Senators Owner Scolds Fans, Hints at Relocation
On the eve of his club hosting its first NHL outdoor game in Ottawa at Lansdowne Park, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk raised the possibility of relocating the franchise.
Upset over the declining attendance to Senators games in recent years, Melnyk floated the possibility of moving the club unless the market “proves itself.”
“If it doesn’t look good here, it could look good somewhere else,” he said, though he quickly followed up by adding he wasn’t suggesting it “right now.” Still, he pointed out relocation was always a possibility with any franchise.
Since 2013-14, the Senators attendance at Canadian Tire Centre has declined, with a steep drop from averaging 18, 084 in 2015-16 to 16, 744 last season to 15,228 thus far this season. ) The fact the Sens couldn’t sell out their arena during their unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Final in the 2017 playoffs raised eyebrows around the league. This season, they’ve dropped to 24th in attendance.
The arena’s location in Kanata (well away from downtown Ottawa) is usually cited as one reason for the decline, along with the cost of attending Senators games. Because Ottawa is a government town, federal civil servants cannot accept tickets from the private sector. That means fewer corporate ticket sales compared to other NHL cities. The recent ongoing problems with the Phoenix pay system for government employees could also be a contributingfactor.
Most of those factors, however, didn’t adversely affect attendance between 2005-06 to 2013-14. During that period, the Senators regularly averaged over 18,000 fans per game, including eight seasons where attendance was over 19,000, placing them among the league leaders in that category during that period.
So what was the big difference between now and then? It’s probably because the on-ice product isn’t as good as it once was.
In 2005-06 the Sens were among the NHL’s top teams, leading the league in goals with 314. The following season, they marched to the Stanley Cup Final, losing to the Anaheim Ducks.
Those Senators clubs were deep in talent and very entertaining . Dany Heatley had back-to-back 50-goal, 100-point campaigns. Jason Spezza emerged as a first-line center. Popular team captain Daniel Alfredsson was still in the playing prime. Future Norris-winning defenseman Zdeno Chara patrolled the blueline in ’05-’06.
Wade Redden was still a quality puck-moving defenseman while Chris Phillips was a reliable shutdown rearguard. Mike Fisher was among the best two-way forwards. They had solid depth in Chris Kelly, Antoine Vermette, Patrick Eaves and Anton Volchenkov. Heck, they even had future Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek between the pipes in ’05-’06.
Following the 2007 championship run, there was an expectation that this team had the talent to remain a Cup contender for at least several years. Sadly, it wasn’t to be.
Over the next four seasons, the Senators missed the playoff twice while familar stars such as Heatley and Redden left town. During that time, however, the fan support didn’t really waiver.
Even when the Sens overhauled the roster in 2011 in favor of younger players such as Erik Karlsson, Nick Foligno and Kyle Turris, attendance remained strong. Though they were rebuilding through in 2011-12 and the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, the Sens still averaged over 19,000 per game.
Those rosters were a hardworking, likeable, energetic crew loaded with potential. Ottawa fans took them to their hearts and bought into the promise of a bright future.
However, the Sens subsequently missed the playoffs in two of the next three seasons. Only a career-best performance by third-string goaltender Andrew Hammond carried them into the 2015 postseason, where they bowed out in the opening round to the Montreal Canadiens.
Despite the emergence of Karlsson as a superstar and the development of young players such as Turris, Mark Stone and Mike Hoffman into skilled NHLers, the Senators struggled to build upon their earlier potential.
During that period, the attendance slid into the 18,000 per game range. Still, those numbers were above the league average of over 17,400 during that period.
Popular veterans, such as Alfredsson and Spezza, also departed during those years via free agency. Melnyk’s seeming unwillingness to re-sign Alfredsson, the popular long-time captain, soured a number of Sens fans.
Today, there seems to be a perception among Sens followers that the club is simply spinning its wheels.
The club’s struggles between 2013-14 through 2015-16 could explain, at least in part, why attendance didn’t improve last season, especially during that unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Any chance of building upon last season’s success has evaporated with their tumble down the Eastern Conference standings in the last month.
Much of the blame has been placed at Melnyk’s feet. From his silly vendetta against then-Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke for accidentally slicing Karlsson’s Achilles tendon in 2013, to his perceived meddling in player movement and contract decisions, to his bellyaching over salaries and fan support, the Senators owner hasn’t done himself any favors.
The ongoing departure of popular stars also gives fans the impression that Melnyk is too cheap to re-sign those players. That view was recently reinforced by Turris, who believes the reason he was traded last month to Nashville was because the Sens owner didn’t want to re-sign him after this season.
Airing his frustrations prior to the NHL 100 Classic game at Lansdowne was simply another example for Sens fans of Melnyk’s insensitivity
Should Senators fans take the threat of relocation seriously? Probably not.
Melnyk’s made no secret of his desire to either refurbish the Canadian Tire Centre or build a new downtown arena at LeBreton Flats. While his recent remarks were aimed at Senators fans, they could also be construed as an attempt to garner leverage in negotiations with the National Capital Commission over potential construction costs for a new arena.
Following Melnyk’s remarks on Friday, league commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly went swiftly into damage control mode the following day. Both insist the club isn’t going anywhere, pointing out that the Senators owner didn’t say he was planning to sell or move the team. Bettman also reminded everyone a sale or relocation requires the approval of the league board of governors.
Cynical hockey fans could be tempted to doubt Bettman’s comments. However, he was the one who brought in Melnyk to save the Senators in 2003. Combine Bettman’s comments with Melnyk’s recent insistence that he’s not selling the Senators and the threat of relocation seems hollow.
Still, Melnyk’s comments won’t improve the Senators’ image or bolster support from a fan base that’s grown impatient with the club’s lack of on-ice improvement. The bitter split with Alfredsson, trading away Turris and the anticipated departure of Karlsson via trade or free agency by 2019 only heightens their frustration and the belief the front office has little interest in building and maintaining a winner.
Browbeating the fans or threatening to relocate won’t improve the Senators’ attendance. They’ve got to give the fans a reason to come back.
The club must must do a better job connecting with the fans and the local community. They must listen to their supporters’ greivances and try to resolve them. And above all, they’ve got to improve the on-ice product.