Senators Postseason Town Hall Just First of Many

The new era of transparency in the NHL continued apace this week in Ottawa as Eugene Melnyk, the beleaguered owner of the Ottawa Senators, spoke to approximately 300 season ticket-holders in a town hall-style meeting. Joined by general manager Pierre Dorion they answered fan questions for almost 90 minutes in a basement ballroom at the Canadian Tire Centre. Topics included the #MelnykOut campaign, the Erik Karlsson question, and the future of the Senators. Melnyk promised this was just the first of a number of town halls to come.

Has the NHL Embraced Transparency?

To the extent that this new era of transparency is a true sign of things to come and not a mere public relations exercise, fans of the NHL should remember this moment. The NHL is far less transparent than other leagues and while this varies by team, it may be that the days of taking fans for granted may be over.

Why? The competition for fandom is just too fierce. Now more than ever, there is a need for teams to build communities of fans for the long term. This means more honesty and greater transparency in moments like these. No longer should those who pay good money to see their team play have to infer their teams’ plans based on the moves made at the trade deadline.

Rangers Letter

The New York Rangers started this renewed effort. By releasing a letter to their fans outlining the difficulties to come in the short term, President Glen Sather and general manager Jeff Gorton sought to inform the broader community from the outset of what was coming in the big apple.

Jeff Gorton
BUFFALO, NY – JUNE 25: Jeff Gorton (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In short, the Rangers treated their fans like adults. In a sign of the times, the open letter was released in full and via a series of tweets. As I suggested in February:

By getting out in front of the inevitable challenges to come, they are suggesting to fans that supporting their team now is a chance to get a front row seat to learn about the personnel, strategies, and tactics that will inform a competitive, Cup-contending Ranger team. The letter is clear, complimentary, and forward-looking. It is a communications coup.

Molson and Montreal

The Rangers aren’t alone. While the Habs aren’t prepared to release their own honest letter to fans, they have taken some steps to open up communication. One key takeaway from the post-season post-mortem press conference in Montreal this year was the need for the organization to embrace transparency.

Geoff Molson
Geoff Molson Owner, President, and CEO of the Montreal Canadiens (Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

Geoff Molson explicitly stated:

I think it’s an understanding that we can communicate better and bring in a fresh way of us communicating with our fans that they’re going to appreciate… So when we do make decisions, I want to be in a position to give as much information as we possibly can so that the debates that people have about our organization are as legitimate as possible… I’m just saying the more we give and the more transparent we can be the better off, the happier our fans will be.

Ottawa Senators Town Hall

The format for Tuesday’s town hall session allowed fans to ask either Melnyk or Dorion any question they wanted. The questions could be submitted electronically in advance, but some fans were permitted to direct their questions to the pair using a microphone in the crowd.

About a dozen media members were present in the back row of the room. They were not permitted to ask questions or record audio or video of the event.  Topics raised by fans included the #MelnykOut campaign, the Erik Karlsson question, and the future of the Senators.

Moving the Team

When Eugene Melnyk spoke in Ottawa this week, it was one of his first public events since his controversial comments prior to the Senators outdoor game back in December. At that time, Melnyk ignited a firestorm by suggesting he might move the team to another city if attendance issues persisted. Since that time, the #MelnykOut campaign has included numerous tweets and even billboards in the Bytowne. On Tuesday, he was asked if he regretted making those explosive comments.

“What was reflected in the press wasn’t what I said,” stated Melnyk, who urged the fans to re-watch his comments from December. “But if it makes everybody feel better, I do apologize for the mischaracterization.”

Public relations protip: if your effort to take responsibility for a mistake contains the word BUT, you are doing it wrong. This is true in pro sports, and in one’s personal life. Embrace it.

Melnyk went on to categorically deny that a change in ownership is something on the horizon. “No, I don’t consider it,” Eugene Melnyk said flatly. “There is no price. If something is not for sale, then it’s not for sale.”

Rebuild Not Retool

While the Senators’ game plan for the off-season remains unknown, Melnyk issued a statement in February that seemed to indicate the club was moving towards a re-build, not a mere retool. This seems especially likely after moving Derick BrassardDion Phaneuf and Nate Thompson around the trade deadline. During Tuesday’s session, Melnyk seemed to give fans a glimpse into what the plan looks like. “We’re not going to win the Stanley Cup next year,” admitted Melnyk. “Three to five years – that’s the objective.”

Derick Brassard
Derick Brassard was traded by the Ottawa Senators at the 2018 trade deadline  (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports)

This rebuild talk has brought to the fore the Erik Karlsson question. A pending unrestricted free agent in 2019, the Senators were at least open to trading him at the deadline. At the same time, the Senators have essentially admitted Karlsson could be the one who dictates how the process will play out going forward. His future in Ottawa remains in doubt.

Erik Karlsson

As one of only a few media permitted to observe the Sens town hall meeting with Melnyk and Dorion last night, Ian Mendes noted that “more than one-third of the questions that were asked by the fans had some connection to Karlsson and his future.”

One season ticket-holder asked Dorion point-blank, “Can we get an assurance that you are not going to trade Erik Karlsson at the draft?” When Dorion leaned forward in his seat and confidently said, “Yes,” the room erupted in applause.

The reality is that Ottawa is a small market and thus cost-conscious team. They rarely spend to the cap. Melnyk admitted if they got into a situation where Karlsson got into his free agency window and it became a bidding war, his team may not be the one to offer the most money to the Senators captain and superstar defenceman.

Erik Karlsson #65, Ottawa Senators
Erik Karlsson #65, Ottawa Senators – February 3, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

However, the crowd was informed that the Senators plan to offer an eight-year contract extension to Karlsson on July 1 of this year. Pierre Dorion acknowledged that “At the end of the day, it will be his choice. If we offer him a fair contract and he doesn’t want to sign here, then we have to look at other options.” He concluded that “The ball will be in his court.”

The Audacity of Transparency

Whatever you think of the Senators or Melnyk, few owners would pursue this strategy. Many might assume that such an environment would be filled with anger and resentment, especially after such a poor showing this season. For the most part, Mendes suggested the crowd was polite and open to most of the messages that were being delivered. They applauded loudly when Melnyk announced it was his intention to slash the parking prices by 40 percent for next season. The crowd appreciated when Melnyk admitted that covering several rows of seats in the upper bowl this season with a black tarp was a blunder.

There are a lot of questions in Ottawa. Fans will get a chance to ask them of the organization over the next year. The Senators will host two more town hall meetings this week. These will continue in the offseason and some are planned for next season as well. As he ended the town hall meeting on Tuesday, Melnyk simply said, “I really appreciate the feedback.” Appreciate it or not, I’m guessing he will be getting more feedback. Like him or not, he should be lauded for showing more guts than most owners.