Just a few weeks after enraging fans with his musings about possibly moving his NHL team, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk says he has no plans to relocate the club and remains committed to bringing a Stanley Cup to the city.
Last month, Melnyk raised the idea of a move during the city’s festivities to mark the NHL’s 100th anniversary, saying “if it doesn’t look good here, it could look very, very nice somewhere else.”
“That hit a nerve in Ottawa that really kind of exploded and it wasn’t meant to hit the nerve of the city,” Melnyk told The Canadian Press in an interview Wednesday. “There’s no thought in my mind (of relocation).
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“There’s no reason it can’t work in Ottawa. You’ve got to just find the right solution and we can do that.”
But Melnyk is right about touching a nerve and he appeared to be trying to make things right Wednesday with media tour to discuss the team’s future.
Despite some speculation around Ottawa, Melnyk also said he has no intention of selling the club.
A new downtown arena will be crucial to the Senators’ success going forward. Ottawa’s current home, the Canadian Tire Centre, is located 30 minutes outside the downtown core and inaccessible by public transportation. Hockey fans have complained for years about the inconvenience of the rink.
“It’s critical,” Melnyk said. “I think (Ottawa can survive in the NHL), without doubt, but it has to go forward with the arena project.”
There was some progress on that front last week when Melnyk’s RendezVous LeBreton Group and the National Capital Commission reached an agreement in principle to redevelop LeBreton Flats, a 21-hectare patch of land beside Ottawa’s core. The bid’s crown jewel is a state-of-the-art NHL arena but also includes a community centre, 4,000 housing units, a school and public space.
“I think (Ottawa can survive in the NHL), without doubt, but it has to go forward with the arena project.”
The development has a reported $4-billion price tag that includes tens of millions allocated to the cleaning up of contaminated soil. Melnyk estimates the arena is still 3 1/2 years away from completion.
“We have a great stadium now, there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said. “But there will be two intersections of the new (rapid transit line) so people could get to the (new) arena and not worry about whether it’s snowing outside.”
Melnyk said it’s also easier to build fan-friendly elements into a new stadium than renovate an existing structure.
“Everything we do is for the fan experience . . . that’s why LeBreton Flats is so important to us,” he said. “Having different clubs (or seating areas) around your arena is the future of attendance at hockey games or any sporting event.
“With a new arena, you can build those right in. It’s actually more efficient to start from scratch.”
The lacklustre on-ice product hasn’t helped matters this season. After reaching last year’s Eastern Conference final, the Senators are currently second-last in the standings.
“Everybody still has that one hope that this could be a miracle,” Melnyk said. “But the reality is we are way back.”
Also making Senators’ fans uneasy is captain Erik Karlsson’s future. The two-time Norris Trophy winner has said he won’t take a hometown discount when his six-year, US$45.5-million deal expires after the 2018-19 season.
Melnyk made it clear he wants Karlsson to remain in Ottawa. And while he’ll be kept in the loop regarding Karlsson’s situation, Melnyk said GM Pierre Dorion will ultimately decide the slick defenceman’s fate.
“I hope (Karlsson’s future in Ottawa) is a long and prosperous one,” Melnyk said. “I like Erik, he’s a great player, he’s obviously an all-star and our captain.
“I leave it to Pierre. He knows I like (Karlsson), he knows his talent. It’s a question of allowing Pierre to do his job because he has 20 other positions plus to fill and he’s got to put the package together.”
Not surprisingly, Ottawa’s attendance has lagged. According to ESPN, the Senators stand 23rd in the 31-team NHL, averaging 16,196 spectators. Melnyk downplayed the low turnout.
“It’s always a concern if you are not analyzing who’s not coming,” he said. “In the case of our attendance it’s actually the cheapest seats (that aren’t selling).
“A lot of that has to do with previous discounting policies where we had 40 different promos going on at one time.”