Welcome to Better Hate An Owner, a recurring feature in which we learn more about all those awful old people who get to hold the trophy first at championship ceremonies. [Ed. note: except in hockey, not that it’s ever going to matter in Ottawa.] Today’s entry is about Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk.
How much of his soul did he lose in making his money?
Is he a fail-child?
Not really. The son of Ukrainian immigrants to Toronto, Melnyk followed very loosely in the footsteps of his father, a physician, by creating an aggregation service for medical journals. (A sort of proto-blogger? Perhaps, perhaps.) He sold that to become a millionaire at age 30, then turned around and started the pharmaceutical company Biovail, which swiftly made him his first billion. Not many other Canadians can claim to be “one of the wealthiest” residents of Barbados.
How much public financing has he sucked out of the community?
Not much, though certainly not for lack of trying. The Senators have been playing in the same building since 1996, seven years before Melnyk bought the team, so he hasn’t personally had the opportunity to bleed Ontario for arena subsidies. But the last decade has been marked by regular tantrums and agitations and threats to move the team, all with the goal of getting a shiny new building on the taxpayers’ dime.
The Epstein Degree: How many degrees removed from Jeffrey Epstein is he?
Three. Melnyk and the other NHL owners employ Gary Bettman as commissioner. Bettman, a year into his commissionership, hung with then-President Bill Clinton at the Rangers’ White House visit. Bill Clinton—well, you know.
What are his political affiliations?
Surprisingly hard to figure out, though his Twitter follows strongly hint he’s conservative. There are no campaign contributions or public statements to point to, though he does miss seeing Bill O’Reilly on his TV.
If your stomach is strong enough, take a few minutes to watch what must be among the most unpleasant videos the hockey world has ever produced, right up there with Clint Malarchuk having his jugular vein sliced and nearly bleeding out in the crease:
What we have here is (now-former; even agreeing to do this couldn’t earn him a contract offer) Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk sitting down for an informal, totally-not-stilted chat about the franchise’s future, which, when this was filmed and released before the 2018–19 season, was not particularly bright. The team’s veterans and stars were, to a man, unhappy and on the trading block. The team’s assistant GM had just resigned amid accusations of harassment. Melnyk himself had recently ruined an outdoor game, traditionally a celebratory weekend, by using the attention to complain about Ottawa fans’ commitment to the team and threatening to relocate if they didn’t start buying more tickets. Borowiecki and Melnyk discussed none of this.
Instead Borowiecki, who visibily wanted to be there less than anyone has ever wanted to be anywhere, kicked things off with “Let’s talk hockey,” and over the next five minutes proceeded to have hockey explained to him by a man wearing a jersey over a collared shirt and sitting uncomfortably close. Melnyk said the team was “kind of in the dumpster.” Borowiecki, being as diplomatic as possible, intimated that the dressing-room chemistry was a disaster. Melnyk promised to get them some help.
The occasion for this video was Melnyk breaking the expected news to fans that the franchise was in for a teardown and rebuild. It undeniably needed one, and it has become trendy in recent years for hockey teams to formally announce the plan to fans. It’s not a bad practice—it shows some respect for their knowledge and asks their patience—but traditionally it’s been just a letter or something. No other owner has or would ever make themself the focal point of the announcement, because no other owner would be delusional enough to think fans wanted to see or hear from them when they were the primary reason things had gotten so bad in the first place. Melnyk is different, though. Melnyk believed Senators fans craved Melnyk, shooting the shit with a player, telling them that every player they love is bound for greener, non-Ottawan pastures.
That’s Eugene Melnyk. Other owners are cheap. Other owners field bad teams. Other owners think they know better than everyone else. None of that is special. What Melynk brings to the table is a rare combination of savior complex and two-bit grievance.
Remember, this is the guy who saved hockey in Ottawa by buying the franchise when it was literally bankrupt, unable to make payroll, and already had one foot out the door. Owning a hockey team in Canada is something like a sacred trust, and preventing yet another team from fleeing to the States could have, should have made Melnyk a hero for life in that city. All he had to do was be normal about it. And yet, and yet. It took him 14 years to issue his own threat to relocate the Senators, but by that time, Melnyk had established himself as sui generis for his thin skin and his petty revenges and his borderline-deranged belief that he should be beloved by all, and those who disagree are somehow both beneath his notice and worthy of his contempt.
In 2018, with the Senators having tunneled beneath the standings dumpster to the sewers below, and players having been caught on video trashing the team and coaches, and fans openly despairing and calling for Melnyk to sell the franchise, the Melnyk defenders emerged. They were Twitter users who had just recently joined the service, and had profile photos taken from other places online, and were named things like “Nolae Garverr” and “Wiseman Lorenbg” and “Swayze Casaresty.” They attacked Sens fans for negative posts, and praised Melnyk and his leadership. It was never conclusively proven that Melnyk was behind the troll army of Twitter bots singing his praises, nor was the earlier hacking of a blog that had dared report on Melnyk’s finances, by an IP address tied to a Melnyk-linked charity. But to Senators fans, it never needed to be proven. Melnyk’s pettiness was taken for granted.
