Featured photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images
In December 2017, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk threatened to move the Senators to a new city, igniting the fanbase to launch the “MelnykOut” campaign with billboards around the city displaying this phrase.
For years, the Senators have been in crisis. They lost a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a new downtown arena. Their owner is often ridiculed by fans and the media. The team is losing money.
The on-ice product also suffered. The team reached the conference finals in 2017 and finished in the bottom five every season since. They have also traded away almost every player from that 2017 roster. The team is currently in a multi-year rebuild, and if it fails, it may be the end of the franchise.
One of the organization’s problems has been the deterioration of Melnyk’s relationship with the fans.
In December 2017, the Senators were hosting the Montreal Canadiens for the NHL’s Centennial Classic at TD Place, an outdoor game to celebrate 100 years of the NHL.
Melnyk spoke to the media before the game and said that if things got worse in Ottawa, he would consider moving the team to a new city. He said if fans did not want to support the team by attending games it would impact how much he was willing to spend on the team.
Noel Kivimaki, a season ticket holder of the Senators since 1998, said Melnyk’s comments are part of the reason his affection for the team has somewhat soured.
For Kivimaki, Melnyk’s comments were “tone deaf” and said at completely the wrong time, as the game was supposed to be a momentous occasion for the team.
Graeme Nichols, a freelance writer, has been writing about and commenting on the Senators for over a decade. He said Ottawa is a very proud city and those comments have left a bitter taste for a lot of fans.
“[Melnyk] hasn’t really walked back those comments. I don’t think I’ve seen him publicly apologize for what he said at that time, and I think a lot of fans still harbor resentment towards that,” Nichols says.
Many season ticket holders who were interviewed for this story said they would like to see new ownership for the team. However, many fans worry if they do not support the team financially, Ottawa may lose the Senators.
“I would hate to see the NHL leave Ottawa,” Carlos Marques said, a lifelong Senators fan who worked at the Senators team store for six years.
Marques said if he doesn’t support the team financially, such as buying tickets or merchandise, then he’s not helping. “Some people see it as supporting Melnyk. I see it as supporting the future of the team and supporting the young guys and giving them an opportunity and keeping the team in town.”
Another issue facing the team is the location of their arena. The Senators play in Kanata, Ontario, 20 kilometers from downtown Ottawa, in the Canadian Tire Center. It was built in 1996 and was meant to last about 35 years. That would only give the team 10 more years there, or less.
The arena is hard to reach. It is at least a 20-minute drive, without traffic, from downtown; in traffic, it could be over 40 minutes. The least expensive parking at the arena is about $12. The areas with cheaper parking are about a 10-minute walk from the arena, which can be very uncomfortable in Ottawa’s harsh winters, where temperatures often reach minus 20 degrees Celsius or colder.
Premium parking can range from $25-$50. Fans say when the arena is full it can take almost half an hour to get out of the parking lot after games; this has been less a problem in recent years because attendance has declined. If fans opt for public transportation, the arena is a one-hour bus ride from downtown.
The arena does not have any LRT or O-train stops nearby either. There is not expected to be any stops nearby until possibly 2030, right at the end of the arena’s life.
Having LRT or O-train access is very important for a professional sports team, former Senators owner and founder, Bruce Firestone said. According to Firestone, they built the arena in Kanata since they did not have a major subway or train system like Toronto or Montreal, and it would take them much longer to empty the stadium by bus only. In Kanata, the arena is near a major highway and has parking for about 7,000 cars.
When they were looking for a place to build the Senators arena, Firestone preferred LeBreton flats. Its disadvantages were the lack of a large-scale method of public transit and the fact that the committee in charge of developing the land there did not want to build an arena.
Now, Ottawa’s LRT and O-train stop at or near LeBreton flats. The National Capital Commission, which oversees the development of LeBreton flats, also approved an arena in the area.
The Senators were part of a group that submitted a proposal to develop the land at LeBreton and they won the bid. The problem is Melnyk and his business partner, John Ruddy, had a falling out and their deal to develop the arena fell through. The NCC has now begun a new plan to develop the area that currently does not involve an arena for the Senators.
Ian Mendes, who has covered the Senators for years on TSN 1200 and now for The Athletic, said he believes chances are slim the team will be able to move downtown under Melnyk’s ownership.
“I would say it’s as close to impossible as you can find,” Mendes said. “Never say never to anything, but if you’re asking me to lay odds on the Ottawa Senators having a downtown rink with Eugene Melnyk as their owner, I would say it’s next to zero odds of that happening.”
