Transcript of interview of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk by Citizen columnist Wayne Scanlan. The interview has been edited and condensed.
WS Have you been tuned in to the rookie tournament broadcasts?
EM I wanted to, but I couldn’t do it. But I spoke to Bryan about it and he said he was so excited about this group. He couldn’t say enough about it.
WS You had other engagements?
EM I’ve been tied up with a little girl’s birthday parties, and this and that.
WS Real life
EM (Laughs). That’s the best way to put it, it was real life.
WS So, what are your expectations for this season, for this hockey team, given all the changes.
EM Well, I tell you, it’s changed pretty dramatically over the past three to four months, now that we’re starting to see exactly what we have, because a lot of these rookies, and prospects are suddenly coming into their own and you’re starting to see separation – what’s real and not real. Who can play now and not play now. It’s a great problem to have, in that we have so much depth, young depth, that it’s gonna pay spades down the road as these players develop.
But to answer your question on expectations, what I expect is that you’re going to see a completely different attitude, not just with the players but with the fans as well. Because, and I noticed this from almost my second or third year there, that there was an expectation that ‘you better make the playoffs’ and it got so crazy, that you had to get into the second round and play three games just to break even. And people would be grumbling and screaming on the phone — thank God I wasn’t the recipient of that, thank God I didn’t live in Ottawa – because I don’t think I could have walked down a supermarket aisle.
But the way expectations are now, every single win is a win we otherwise would not have, under a young group of this magnitude, saying that, the expectations are that we’ll be a fun team to watch, I think we’re going to be competitive, we’re going to be exciting, people’s imaginations are going to run wild, and we’re going to have to manage those expectations because we don’t want to get people too excited, but I think we’re going to be A) very competitive, B) a lot of fun to watch.
People are going to say, me included, my God wait till this kid is 23, I mean a lot of these guys are like 19, 20, 21. Wait until they’re 23, 24, 25. What are you gonna have then?
Some of the young players we have, you’ve got David Rundblad, you’ve got Jared (Cowen), Mika (Zibanejad), and Stephane (De Costa), who got a very nice write-up today in the Globe, you’ve got those four, and then you throw Lehner on top of that. The problem we’re going to have, they’re all chomping a the bit to play, but the smart thing to do is to try to keep them in the AHL so they can get the time and develop. But some of them are so developed, that they’re just ready to roll. Ive 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.
WS Is there one particular player you’re excited to see play in the NHL this season?
EM I think those five. At least those five. I’ve always liked Lehner, but you’re not going to see him, unless something happens, bad, to Anderson or Auld, and then have to bring him up. But you want him playing. The guy’s a brick. I remember watching him, I was with (Mississauga mayor) Hazel McCAllion in St. Mike’s, we were playing Sault Ste. Marie and I called up Bryan and said, Bryan, you’ve got to see this goalie playing for the Soo – we can’t get a puck by the guy. He covers the whole net.
And he goes, ‘Eugene, we own him.’ (laughs).
I didn’t know. I had no idea.
Everybody’s got to have a shot, and not just these four, plus Lehner. They’ve got to know what they’re up against. It’s not fun getting slammed into the boards and saying, how did that happen. They need the experience and they need to be able to play.
WS You also have a brand new coaching staff. Do you think they’re going to make a big difference?
EM Oh yeah it’s going to be a very different attitude here. 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. you take any of the junior guys – these young players have all played for or against them (Mark Reeds or Dave Cameron). They’re talking to guys that know what it means to coach a young player. That’s extremely important. I think Paul was a great choice for a head coach, he will get the most out of the kids. Dave and Mark, flip a coin who’s the better of the two, but both are great coaches. These guys will teach them, they’ve been there done that, they understand the limitations of the players.
Paul MacLean can relate to these players, he worked under one of the kings of coaching in (Mike) Babcock, he must have done something right, you don’t win all those Stanley Cups just hanging around. And then you’ve got the two assistants, I think they’ll do a great job. They are so pleased to be there. This is their shot, look, they’re as excited as the players. They’ve now hit – Dave and Mark — the big leagues. This is what they’ve dreamed of since they were five, six years old. They’re heroes in their own town.
I think that goes for the GM as well. You can throw a rock at Bryan’s hometown (Shawville) and he has to walk up and down the supermarket aisle with his wife on Saturdays. And hold his head high and do it for the town, do it for the city.
