Eugene Melnyk once saved the Senators. He leaves them with hope for a bright future
MANALAPAN, Fla. The energy in the lobby bar at Eau Palm Beach swung suddenly when news of Eugene Melnyk’s death landed.
An upbeat gathering of those with deep hockey connections — a mix of general managers, NHL staff and media — grew heavy after the Ottawa Senators announced the loss of their owner from an undisclosed disease Monday night.
Melnyk was at times a controversial figure, and he was often a large one.
He owned the Senators for 19 of their 30 years and was remembered at the conclusion of the NHL general managers meeting here as a man who left a lasting legacy in the nation’s capital.
“If not for Eugene Melnyk, the Senators would not be in Ottawa,” said Senators GM Pierre Dorion, who had to pause on multiple occasions to compose himself. “He’s someone that meant a lot to a lot of people. He gave a lot. He made a commitment to the city of Ottawa to try and build a winner.
“I think one of the saddest parts about his passing is he won’t get to see (the results) of all the work that we did together.”
Melnyk was 62 and is survived by two daughters.
The NHL had already been in contact with the executor of his estate by Tuesday morning, according to Gary Bettman, but the commissioner didn’t elaborate on any potential succession plan beyond saying he was comfortable with the management in place continuing to run the Senators’ day-to-day operations.
“We said, ‘Let’s focus on Eugene, his condition,’ particularly over the last few weeks,” Bettman said. “So those are questions that will get dealt with over time, particularly by his daughters, Anna and Olivia, and by his executor.”
The Senators reached the Stanley Cup final in 2007 under Melnyk’s stewardship, and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final in 2017. They also went through a bitter divorce with franchise icon Daniel Alfredsson and saw attendance drop sharply in the years leading into the pandemic.
But even with an aging arena in Kanata — Melnyk tried and failed to have a new rink built downtown — and some portions of the fan base vocally revolting against his ownership, the organization is unquestionably in a much better position today than it was when he saved it from bankruptcy in 2003.
Not only have the Senators stockpiled a roster of young promising players amid a rebuild, but there are again whispers about the possibility of securing an attractive parcel of land downtown for a new building.
Left in control of the right hands, there’s hope for a bright future. And that wasn’t necessarily the case nearly two decades ago when Bettman recalled a meeting with Melnyk in his New York office where the sale agreement was finalized.
“I think he will be remembered as somebody who purchased the franchise at a difficult time in the franchise’s history, stabilized it, made it competitive and was always passionate about the game,” Bettman said. “He loved the game, he loved the players, he loved the fans and this was an important part of his life.”
Melnyk’s death cast a sombre pall over meetings that didn’t produce much news.
The only actionable item came from deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who revealed that the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are well down the road in discussions that would see a procedural change to how limited no-trade clauses are handled. He said that NHL Central Registry and the NHLPA will be included in the filing of no-trade documentation moving forward to prevent a repeat of the situation that saw Evgenii Dadonov’s trade to Anaheim voided last week.
There was also an interesting agenda item introduced by Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland about limiting the ability for teams to use long-term injured reserve to creatively ice a roster that exceeds the salary cap ceiling in the playoffs.
That idea was discussed for about 30 minutes and will be revisited again in June. Any change would be a CBA matter and would require the NHLPA’s approval, but it’s notable that the possibility of introducing some form of salary cap in the playoffs didn’t immediately die on the vine.