He was, after all, the man who kicked a beat reporter off the team plane because he had covered something Melnyk didn’t want him to cover. He was the man who threatened to “bury” a national reporter because he had reported that Melnyk had failed to pay out employee bonuses. He was the man who sued to get his company’s private jet back despite his unpaid bills. He was—and I think this is the single most illustrative anecdote imaginable—the man who, when sued by a casino that had accused him of bouncing checks to cover his gambling losses over a St. Patrick’s Day bender, claimed, Actually, I was winning too much and they wouldn’t let me cash out. That’s Eugene Melnyk.
The Senators are not hockey’s sexiest franchise, nor its most profitable, and certainly not its most decorated. But its fans are proud. So it’s no surprise that their temperature on Melnyk ranges from mere derision to outright disdain, despite the fact that his teams have seen some success: they’ve made the playoffs more often than they’ve missed; they made a Cup final in 2007 and a conference final as recently as 2017. Because Melnyk regularly commits the unforgivable crime of turning Ottawa—already sensitive due to its relative civic anonymity and location smack-dab in between the cultural and hockey gravitational centers of Toronto and Montreal—into a laughingstock.
When a city like Ottawa gets a legend like Daniel Alfredsson, it does anything to keep him. When an owner like Melnyk employs a legend like Daniel Alfredsson, however, he will do anything to keep him—except pay a few million dollars he could easily afford. “We all were pretty adamant that he was going to return because he is grounded in this city and so well-loved that [everyone figured] something would work out,” one shocked teammate said when Alfredsson, the best player the Senators had ever known, signed elsewhere in 2013. After retiring from playing, Alfie returned to Ottawa in a front-office role. He soon left that, and made no secret of why: “We hope we get a new owner.” It takes a special man to alienate Daniel freaking Alfredsson from the Ottawa Senators, twice.
Similar dramas played out with Erik Karlsson and Mark Stone, Sens lifers who were perfectly happy there and who were traded away in their primes to save Melnyk some money. That thriftiness has been especially galling to Senators fans who have watched Melnyk spend not just the bare minimum required by the CBA, but on occasion below it. In 2019, by stockpiling long-term injured players and buyouts—both of which carry larger cap hits than what they’re actually being paid—the Senators had a payroll $10 million beneath the NHL’s salary floor. When Melnyk promised in his We’re gonna tank video that things would get worse before they got better, he wasn’t lying.
As vocal as Senators fans have been regarding their thoughts on the owner—#MelnykOut regularly trends on Twitter; fans have purchased billboards begging him to sell the team; even the celebratory fancam videos after big wins close by stating “Melnyk is a terrorist”—the feeling is mutual. Melnyk has never hidden what he thinks of the fans, and of the local government who refuses to buy him a new downtown arena. “If it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else,” he said in 2017, one of his periodic threats to move the franchise somewhere else. (Please note that he said this less than 24 hours before an outdoor Senators game celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NHL, ensuring that nobody would be talking about anything else, at a time the league and the team were supposed to be celebrating. His timing is ever immaculate.)
You see, Eugene Melnyk likes owning a hockey team. He just wishes it were a better one.
“I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team,” he said earlier that same month. “The bigger question is whether I’m prepared to blow all that money I made over many years in a different industry in a different country. How long can you underwrite a team?”
And then, in a comparison that surely delighted Senators fans who think of their team as something more than a P&L statement, Melnyk emphasized that he’s not going to sell. “It just won’t happen. It’s a franchise. Imagine if you own a McDonald’s franchise, but you can move it. Why would you sell it?”
So the Senators appear stuck with Melnyk for the foreseeable future, though it was a close one there for a while. In 2015, Melnyk discovered he needed a new liver, and fast. After failing to find a match among friends and family, he went public with his plea—and hundreds of Senators fans volunteered their livers. A match for his rare blood type was found and a transplant performed. There are thorny debates about the ethics of using one’s prominence to locate an organ donor, when so many less wealthy and less famous people do not have the same option, but I’m going to propose a much more specific moral tenet: When fans of the team you own literally save your life, you should make a point of not taking their team away. Or at least wait longer than two years to try.
It’s now the third season on from Melnyk sitting down with Borowiecki and promising that brighter days were ahead, and two years out from Melnyk promising that, beginning with this season, the team would enjoy “a five-year stretch of unparalleled success,” and, more concretely, that he would spend to the salary cap every year. The Senators entered the season with the NHL’s lowest payroll, end it with more than $15 million in unused cap space, and will finish at the bottom of their division. Plus ça change…