputations and Strang, in particular, has a well-established track record of breaking the difficult stories in the hockey world. Remember her stellar work on the suddenly-familiar-sounding toxicity of the Arizona Coyotes franchise last year.

In a podcast on Monday with former Sens beat reporter Hailey Salvian, Mendes explained that while most of the story had been reported by the time Melnyk died, several of their sources only felt comfortable revealing or confirming certain aspects of the story after the Sens’ owner’s death so as to avoid any potential retaliation — legal or professional. In a particularly revealing exchange, Salvian explained that one of her own pieces while she was on the Sens beat had been shot down by the Athletic’s legal department because of their own fears of legal action by Melnyk.

Salvian and Mendes are hardly the only members of the press to feel pressure on their reporting. Long time chronicler Wayne Scanlan had a run-in with the team when attempting to report on former executive Peter O’Leary’s lawsuit against the organization. Ken Warren was kicked off the team’s charter in the fall-out from Ubergate. There has been a long standing pattern of perceived intimidation of the media. That it took until Melnyk’s death for the other shoe to drop should not come as any surprise. It would have been irresponsible to run this type of article without the requisite sourcing, but it also would have been foolish to wait indefinitely until the “appropriate moment” despite Anthony Leblanc’s protestations to the contrary. Melnyk’s legacy was written by his own actions while he was alive, and no amount of waiting after the fact could change that. The team would do well to look at the fall-out from the story for what it is: a clear-eyed assessment of just how poisonous their brand has becomes in many circles.

While the general outline of the Athletic’s story on Melnyk was doubtless of little surprise to those who have been following the team for years, the specifics were still often jarring. In a particularly awful section, Melnyk is said to have excoriated one of his executives over the Sens’ Love is Love campaign for “Hockey is for Everyone” night. Be warned, the below excerpt contains homophobic language:

“Are you the one responsible for this fucking gay campaign? Have you lost your fucking mind? You need to take that shit down immediately.”

It was a Friday evening, Feb. 8, 2019, when a team executive received the phone call, Melnyk’s nasal screaming reverberating on the other line.

Melnyk was incensed at a marketing campaign with the slogan “Love is Love” that included still images of same-sex couples embracing and kissing that had been used to promote an upcoming Senators game for the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” night. The campaign was designed to celebrate diversity and inclusion and to connect with members of the Ottawa community previously left out of the organization’s outreach efforts.

Melnyk sneered at the images and derided the campaign: “We are the laughing stock of the NHL right now!”

Melnyk’s rant continued, lumping in previous marketing efforts involving pet rescue missions: “They think we are so desperate that we have to advertise to gays now. Dogs and gays.”

In another particularly grueling section, Melnyk is said to have been particularly aggressive with a female employee who reportedly did not answer one of his emails quickly enough for his liking. Please be warned that the below section contains offensive and derogatory language:

Also that year, Melnyk sent a threatening email to a female employee who had not responded immediately to an email Melnyk sent her. When she finally wrote back, reminding Melnyk she was on a scheduled vacation, he responded in all caps: “YOU FUCKING C – – T – WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? WHEN I SAY CALL YOU DO IT. WHEN I TELL YOU TO DO SOMETHING YOU DO IT. YOU ARE DONE!”

That same female employee had received a threatening email from Melnyk about a year earlier that includes the lines: “You really are a dumb bitch who doesn’t get it. How dare you write and question me” and “You are a no one.”

He ended that email, as he often did, with “Carpe Diem.”

The first employee did speak with two league officials but is unsure if any action was taken. The second employee never shared the content of the e-mails because she was afraid of retribution if she did. There is a whole other piece to be written about how the NHL’s inaction throughout the years allowed this situation to fester but, alas, I will have to leave that for another day.

While I currently have very little hope for institutional change at the level of the league, I still hold out hope for more from the Sens themselves. I have written in the past about the Sens’ failure to meet their part of the fandom bargain. Sports team depend on a certain goodwill in the community that they must continuously cultivate and maintain. If you come to be seen as only ever taking, and never giving back, if you come to be viewed as not treating your employees or your patrons with respect, your trust and standing will eventually erode. In the case of the Melnyk-owned Senators, there was an awful lot of goodwill built up when he first bought the team. It took ten years before the first cracks started to show, and another four years before enough fans became vocal about their displeasure. Even today, there is a segment of the fan base that will defend him because he saved the team from bankruptcy in 2003. That the organization was able to mostly undo that mountain of support means that there needs to be some some sort of reckoning. It will not be good enough to just calmly soldier on as if nothing happened.

If the Ottawa Senators are serious about making real and meaningful change, then one of the easiest things would be to enthusiastically lean into their outreach to their LGBTQ fans, their fans of colour, or virtually any “non-traditional” demographic in the fan base. The Athletic story brought what had previously been an uncomfortable, unspoken problem into the open for all to see.  It’s a shame that staunch allies and ambassadors such as Mark Borowiecki, Anders Nilsson, and Anthony Duclair have moved on but this team is young and this type of leadership and allyship can be taught. The Sens’ charitable arm could make it a point of financially supporting LGBTQ and anti-racist causes. After years of talking about organizational “values” in only the vaguest of terms, committing to a strong stance on making hockey a more inclusive place for all is not only the best thing for business but it is also the right thing to do.

More generally, there is a lot to be gained from simply changing the relationship the franchise has with local businesses. Ottawa’s business community is small, and there are only so many options for sponsorships. To their credit, Leblanc confirmed that the Sens were up to date on all payments to vendors they were reportedly stiffing many for years. With Melnyk out of the picture, the relationship with municipal politicians could also be repaired; the long-held grudges can be safely left behind.

At this particular moment, there are a lot of people in the community that want to make things work with the Sens. I would venture a guess that there is an opportunity to re-engage with even the most disaffected of fans. But this moment also will not last forever, especially if there are no visible signs of change. In addition to the optimism, there is also apprehension: fans, business partners, and members of the community at large will want to see evidence of real structural change. The on-ice future of the Senators is being led by a group of young men that show a lot of promise and seem to be a grounded, likable group. They deserve to have a vocal backing. The off-ice future of the team is going to be determined by just how willing the Sens are to rebuilding the relationships that have been so badly damaged, and by how willing they are to look themselves in the mirror. It won’t be easy, but not that long ago this opportunity didn’t seem like it would ever arrive. The Ottawa Senators would do well not to miss it.

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