By Mackenzie White
For two weeks in late March and early April, four billboards around Ottawa — including one near the southern gateway to Little Italy — showcased a common message: #MELNYKOUT.
#MELNYKOUT campaign leader Spencer Callaghan has attracted national attention by rallying angry fans in opposition to controversial Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk.
As the hashtag implies, the billboards are targeting the sole owner, governor and chairman of the capital’s NHL Senators, a club that struggled badly on the ice this season and also faced high-profile attendance troubles, too.
Melnyk bought the team and stadium in 2003 after the franchise filed for bankruptcy protection.
For Callaghan, the billboards represent a rising mood of discontent towards Melnyk and his perceived cost-cutting style of running the team.
Perhaps most notably, longtime captain and Senators legend Daniel Alfredsson spent his last NHL season (2013-14) in Detroit after he and Melnyk disagreed over the Ottawa icon’s contract renewal.
In the final weeks of a hugely disappointing 2017-18 season, which saw the Senators sink to second last in the NHL standings, Callaghan and the Sens’ fan base have a right to question what’s happening with their team.
Remember: this is a team that was just one goal away from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals last May when it fell in overtime in the seventh game of a thrilling semi-final series against eventual Cup winner Pittsburgh Penguins.
That series seemed to be a turning point in Melnyk’s public attitude towards the fans. While the Sens’ home attendance has been in a decline for a number of years, Ottawans were unable to blame the empty seats on a lack of success during their playoff series against the Penguins and New York Rangers.
Since then, the team has tarped over 1,500 seats at the Canadian Tire Centre, seen key lineup additions fail to live up to expectations, another fan favourite (Kyle Turris) run out of town to save money, and the team’s relationship with star defenceman Erik Karlsson take a dramatic turn for the worse.
There’s no doubting that Melnyk is a hands-on type of owner. While largely uncommon in sports, it’s still relatively understandable why he would want to be involved in the team’s decision making. He’s committing his financial resources towards improving an asset.
Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem. The problem is, most hands-on owners know when to let the management they appointed do their jobs. Melnyk made his money in pharmaceuticals and doesn’t have a background in hockey management aside from his tenure as Sens’ owner. With a constant trump card (his money talks) Melnyk’s decisions have sometimes overridden those of seasoned hockey executive and Sens’ general manager Pierre Dorion.
After a lacklustre start, the team acquired the offensively talented Matt Duchene in a November trade that saw Turris — one of the most popular players in the team’s 25-year history — head to Nashville. Thought to have been included in the deal due to unreasonable contract demands, Turris told reporters: “It’s tough, because I think management did want to sign me, but I think that the owner didn’t. And that was his decision.”
Furthermore, Melnyk has not had the best public relationship with Ottawa-area fans.
In December, citing poor ticket sales, Melnyk publicly threatened to relocate the team to another city. The threat was issued less than 24 hours before Ottawa hosted a highly anticipated outdoor game celebrating the NHL’s 100th anniversary.
At the time, Melnyk mentioned that the planned LeBreton Flats arena development might not happen if fans don’t buy more seasons’ tickets, and was quoted saying: “If it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else.”
The LeBreton development is heralded as a potential saviour for a franchise that’s been stuck with the poorly located and poorly sized (for Ottawa) Canadian Tire Centre. So what kind of owner resorts to the menacing tactics of a comic-book villain in order to drum up support? Sure the remarks drew more coverage of spotty attendance figures, but they also served to alienate the diehard sections of the fans even further. Why would they want to give Melnyk their money?
Tensions appeared to reach an all-time high in February when Karlsson — an elite, franchise defenceman — was rumoured to be on the trading block. Whispers suggested Karlsson was part of a package deal being offered around the league that included overpriced Sens’ winger Bobby Ryan.
For some fans, this was the breaking point. Sens blogger bRian5or6 released a profanity-laden rant on Periscope pleading with Melnyk not to trade the superstar defenceman. Using his own Twitter account, Karlsson favourited a tweet featuring the video.
While Karlsson didn’t end up on the move, his suitcase will stay packed. He grabbed the puck after an April 2 home game, possibly his last in Ottawa as a Senator. To diehard fans, it was a dark omen that stoked anger toward the team’s owner.
Melnyk simply cannot trade Karlsson because he “wants too much.” The team already operates under Melnyk’s self-imposed salary cap instead of the NHL’s expanding limit.
The #MELNYKOUT website proclaims, “the Ottawa Senators franchise is dying,” and it appears a good number of Senators supporters agree.
Almost $10,500 has been raised to pay for the billboards, which were strategically placed around the city, including one at Carling Avenue and Preston Street.
While Callaghan initially planned just one billboard, a website and an open letter, a fifth sign debuted April 2 in Old Ottawa South with a different hashtag: #ASKMELNYK.
It should come as no surprise that Callaghan’s campaign has received so much support. People in Ottawa love their hockey.
This is a city that rallied around goalie Craig Anderson when his wife Nicholle was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of 2016. This is a city where a throng of fans met the team at the airport at 2 a.m. after they’d won a playoff series against the New
York Rangers. This is a city that rallied around Melnyk’s liver transplant in 2015 with hopes of seeing the Stanley Cup — which originated in the capital in 1892 — return home.
While ticket sales are an obvious tangible sign of a fanbase’s malaise towards the team, perhaps they were the first sign of discontent with the way things have been run in Ottawa for the past decade.
Ottawa hockey fans are sick of being blamed and held hostage by Melnyk, and want to see an owner who can put serious money behind a winning hockey team. Otherwise, the critics argue, he shouldn’t control the team.
During a recent segment of Coach’s Corner, hockey commentator Don Cherry told viewers that Melnyk would be “nuts to stay” in Ottawa, suggesting Melnyk should move the franchise east to Quebec City.
Cherry was only partially right in his statement. Senators should remain, but Melnyk is the one who should go.