WRITTEN BY- Stefan Wolejszo
Editor’s Note- First of all, I wanted to quickly thank Stefan for putting together this piece. I think the thoughts he’s expressing here are closely aligned with the frustration a lot of Sens fans are feeling these days.? For those of you who don’t know him, Stefan is a regular contributor on Sens Twitter and in my opinion, one of the more reasonable voices on there. You can give him a follow here. Over to you, Stefan…
Although it is not often framed in this way, I am pretty sure hope is one of the most important parts of being a sports fan. At the end of each season a few teams do well, and only one team wins it all, which means there are always a lot of disappointed fans across a given league. When managing the ups and downs that all franchises go through the trick to keeping fans on board is to sell hope. This can be hope that your team will do well next year, hope that your prospects will pan out and become great players, or hope that the team will make the right choices to move the team forward.
When Eugene Melnyk bought the Ottawa Senators on August 26, 2003 he was able to restore hope among the fan base. Prior to Melnyk stepping in the team had been operating on a shoestring budget and rumors swirled that the Senators may be relocated. When he took over Melnyk fostered a white knight image by showing fans that he had deep pockets and was interested in winning. He brought in The Eagles to give a concert to season ticket holders, and in early interviews he went so far as to say that teams cannot win the Cup without spending at or close to the cap. He put his money where his mouth is and although the team managed to make it to the Stanley Cup finals only once (in 2007), and despite some tough seasons, in the early part of Melnyk’s ownership fans generally had hope that things could improve if only a couple of things changed. Of course what those things that should be changed were depended on who you asked, but fans love endlessly debating topics such as that so it was all good in the usual cranky-fan way.
Hope is fickle, and once it is lost it is hard to win it back. I think it is fairly safe to say the Senators have some issues today with selling hope due to a 30th place finish last season, trade talks involving the team’s captain, a refusal to make a coaching change, and a trend toward cutting positions within hockey operations, among a host of other things. But I think it is important to remember that the erosion of hope, and loss of trust that things will improve, has been a long process that has taken a toll on the fan base for years. ?It is equally important to remember that the fan base is also not homogenous, and some fans started losing hope earlier than others.
My first inkling that something was wrong came when rumors first started to swirl about Melnyk’s ability to spend enough to run a competitive team due to hemorrhaging cash from his divorce in 2010 and some hits to his business ventures. At the time there was a great deal of debate among fans about whether the owner could still spend enough to keep the team competitive. I remember hope started to fall away for me when the major television deal with SportsNet was announced in 2013. It was essentially a cash cow that would infuse millions of dollars into team coffers. Melnyk used the platform given to him in interviews by Toronto media to warn Sens fans that the team would not be spending more as a result of this influx of cash. He offered a vague “we’ll spend when the time is right” that was enough for less jaded fans who were looking grasping at any threads of hope they could find, but it was all hollow to me.
Some fans managed to keep their hopes alive longer than I did only to lose it when the team gave up an extra 2nd round pick to save $2 million in the trade for Brasssard. Others continued to cling to hope through budget stuff by buying into the mantra that “once you are in the playoffs anything can happen”, but lost hope due to poor management decisions along the way such as trading a talented young prospect for Alex Burrows, or the penchant for giving multi-year deals with no movement clauses to marginal players who would be easy to replace. Still others who are into analytics may have fallen away when the owner disparaged analytics as a whole due to his experience with it in horse racing. Everyone has a different breaking point, but the organization seemed to be determined to find all of them.
I think two things are really important if you want to understand where many Sens fans are at right now. The first is although we all have different breaking points, the loss of hope over the past few years has generally been one-way traffic as bad news has piled up without a ton of good news to offset it. I can’t quantify exactly how many are in this boat but I feel safe to say that a lot of Sens fans are feeling pretty beaten down right now. Aside from an amazing run to the final four in last season’s playoffs, which was incredible and did give fans a much needed shot in the arm, there simply have not been many reasons given to fans to foster hope that things will improve.
The second thing I want to highlight is the lack of positive news is making it tough to replace fans who do fall away. All teams go through rough patches and fans, being who they are, are absolutely free to disagree with the decisions their team is making. A big part of being a fan is complaining mercilessly about your team. That in itself is not a problem because fans are just blowing off some steam and even those who are pushed to their limit are replaced by new ones. That balance is never reached when a team is hit by a stream of negative stories on and off the ice. If ever a team needed a good news/feel good story it is the Sens, but most of us can’t imagine one coming any time soon. Those who lose hope are not easily replaced, if they are replaced at all.
The canary in the coalmine with regard to a loss of hope among a portion of the fan base was the drop in attendance the past couple of seasons. Theories, such as poor location, cost, games on weeknights, etc., were floated about why fans were staying away. However, the arena did not move to Kanata two seasons ago, the cost of going to a game was always on the high side, and people used to find babysitters so they could go to games. The way hope plays into the attendance story is when hope surrounds the team fans find ways to go and fill the building, but when hope is eroded a lot of fans find reasons to stay away.
This past season was exceptionally tough for Sens fans and the off season turmoil could not have hit fans at a more vulnerable moment. Those struggling to hang onto hope that things will turn around were first hit by rumors that the team was looking at trading Erik Karlsson, who (with apologies to Alfie) is the best player ever to wear a Sens jersey. Forcing Boucher to “explain his coaching decisions” in an interview with team management was a pointless exercise in shaming given the lack of resources to replace him that largely served to foster cynicism in the fan base. The most recent off-ice stories of allegations of harassment against Lee as he was on a trip conducting team business, and allegations that Hoffman’s fiancé launched a horrid online harassment campaign against Karlsson’s wife, switched the off-season atmosphere from wretched to outright toxic. This is all so bad that I almost forgot to add in that news broke about Sens merchandise for infants posing a potential choking hazard. This is a family blog so please just imagine me letting out a string of swearing in this spot that goes on for several thousand (choice) words.
To make matters even worse, there has been no calming voice coming from the Sens camp to soothe fans desperately searching for reasons to remain hopeful. I am one of a group of people who believes that the Sens absolutely miss Bryan Murray right now. Although it is perfectly fair to question his record of success as a GM, he had this way of talking to fans that made it seem like everything is normal, planned, and/or under control. Murray’s calm demeanor always helped to diffuse Melnyk’s complete and utter lack of understanding about what fans needed to hear. Although Melnyk tried to improve his image by hiring a PR firm, the only way his comments in a TV interview during the Heritage Classic could have gone over worse was if he was wearing an Auston Matthews jersey while making them. Without a calm reassurance from someone like Murray those comments were left to fester.
Things have essentially come full circle over the past 15 years.
When Melnyk bought the team he was the white knight that saved the franchise and restored hope to the fan base, but now a lot of fans are not seeing much reason for hope until he sells the team. I have seen questions on social media about how long it will take for fans to come back and believe in this team again given all that is happening and I absolutely, positively, 100% believe fans will be out in force the day a sale (if it occurs) happens. This is not to suggest that everything is Melnyk’s fault: he has nothing to do with the off-ice situation involving Hoffman’s fiancé and Karlsson’s wife, and blame can be spread around for the 30th place finish this past season. But hope is always forward-looking, and with a lot of damage already done, it is hard to imagine fans regaining faith that things will get a lot better down the road without a change at the very top.
All that is left right now is hope that an ownership change will come sooner rather than later, which is not a good place for a franchise and its fans to be in.