This story was updated with files from OBJ staff.
The Ottawa Senators fired new CEO Jim Little on Wednesday, continuing a string of executive departures for a club that has struggled on and off the ice in recent years.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk named Little the club's CEO on Jan. 10.
The Senators say Little's conduct was “inconsistent” with the core values of the team and the NHL.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Little said he believed his release was related to a Feb. 14 phone conversation with Melnyk, during which they had a "personal disagreement" about the direction Little had been pursuing with the team. The disagreement escalated to the point of Little using "very strong language" and swearing – an incident Melnyk purportedly didn't appreciate and for which Little later apologized.
"It was these events, to my knowledge, which led to my dismissal. Any other inference from the statement is wrong," Little said.
Little also wished the Ottawa Senators players, coaches and employees well in his departure. The club says a new CEO will be announced in the next few weeks.
Little’s departure is the latest in a series of executive shakeups for the embattled franchise. Since 2017, the Senators have parted ways with CEOs Little, Tom Anselmi and Cyril Leeder, COO Nicolas Ruszkowski and chief marketing officer Aimee Deziel.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said the reasons for Little's dismissal were not related to what the league discussed at a board of governors meeting in December. At that meeting, Bettman told reporters that NHL personnel will be required to attend mandatory counselling regarding racism and anti-bullying following a string of incidents that surfaced earlier in the season.
"It's not what you think," Bettman said at the NHL's general managers meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "I generally don't comment on club personnel decisions. ... It has to do more with internal operations."
Little, 55, was most recently executive vice-president and chief marketing and culture officer for Shaw Communications. He also has held executive roles at Royal Bank of Canada, Bell Canada and Bombardier Aerospace.
After being named Senators CEO, Little did several interviews with Ottawa media outlets, essentially becoming the club's voice at the executive level with Melnyk scaling back media appearances in recent years.
He was also instrumental in recruiting new talent to the executive team, such as P.J. Loyello, who joined the Sens as vice-president of communications and community relations in late January.
Loyello told OBJ last month that it was a call from Little himself that brought him to the nation’s capital after a lengthy career in Miami’s pro sports scene. He said it was a series of conversations with the Senators’ top-tier leadership that convinced him the organization was on a solid track.
“I spoke to Mr. Melnyk at length (before taking the job). I spoke to (general manager) Pierre Dorion. I spoke to Jim (about the vision) that they have for this franchise moving forward and the position this team is in.
“It’s a great opportunity. Yeah, there are some challenges, but you can turn those into opportunities to make things better,” Loyello said.
Getting fans out to games has been paramount among those challenges. Ottawa ranks last in the 31-team NHL in attendance, averaging 12,595 fans per game, just 65.8 per cent of capacity at the Canadian Tire Centre.
The Sens have asked fans for “patience” as the team rebuilds and are focusing on “customized” experiences to help sell ticket packages to the business crowd and other loyal supporters.
Bettman dismissed concerns Wednesday that the team’s current on-ice record will have a long-term impact on the franchise.
"Teams sometimes go through cycles for a variety of reasons, but I am not one who overreacts or is concerned when a team's performance is less than the people of that community would like to see," Bettman said.
"I know Eugene is passionate about the game, passionate about the team. And it wasn't that long ago that the team was one game away from the Stanley Cup final. It's really easy to criticize and second guess, and it's harder to do. Every now and then a team goes through that kind of cycle."
The Senators’ off-ice prospects have not been much better. Melnyk's attempt to build a new arena at LeBreton Flats fell apart in 2019 when the Senators owner and John Ruddy, his business partner at Trinity Development Group, could not resolve internal differences.
Melnyk himself has faced criticism from fans in recent years. In 2018, four billboards with the message #MelnykOut went up across Ottawa thanks to a GoFundMe campaign that raised more than $10,000 in less than a month.
Months earlier, on the eve of an outdoor game in Ottawa, Melnyk speculated the team could move if attendance didn't improve. He has since said he plans to keep the team in Ottawa.
– With files from David Sali and OBJ staff