WS Were you able to make sense of the hockey deaths this summer?
EM You know, when it comes to the brain, the word tough doesn’t exist. I know a little bit about that, being in the pharmaceutical business, the biggest problem is the person admitting he needs help. When you’re 230 pounds, and you’ve spent your life pounding the hell out of other guys, all of a sudden to say, ‘I’m depressed.’
It’s like, ‘sorry, go have a beer.’
I think that’s the tortuous part of it for these people and I just hope the message gets out to every single player out there, present and past, that there’s help available, simple confidential, available, free, and it’s nothing to be embarrassed about.
WS You once said there should be a lifetime ban on anyone delivering a deliberate head hit. Do you still feel that way?
EM Absolutely. And I’ll never change my mind. And I don’t care if you’re a million dollar player or a seven million dollar player. To me it’s criminal. It’s a criminal offence. I can’t go around, if I’m pissed off in a board room, and take my brief case and smack a guy across the head because I’m not happy about something. You can’t do that. You can’t go assault anybody. Since when did they ever put it in the rule book, I am allowed to assault my peer.
Now hitting, checking, that’s fair game. It’s almost like Murder 1. it has to be almost predetermined. Even though it;s a split second game . . . you can see whether it is or isn’t.
If it’s a goon out there, he shouldn’t be playing hockey. They should go into the UFC. They have beautiful nice cages and everything else.
WS Are you against fighting?
No, I think fighting is fine, it’s part of the game.
What I’m against are shots to the head that have the intent to injure . . . I would have these guys arrested – carried off the ice by policemen.
WS On the Fan 590 yesterday, Doug MacLean suggested you may have lost $14 million on the hockey club, and Nick Kypreos said he hears you may be wanting to sell the team. Do you have a comment on any of that?
Yeah, I actually do. 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.
EM They’re out of their minds! That team will never be sold. 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.
WS Do you want to talk about how much you lost?
“It’s a private company and it’s not something you want to – do the math.
WS Is that figure of $14 million far off?
EM I don’t how he calculated, because it’s way too complex a number to be able to speculate that, it’s accounting, you just don’t take here’s your costs, here’s your revenues and this is what you made or lost. there’s residual value that’s created, potential upside into the future.
If we didn’t do what we’re doing now (cutting payroll), we’ve made some big mistakes and the mistakes are over, we’ve recognized that we cannot compete in a market like Ottawa where the revenue base is somewhat flat lined, 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.
But if you notice, we haven’t done price increases, yet look at the cap when we signed the CBA to where it is today.
WS You’re now paying much less in payroll, can you break even without being a playoff team this year?
EM Yes. Put it this way. We should not be in business if we have to make the playoffs, just to break even. That’s not fair. That’s your bonus. That’s your bonus.
You guys make the playoffs, I make money. And I make a lot of money. But we shouldn’t have to do that. I shouldn’t have to do that every year.
WS And you plan to continue owning this team as long as you’re breathing? You still have a long term commitment here? You just said the team would never be for sale.
EM That’s correct. As long as the fan base continues to be interested, and as excited as it is, we’re building generations of fans now. Go take a look at the kids that are coming to the games,
WS But if fans were suddenly disinterested down the road, is the commitment to be reviewed?
EM It would have to get to the point of one of these other teams (Phoenix, Atlanta?), where nobody really gives a damn. 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.
WS Are you still pursuing the Heatley bonus you had to pay in 2009?
EM That’s going to continue on. It’s taking so long, it’s ridiculous. 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’s got the money around when he’s got to pay us back.
But I’ve got people going crazy for this pre-season game in Toronto on the 19th. Luckily a good Samaritan gave me a box, so I can put people in there.
We have a very sophisticated fan base. They will watch those kids like a hawk. The phones will light up. I can just see the armchair critics, well, did you see him do that, that’s not professional . . . but it’s going to be a lot of fun.
The expectation internally is for us to do a lot better than people expect. 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.
WS What do you do to relax and get away from the business concerns?
EM I watch hockey. What do you think? That’s the level of relaxation I get. If today was a game day, I’d be watching that clock, and counting down, when I’m going to have dinner, when I’m going to be making popcorn, etc. .