‘Laugh­ing stock of league’

As Sen­a­tors be­come punch­line, at what point does NHL step in?

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - KEN WAR­REN

A gong show, a high-wire act, a house of cards ready to fall.

Pick just about any ex­pres­sion you want to de­scribe the sad, sorry state of the Ot­tawa Sen­a­tors. Chances are it has been ut­tered some­where else around the NHL.

“They’re the laugh­ing stock of the league,” Ray Fer­raro, the best TV colour com­men­ta­tor in the busi­ness, told a ra­dio sta­tion this week. “There’s no­body more com­i­cal, in a sad way, than Ot­tawa is now.”

Owner Eu­gene Mel­nyk can wail against his per­cep­tions of neg­a­tive me­dia all he wants, but Fer­raro sim­ply went public with the gen­eral con­sen­sus. You rub your eyes and won­der how could all this pos­si­bly be hap­pen­ing to the same team, a cloud that gets darker by the day.

From the ug­li­ness of the Melinda ver­sus Monika cy­ber-bul­ly­ing saga to the ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions against as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager Randy Lee in Buf­falo to Mel­nyk’s shrink­ing front of­fice to the con­tin­ued un­cer­tainty sur­round­ing the LeBre­ton Flats arena project, it’s a tire fire out of con­trol.

We’ll get to the on-ice prod­uct (and, oh yes, the loud sug­ges­tions of a loom­ing garage sale of play­ers) in a mo­ment, but for now, the Sen­a­tors’ big­gest need is a fire de­part­ment, a dam­age con­trol team to re­store some trust with its dwin­dling sea­son ticket base.

At what point is the NHL forced to step in to ad­dress the black eye, push­ing owner Eu­gene Mel­nyk to sell the fran­chise — or at the very least to bring in a deeper-pock­eted part­ner — to help with the chaos? The last time we checked, An­dre Des­marais of the Dev­core Group and Guy Lal­ib­erte, co-founder of Cirque du Soleil, were wait­ing in the wings, anx­ious for the op­por­tu­nity to put their stamp on the new arena de­vel­op­ment.

There is some prece­dent here. Sort of.

For newer Sen­a­tors fans, let’s take you back a gen­er­a­tion to 199596, the most chaotic sea­son in fran­chise his­tory. That cam­paign in­cluded three coaches, 59 losses, two gen­eral man­agers, two home are­nas and end­less tur­moil.

There was no ugly public feud be­tween play­ers’ wives, of course. But the year did be­gin with Alexei Yashin AWOL in Switzer­land in one of his many con­tract dis­putes and with Bryan Ber­ard, the club’s first over­all draft pick from the pre­vi­ous sum­mer, walking out of the mess in train­ing camp, never to wear a Sen­a­tors jer­sey again.

Then, as now, the debt pay­ments were mount­ing, with owner Rod Bryden un­able to get out from un­der the ris­ing tide of bills, in­clud­ing com­plet­ing the $188 mil­lion cost of build­ing what was orig­i­nally called The Pal­la­dium.

The NHL, run by the then fresh­faced Gary Bettman, cer­tainly played a role in lead­ing Bryden to the Og­den Cor­po­ra­tion, whose busi­ness in­cluded the man­age­ment of arena fa­cil­i­ties. Og­den agreed to guar­an­tee the mount­ing loans — in ex­change for a con­tract to man­age the build­ing.

It was a life­line for the fran­chise that had ear­lier re­buffed a $20 mil­lion of­fer to move to Anaheim and was the punch­line for end­less jokes around the cir­cuit.

The Sen­a­tors even­tu­ally moved into their new digs in Jan­uary 1996, say­ing good­bye to the Civic Cen­tre.

Be­fore that hap­pened, though, the hic­cups in­cluded the fir­ing of orig­i­nal coach Rick Bow­ness and the hir­ing of Dave Al­li­son. Then came the fir­ing of gen­eral man­ager Randy Sex­ton in favour of Pierre Gau­thier, fol­lowed by the fir­ing of Al­li­son and the hir­ing of Jac­ques Martin. In ad­di­tion to hir­ing Martin, Gau­thier’s most sig­nif­i­cant move that sea­son was trad­ing Ber­ard in a pack­age for Wade Red­den. Yashin re­turned af­ter Christ­mas.

Through­out it all, the one glim­mer of hope was the emer­gence of Daniel Al­freds­son, who man­aged to win the Calder Tro­phy as rookie of the year, de­spite play­ing on a team that won only 18 games.

Which brings us back to the present. Al­freds­son, who was quoted as say­ing the team needs a new owner only a few weeks back, looms as a po­ten­tial piece of a fu­ture own­er­ship struc­ture.

For now, though, Mel­nyk is over­see­ing a fran­chise that is strug­gling to get through each day with­out step­ping into a new pile of bad public re­la­tions.

Crit­i­cize gen­eral man­ager Pierre Do­rion for his past deals if you want, but pity him in his ef­forts to get a solid trade re­turn for Mike Hoff­man amid the sor­did de­tails that this news­pa­per re­ported Tues­day. In case you were liv­ing un­der a puck, Melinda Karls­son, Erik Karls­son’s wife, al­leged a cam­paign of on­line ha­rass­ment by Hoff­man’s fi­ancée, Monika Caryk.

Re­gard­less of when and where Hoff­man moves, it also ap­pears in­creas­ingly likely that Karls­son won’t be stick­ing around, ei­ther.

Bar­ring a change from his words in April, Do­rion will of­fer Karls­son a con­tract ex­ten­sion July 1. At that point, the Sen­a­tors cap­tain will take a look at the con­tract terms and at the fu­ture out­look for the fran­chise. If he doesn’t like what he sees (is there any­one who does, at this point?), Do­rion will be open to trade of­fers.

If Karls­son goes out the door, there’s in­creased spec­u­la­tion that a full re­build will take place. Any play­ers with sub­stan­tial con­tracts are vul­ner­a­ble to be next.

The Sen­a­tors are a cir­cus right now. Some­where in the back of Bettman’s mind, though, you have to think he’s won­der­ing if cir­cus peo­ple could help save the fran­chise.

WAYNE CUDDINGTON FILE PHOTO

Erik Karls­son and his wife Melinda were the tar­gets of so­cial me­dia trolling af­ter their baby was still­born.

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