The sudden rebuild initiated by the Ottawa Senators in the closing months of a disappointing 2010-2011 season appears to be paying dividends both on and off the ice.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Citizen Thursday, team owner Eugene Melnyk said his team is poised to break even for the first time in years, with any home playoff dates serving as the cherry on top of a surprisingly successful campaign.
“Up until this year, we had to make two rounds of playoffs just to break even,” he said in a telephone interview Thursday. “Now, we are doing well enough that we break even, pretty much, just finishing off the season, and everything else kind of gets ‘bonused’ out.”
Other topics Melnyk discussed include:
— The Senators beefing up in-arena video surveillance and security — and lowering the threshold for ejecting fans from games — in hopes of preventing the kind of unruly crowd that showed up for a Feb. 4 contest between the Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs.
— The two teams he doesn’t want to see in the first round of the playoffs: New Jersey and Philadelphia (he wouldn’t provide bulletin board material by revealing the team he would prefer to face).
— The Ontario government recently floating the idea of removing a business tax break on sports tickets, which Melnyk called “very foolish.”
Melnyk said that once his team clears up the financial “hangover” from previous contract buyouts for players like Jonathan Cheechoo and Ray Emery, “things can all come together where the business of hockey actually pays.
“The cheques start going, hopefully, the other way.”
Yet in spite of the apparent turnaround on the ice and on the balance sheet, don’t expect the team to start climbing the salary scale again.
Asked if the would ever spend to the cap again (this season it’s set at $64.3 million, while capgeek.com has Ottawa’s hit at $51.6 million), Melnyk said a lot would depend on how it moves in the coming years.
It’s not something he is inclined to do, however.
“You can spend to the cap — it’s very easy. Any idiot can do that,” he explained. “The really elite teams are the ones that can (put in) elite management and elite coaching, that can put a competitive team on the ice year-after-year, and not have to buy that team.
“They can do it through internal growth. And that’s the sign of a really elite group. And that’s what we want to be.”
Melnyk also said he wants his building to be one parents comfortable bringing their kids to — thus the increased security measures.
He said he has already set up a meeting with FIFA officials in London (coinciding with the UEFA Euro 2012 soccer tournament being hosted in Poland and Ukraine) this summer and hopes to talk tactics with security officials there.
“At the end of the day, I’ve got little ones, a nine and 13-year-old, and I’ll be damned if some guy is going to pour a beer on them or whatever, or curse,” Melnyk said. “That’s just not going to happen.”
The Senators already have cameras in the rink powerful enough to monitor single seats, and have undertaken more robust training for staff that monitors them.
He was careful not to paint all opposing fans with the same brush, however.
“It’s not a lot of people. Generally they’re okay,” he said. “Yeah, they’re fans, yes they’re boorish, but I can tell you places I wouldn’t go without heavy security myself. They wouldn’t even know I’m there. I wouldn’t dare wear a sweater.
“Philadelphia’s one of them. You ask me who I would not want to play? I wouldn’t want to play New Jersey or Philadelphia. You’re going into a war zone. I’d rather be in Kandahar,” Melnyk, who has been to Afghanistan to visit the troops before, joked. “Yeah, those are tough cookies. But in all seriousness, I take it very, very seriously, and we won’t put up with it.”
For all of the strides the Senators have made this season, Melnyk still knows they still aren’t a postseason lock. Ottawa plays three games in the next four nights, and Melnyk will be scoreboard watching like every other fan.
“It’s every night, it’s crazy,” he said. “But at the end of the day…as long as you’re winning, it’s pointless watching everybody else behind you. That’s why these upcoming games are going to be very, very important to us, starting with Montreal (Friday night).”
James Gordon is the Citizen’s Sports Editor. Follow him on Twitter at: @SensReporter