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Sens’ Owner Gets Serious

from the Globe and Mail:
Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators, will hold a media conference call Thursday at 4:30 p.m. EST. Rumours have been circulating in recent days about a potential shakeup in the organization on the heels of the club's slow start. The Senators are coming off a 4-2 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night. The win was just the second in nine games for Ottawa, which also snapped a two-game losing string.
Update 4:34 PM: listen along on Ottawa's Team 1200...Chris Stevenson will update his blog after the call as well...

Presser notes: Melnyk says that he’s “150% supportive” of Bryan Murray and John Muckler, and he “wanted to clear the air” to let Sens fans know that he, the Sens’ fans, the team, and coaches are “in it together,” and the team will re-focus and will turn things around—it’s early, he says, and he feels that in six months, the Sens will “turn things around” on the ice.

Question 1: Darren Dreger asked Melnyk if he’d give Bryan Murray a contract extension, and Melnyk replied that it’s a “trick question.”  He says that over the next six months, the Sens will reevaluate, as will Muckler, and they’ll address extending Murray’s contract later this year.

Dreger also wants to know whether the Sens have talked to “outside parties” about a “potential change” behind the bench, and Melnyk says that he doesn’t know of any discussion thereof.  He says that Muckler’s gotten over a dozen calls regarding trades and “opportunities,” but Muckler’s never sent anything along for Melnyk to consider.

Question 2: Melnyk is asked about the team’s urgency and he says that it’s not a “now or never team,” that the Sens have a good core going forward as the scouts and management are building for long-term success, and he says that they’re not going to try to win this year at the expense of the future.  He says the knee-jerk reactions of the press and fans…He feels that everybody needs to take a deep breath and calm down as the players, he “wouldn’t trade this roster for any roster,” will rebound from their disappointing start.  He says that this is like a horse race, and nobody remembers which horse led at the first turn.  The Sens will regroup and will “be standing there” in six months and “twenty-nine other teams won’t.”

Question 3: Melnyk’s asked about the sensitivity of the market, and he says (to Pierre LeBrun) that the Sens’ fans are excellent and passionate, so they’re showing their passion about the team’s struggles.  He feels that if Ottawa fans didn’t go nuts, he’d be worried.  He says the Sens’ fans are engaged in the game, and while it’s unusual to have such a conference call, a unique set of fans have a sense of ownership in a relatively small market, and as they’re community-oriented, he wants the fans to speak up, and he supports them on a side-by-side basis, sweating it out as they are. 

Question 4: Duhatschek asks why the usual comment that “a vote of confidence is the kiss of death” after such a call can be defused.  Melnyk says he can’t think of a better thing to do than give an honest vote of confidence in his management.  He says the people in his hockey operations department have won Stanley Cups and their experience is unparalleled, they went through a “disastrous” CBA and handled it well thanks to Muckler’s experience, and he’s attempting to spurn his team to success.

Duhatschek asks if the Sens have support personnel in player development after having lost Chiarelli…Melnyk says he asked Muckler who was in the pipeline a few days ago, and he stated that there’re a lot of U.S. college players, Russian and European players, and other draftees to date are talented and will make an NHL impact.  He’s confident that they’ve drafted well, the support personnel Muckler has in place have his full support, and he says Muckler can hire anybody he wants.

Chris Stevenson had it right all along:

If I was going to guess, I’d say he’s fed up with all the rumours about everybody from his hockey club getting fired - especially the stuff coming out of Toronto the last couple of days - and is going to give the proverbial vote of confidence.

That was one of the weirdest conference calls I’ve ever listened in upon.  An owner makes a big to-do about setting up a last-minute conference call to get the media salivating—“Who’s he going to fire?  Murray?  Muckler?  Did he hire Hitchcock?  Who did he trade?  Where did Alfredsson go?”—and, instead, Melnyk decided to spew, “I really, really mean it when I say I support my team.  Really.  And nobody’s getting fired.  Ever” propaganda. 
If anything, I’d say, “Props to you, Mr. Melnyk.”  He knew that the Canadian Press was going to jump on this like hyenas on a dead elephant, and he used them to proffer his party line.  That shows savvy ownership and an understanding of how one may exploit the circumstances to proffer his belief that the Sens will be fine…
And, it should be noted, he did so without “painting himself into a corner” (as the Team 1200 guys suggest) regarding making potential trades.  To some extent, he’s saying that he’s wouldn’t be dealing from a position of desperation if he does feel that there are personnel changes to be made, and as such, his management team won’t be hung out to dry if they don’t make a “steal of the century” trade.

He’s already quietly given a mandate to his management team stating that it’s OK to harrass those who don’t tow the party line, as William Houston of the Globe and Mail noted:

Two games into the season, after a humiliating loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Team 1200 suddenly removed Lee Versage as the host of the postgame show. Two sources said Versage was dumped because Senators president Roy Mlakar called the station to complain about his negativity.

Fans weren’t spared from the rod, either:

Dwight Brown of Ottawa says the Senators used intimidation to silence him.
Brown is an independent contractor for a company that has a business relationship with the Senators. He asked that the name of the company not be reported.
After Brown launched a website called firemuckler.com, a reference to Senators general manager John Muckler, he says the company received a call from the club demanding the website be taken down. Brown complied.
“I don’t need the Senators bullying me and I have a family to feed,” he said Wednesday. “They wield some pretty significant clout in this town.”
Brown says there was no reference to the company on the website. He posted it strictly as a fan. However, after his name became public because of an interview in the local media, the club made its complaint.
“There was nothing on the site that mentioned my employer or anything,” Brown said. “They [the Senators] figured they knew where I worked. They’re not averse to picking up the phone and bullying people. I was really incensed they would do that to the average Joe fan.”

So he’s put some spin back on this to suggest that he does, in fact, respect his fans’ passion (until they step out of line, anyway) and the media’s interest (as long as they’re not too critical of Muckler or Murray), and he cashed in upon firestorm of media-generated controversy by politely but persistently “correcting” those who would suggest that Muckler, Murray, or Mr. Melnyk himself are desperate, paralyzed into inaction by fear or frustration, or are panicking at all.
Those statements may or may not be true, but Duhatschek, Dreger, LeBrun, and I are all writing about it.  In Duhatschek’s case, he’s rattled off one missive before the presser, and he’ll write another, so that’s a 2-fer for Mr. Melnyk.  If that’s not business savvy at work, I don’t know what is.

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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.

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