Fans grill Sens owner Eugene Melnyk at town halls

About 300 season ticket holders crowded into a lounge at the Canadian Tire Centre Tuesday night, hoping for answers from team owner Eugene Melnyk after a rough season.

Melnyk criticized over controversial comments, disappointing season — but others voiced support

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk participated in the first of two town hall meetings Tuesday night to face questions from season ticket holders about the future of the team. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Disappointed Ottawa Senators season ticket holders said they're prepared to put this year's disastrous season behind them and give owner Eugene Melnyk time to turn the team around.  

About 300 season ticket holders crowded into the Alumni Lounge at the Canadian Tire Centre Tuesday night, hoping for answers from Melnyk after the team finished at the bottom of the NHL standings.

The town hall, organized by the team, also included general manager Pierre Dorion, was one of two scheduled for April 10 and 11 in response to mounting criticism from fans.

At the NHL alumni game on Parliament Hill Dec. 15, Melynk seemed to hint at the possibility of moving the team to another market, saying, "if it doesn't look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else."

He later reversed course, saying he had no plans to move the team or relinquish his ownership.

Comments sparked anger

Tariq Anwal, who was at Tuesday's town hall, said he was also at the alumni game in December.

"He turned what should have been a joyous moment — probably the only joyous moment in the whole season — into a bit of a travesty and really, really sparked some anger," he said.

Melnyk did apologize Tuesday, though he also pointed the finger at media for "mischaracterizing" what he said.

Season ticket holders got a chance to hear from team leadership after a controversial, disappointing year. 1:18

As for whether the team could be up for sale soon, Melnyk was more decisive. "I don't even consider it. If something's not for sale, it's not for sale," he said.

Anwar said he hopes the team can work its way back to its former glory despite the dismal season.

"I genuinely hope that they can move on from this year and get back into a position of respectability, which is something we're used to as Ottawa Senators fans."

Many still thankful

Melnyk has been the target of a derisive billboard campaign this season, with four #melnykout advertisements going up in mid-March.

However, this event was only open to season ticket holders, many of whom are standing behind Melnyk. Bob Mandzuc said the team likely wouldn't be where it is today without its embattled owner.

"I think he's made some interesting choices, but I also recognize that if he hadn't bought the team all those years ago, there probably wouldn't be a team here," he said. "So I'm willing to give him some rope and see what his plans are."

One of the fan-funded billboards on display south of Ottawa's core on March 19. (Jacques Corriveau/CBC)

Many who were there also expressed disappointment at the billboards, saying they didn't reflect the feelings of season ticket holders.

Daniel Croisetiere said he's had season tickets since the team's first "Civic Centre days," and doesn't see himself abandoning the Sens anytime soon.

"Melnyk basically saved this team," he said. "I know sometimes we question his judgment or his decisions but I definitely did not agree with the Melnyk Out signs."

A disappointing season

After advancing to the Eastern conference final last year and getting within a goal of playing for the Stanley Cup, the team found itself in a very different position this year.

They fell to the Boston Bruins April 7 and ended the season with a mere 67 points, landing in the second last spot in the league. It was their worst non-lockout season since 1995-96.

Boston Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy avoids Senators forward Colin White during the second period of Boston's 4-2 win over Ottawa Saturday night. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Melnyk acknowledged the disappointing season in his opening remarks, but reiterated his commitment to rebuilding the team in Ottawa.

"We had a bad year, and it hurts all of us," he said, doubling down on his promise to build a younger, faster roster, and push for a new arena at LeBreton Flats.

'I think his heart is in the right place'

Fans at the town hall seemed to echo that optimism, with many longtime ticket holders remaining steadfast Sens fans.

Sylvain Brazeau said Melnyk's job is a tough one, but his contribution to the team has been positive.

"I know he gets a lot of negative feedback sometimes, but I think his heart is in the right place," he said.

"I don't think the Senators would be where they are right now without him."

The Karlsson question

One of the most popular topics of discussion was the fate of Senators star defenceman Erik Karlsson, whose contract ends after next season.

Trade rumours swirled this season, leading several season ticket holders to push Melnyk and Dorion about their plans for him.

Dorion said the team would be offering Karlsson a contract July 1 — the earliest date they can make an offer under league rules — but whether Karlsson will want to take that contract is a different question.

Many of the questions centred on the future of Senators captain Erik Karlsson, with many fans asking whether he'll still be with the team next season. (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)

Melnyk said they'll do as much as they can to keep him in Ottawa, though financial worries persisted.

"If it's a question of dollars, there are teams that can outgun us five to one," he said. "There's only so far you can go, but we're going to go as far as we can."

Dorion did confirm the team would not be trading him away in the upcoming draft, eliciting cheers from the audience.