Eugene Melnyk built complex legacy during 20 years of business in Ottawa

As residents woke up to the news that Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk died on Monday, they remembered a man who saved the team from relocation nearly 20 years ago, but whose relationship with the city became complex.

Amid lagging team performance in recent years, there were loud cries for Ottawa Senators owner to sell

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk reacts while being recognized in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in March 2014. He died Monday at the age of 62. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

As residents woke up to the news that Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk died on Monday, they remembered a man who saved the team from relocation nearly 20 years ago, but whose relationship with the city became complex.

Melnyk bought the Sens and their home arena in 2003 for $130 million US when the previous franchise owner, Rod Bryden, went bankrupt. Melnyk put in the offer and reached a deal with creditors after Bryden's deal to reacquire the team was unsuccessful.

The team reached its peak in the mid-2000s that culminated in a trip to the Stanley Cup final four years into Melnyk's ownership. Amid lagging performance and attendance in more recent years, however, many disgruntled Senators fans had openly criticized Melnyk's leadership and called — loudly — for him to sell the team.

That discussion reached a fever pitch at the tail end of a disastrous season in 2018 when a fundraising campaign amassed more than $10,000 for billboards emblazoned with #MelnykOut in large, block letters.

A billboard calling for Melnyk to sell the team is seen in Ottawa in March 2018. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

It happened after Melnyk hinted at the possibility of relocating the team, and complained of having to "beg" fans to buy tickets ahead of an NHL 100 Classic outdoor game.

The 2019 collapse of his bid to build a new NHL arena in the heart of Ottawa in a redevelopment of LeBreton Flats — a large parcel of land close to the downtown core, straddled along the Ottawa River — was another black mark on his relationship with the city.

At the time, Mayor Jim Watson publicly chastised Melnyk for being difficult to deal with.

But in a social media post on Tuesday, Watson wrote: "While we didn't always see eye to eye on some issues, I was always appreciative that Mr. Melnyk stepped forward to keep the [Senators] in Ottawa, solidifying the organization's place as an integral part of our city.

"My sincere condolences go out to his family and his colleagues."

Mayor Jim Watson and Melnyk publicly sparred in 2019 as Melnyk's bid to redevelop LeBreton Flats failed. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Ottawa Senators founder Bruce Firestone said by phone Tuesday he was sad to hear of Melnyk's untimely passing at the age of 62, and that he's choosing to remember Melnyk as the handsome, "full of beans" younger man he knew when Melnyk took over the franchise.

"Later on, as the team performed worse, and as player turnover increased, it became more difficult," Firestone said. "I actually checked yesterday, before I heard the news, and I was actually quite disappointed to learn that the Senators are last in the NHL, out of 32 teams ... in terms of attendance. And there's many reasons for that, but it is disappointing."

WATCH | Bruce Firestone on Eugene Melnyk's time as owner: 

Melnyk deserves credit for saving Ottawa Senators from relocation, founder says

5 months ago
Duration 1:10
Bruce Firestone, founder of the Ottawa Senators, says team owner Eugene Melnyk deserves some credit for saving the team from relocation 20 years ago. Melnyk died Monday at the age of 62.

In Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday, where the Senators are preparing for tonight's game against the Predators, team captain Brady Tkachuk called this a "sad day" for the organization and the city.

"Ottawa lost a person who cared so much about the community," Tkachuk told reporters, adding it was "a great honour" to be named captain by Melnyk at the start of season.

Tkachuk said Melnyk was focused on bringing the Stanley Cup to Ottawa, and said that remains the team's ultimate goal.

"That's going to be something we want to fulfil and bring a cup back to Ottawa, and that was his mission and we definitely want to honour him by doing that," Tkachuk said.

Emotional message from Senators GM

At a meeting of NHL general managers in Florida, Senators GM Pierre Dorion offered an emotional tribute to Melnyk.

"He's someone that brought stability to the Ottawa Senators franchise. If not for Eugene Melnyk, the Senators would not be in Ottawa," Dorion said.

"He made a commitment to the city of Ottawa, to the franchise, to try and build a winner," Dorion said, thanking Melnyk for entrusting him with the GM job. "I'm so thankful [to] him for giving me that opportunity, and I want to promise the fans in Ottawa that we will deliver a Stanley Cup one day."

The Senators' next home game is Sunday against the Detroit Red Wings. Fans are calling on each other to fill the stands at the Canadian Tire Centre in Melnyk's honour.

Here's some of their online response to Melnyk's death.

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk had a complicated but colourful relationship with the team's fanbase, though he'll also be remembered for saving the team from bankruptcy and relocation. Two Senators fans give their thoughts on the NHL's most outspoken owner and his legacy.

With files from Michelle Allan, The Canadian Press


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