Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk admits he lost a lot of money operating his NHL team last season, but he remains committed to the hockey club for the long haul and is wildly optimistic about Ottawa’s recent youth movement.
Asked to comment on a Fan 590 discussion in Toronto on Tuesday that Melnyk lost $14 million last season and might be looking to sell the club, Melnyk said: “You know what, they’re absolutely dead on — if you put me into the movie Wizard of Oz next to Dorothy while she’s clicking her heels.
“They’re out of their minds. That team will never be sold,” Melnyk said by telephone from his Barbados home.
“Never for sale. Did we lose money last year? No question. Just do the math. I’ve always said, we’ve got to go deep into the second round to break even.”
Later in the 30-minute interview, Melnyk qualified his commitment slightly, saying the club would never be sold “as long as the fan base continues to be interested.”
“It would have to get to the point of one of these other teams (Phoenix, Atlanta), where nobody really gives a damn,” he said. “There’s not a chance that’s going to happen, I think, in my lifetime, in Ottawa. The fans are too loyal, too crazy. They’re going nuts. They’re driving me crazy.”
With general manager Bryan Murray having slashed payroll, with the midseason trades of Mike Fisher, Chris Kelly, Alex Kovalev etc. and replacing them with prospects, Melnyk believes his team could break even this season even if the Senators don’t qualify for post-season play.
“We should not be in business if we have to make the playoffs just to break even,” Melnyk said. “That’s not fair. That’s your bonus.”
Melnyk wouldn’t say if the suggested $14-million loss figure was accurate, but he admitted that scaling down the payroll makes sense in a city like Ottawa, where “the revenue base is somewhat flatlined.”
“Not that it doesn’t grow as far as a number, that’s beautiful, and not that it doesn’t grow in terms of total revenues because we put packages and that type of thing together,” Melnyk said.
“But if you notice, we haven’t done price increases, yet look at the (salary) cap when we signed the CBA ($39 million) to where it is today ($64 million).”
On the topic of money, Melnyk is still pursuing the grievance he filed with the NHL regarding Dany Heatley’s $4-million bonus, paid on July 1, 2009, after Heatley declined a potential trade to the Edmonton Oilers.
Melnyk’s biggest concern regarding Heatley, he said, is that the Minnesota Wild winger still has the means to pay back the bonus when (not if) Melnyk wins the case, once it’s finally heard.
“That’s going to continue on. It’s taking so long, it’s ridiculous,” Melnyk said. “The hearing . . . hopefully one day you get it and the guy doesn’t blow all his money, that he’s got money to pay back. So, I just want to make sure he has got the money around when he has got to pay us back.”
Regarding the upcoming season, Melnyk said he expects “a completely different attitude” among players and fans as the team reloads with youth.
“The expectation internally is for us to do a lot better than people expect,” Melnyk said, “certainly in the dressing room. You’ve got a motivated GM, motivated coaches, motivated players. I was just talking to Bryan, and he was telling me (Milan) Michalek has never looked better since he’s been in Ottawa. I can’t wait to see the guy.”
Melnyk likes the idea of two former OHL coaches, Dave Cameron and Mark Reeds, joining forces with new head coach Paul MacLean, the former Detroit Red Wings assistant, to motivate and educate Ottawa’s young players. He said he is especially looking forward to the development of youngsters such as defencemen David Rundblad and Jared Cowen, forwards Mika Zibanejad and Stephane Da Costa and goaltender Robin Lehner.
“You’d like to say you planned the whole thing, and take credit for it, but the fact we brought the coaches in that we did is the smartest thing in this situation we’re in,” Melnyk said.
“You take any of the junior guys — these young players have all played for or against them (Reeds or Cameron). They’re talking to guys that know what it means to coach a young player. That’s extremely important.”
While some of the youth brigade need time to develop in the AHL, others are “ready to roll” now, he says.
“I’ve got to tell you, nobody believes in us, which is great. I mean, there’s zero expectation, so if you do anything, like get into the playoffs, I think they’ll be dancing on Bank Street.”