The question then becomes whether the Senators can survive without a downtown arena.
Losing the LeBreton deal hurt the estimated value of the Senators. In 2020, Forbes ranked the Senators as the sixth least valuable franchise in the NHL at $430 million USD. That’s $15 million less than the year before.
Richard Powers, an associate professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, said the Senators current business model is sustainable short-term from a revenue point of view because they’ve cut expenses so much.
However, the team is losing a lot of potential revenue after missing out on a new arena. “The arenas are becoming more and more of a service model for the corporate sector… That’s where the big money is,” Powers said.
The Senators performance on the ice will be the biggest challenge for them as it will also affect the team financially in the future.
“How are you going to attract sponsors?” Powers said. “Everybody wants to be with a winner. Everybody’s jumping on the [Maple] Leafs bandwagon right now because they’re doing so well. Remember when the Raptors won, everybody wants to be part of that success.”
As it stands, the team is a loser.
Since coming to Ottawa in 1992, it has never won a Stanley Cup. It reached the finals in 2007. It also reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017. In recent years, the team has gone through one of its worst stretches in franchise history.
The Senators finished in the bottom three of the league standings every season since 2017. There is also only one player from the Eastern Conference Final team that played more than five regular season games for the Senators on the active roster. That would be Ryan Dzingel who was traded by the team in 2019 but re-acquired this year.
The team have also traded away Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris and Jean-Gabriel Pageau. Fans were upset to see stars leave for what many believe to be money.
“It was a real shame, and I was really disappointed a few years ago when they really tore it down and weren’t able to keep any of the veterans at all,” Kivimaki said. “I was particularly disappointed that they weren’t even able to keep players like Mark Stone.”
Kivimaki was not alone. Many disenchanted fans stopped attending games. Based on statistics from HockeyDB, the Senators average annual attendance declined every year since their conference finals trip.
Attendance bottomed out for the Senators last season when they averaged around 12,600 fans per game. The Senators arena has a capacity of about 19,000. This is the lowest average attendance the Senators have had since the 1994-95 season. This was also the lowest average in the league last season. In recent history they have also resorted to covering some of the upper seating levels with tarps to make the arena appear fuller. This only lasted one season.
The Senators are trying to turn this around by selling fans on the highly regarded collection of young prospects. They include Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Tim Stützle.
Kevin Lee, a season ticket holder since 2010, said fans might finally be seeing some promise on the ice after the mass exodus of talent the team experienced.
“We’re starting to see the fruition of what we’ve been promised, with the youth prospects that we drafted, finally make it to the NHL. So that obviously makes me really optimistic about the future of the team,” Lee said.
Some fans are concerned that the organization will not be able to retain this young talent. However, the team signed Chabot to an eight-year contract extension, which cheered fans.
The next challenge is re-signing Tkachuk, who many believe will be the next captain of the team. Tkachuk will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season.
“I think if you ask Ottawa fans what’s the biggest issue that you’ve had with your team in the last five years, it would be the inability to retain star players,” Mendes said.
“The minute those players left, it left a void in this market that can only be filled by other star players who want to stay here,” he said.
Fans are also looking for improvement in the team’s ability to insulate its young core with NHL veterans. The team acquired multiple in the summer, but most of these trades have not worked out as expected and have faced backlash on social media.
This has left many skeptical of the management’s ability to get the team to the next level. Tyler Ray was a season ticket holder for 10 years but cancelled for the past couple seasons.
Ray said he doesn’t foresee current management being able to turn this team into a Stanley Cup contender. He said they can hopefully put them on the right track though.
“They can probably put the seeds in place at least. And then hopefully, there’s some changes made where you can really sit and take that final step,” Ray said.
Every other fan interviewed here took a similar position. They all said they are skeptical of management’s ability to take the Senators to the next level. Many said the team is at a critical point in the rebuild and needs to start showing results.
Lee said he has seen more social media activity on game day amongst Senators fans this year than he ever did last season, even though the team is in last place in the division.
For Nichols, the team is approaching a key moment. He said a hard-core group of fans is loyal to the team no matter what, but even they might have a breaking point.
“It’s easy to be hyped out about the youth that’s on this roster right now, but eventually, I think there’s going to come a point where it’s going to be a ‘show me’ moment for those fans,” Nichols said.
The Senators are at a crossroads. If the team cannot retain its current crop of potential future stars and become contenders, if it cannot build a new arena and make it easier and more entertaining to attend games, it will lose fans – and Ottawa will lose the team.