How Sens can win back fans
A five-point plan to help get the Senators out of Dysfunction Junction at last
The Senators are clearly in deep trouble with their fan base. And cheap tickets aren’t enough to win them back, Wayne Scanlan writes.
After Friday’s departure of president and chief executive Tom Anselmi, it’s time to restore the team’s soul, starting with the suggestion that owner Eugene Melnyk try to entice Cyril Leeder back into the fold.
It’s also time to start listening to what fans have to say.
Fans here are smart, Scanlan adds, and will recognize committed ownership, which could mean getting another investor, even if it is a minority position, to give the ownership profile a different look and take the focus away from Melnyk’s singularly unpopular direction.
The Senators need to do something bold to win back their infuriated fan base.
Something profoundly local in nature.
For starters: get down on bended knee and beg Cyril Leeder to come back as president and chief executive of the franchise, promising to let him do his job. Under the right circumstances, I believe Leeder, a Senators co-founder, tireless worker and immensely popular figure in the community, would return if owner Eugene Melnyk granted him the parameters to do his job.
On Monday, Melnyk met with his Ottawa staff and discussed how they would proceed, now that Tom Anselmi has left his position as president and chief executive, little more than a year after replacing Leeder, who was fired, ostensibly because the Senators weren’t drawing enough fans.
Attendance was down further this year under Anselmi, who wasn’t here long enough to register a pulse.
He left knowing this much: The fan base is beyond sour, reluctant to get on board regardless of the record in the standings, which happens to have deteriorated after the hockey club returned from two games in Sweden in November.
Not even an unexpected playoff run last spring, to within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final, could fully engage fans. The results were there. Captain Erik Karlsson was playing as if touched by gold dust.
And yet, it was as though a piece of the franchise’s soul was missing. The rink was not always full, and the community was not all in, despite miraculous 2017 playoff overtime victories against Original Six stalwarts like the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers.
The team was winning, but conversations turned to an increase in parking rates — always a hot-button issue at the suburban, car-dependent Canadian Tire Centre. Fans felt they were being gouged.
Not even cheap ticket prices (check out the game-night bargains online) and a black tarp over 1,500 upper level seats to give the sense of a fuller rink could do the trick this season. Fans wondered why community favourites like Daniel Alfredsson and Kyle Turris were gone from the scene.
Late Friday afternoon, the time for burying bad news, the Senators announced Anselmi was leaving and threw in the diversion of a three-year extension for general manager Pierre Dorion, who has had a horrific season, partly of his own doing, partly through franchise circumstances and bad luck.
Anselmi, who came here from huge assignments with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Vancouver Canucks, was brought in by Melnyk to help guide the organization through the LeBreton Flats negotiations and building phases over the next number of years as the team prepares to shift to a downtown location.
That Anselmi wanted out after a year is the latest in a pattern of scorched earth where Melnyk and his top managers are concerned. Anselmi and Leeder are merely the two biggest names in a list that includes managers Peter O’Leary, Erin Crowe, Jim Steel, Wendy Kelley, Stephen Brooks, Ken Taylor, Sandi Horner and more.
It’s Melnyk’s call. He’s the businessman, but he no longer has any senior staff to lean on, and displays a persistent failure to understand Ottawa’s unique market place. Here are five suggestions for working out of this mess.
One, hire local: Crowe, who was a fine chief financial officer and alternate governor (on the NHL board of governors) is already back on a contract basis doing corporate and personal work for Melnyk. She must have a heart of gold. Announcing Leeder’s return as president and CEO, if Melnyk could swing it, would be the PR coup of the year, a rare but vital admission by Melnyk that he made a mistake. Fans would embrace this.
Two, slash parking prices: I am not the first to suggest this small but meaningful gesture. The Senators are in sell mode, and won’t make the playoffs. Give fans a break at the parking lots.
Three, meet with fans: In the nearly 15 years Melnyk has owned the club, he has not had a strong presence here. Hold a town-hall meeting with fans. Hold several. Let them vent. Listen to their concerns. And act on them.
Four, make all announcements through Ottawa media channels: Stop hiring Toronto PR firms. Stop breaking news or making major updates about the team on Toronto broadcast outlets. Think Ottawa first. Always.
Five, fully invest in the team:
The Anselmi/Dorion announcement contained a quote about a renewed commitment to “scouting, drafting and development” (translation: they’re sellers at the trade deadline). This organization is thin top to bottom: in management, scouting and on the roster itself. Reinforce depth in all areas. Short-term pain, long-term gain. Fans here are smart. They will recognize committed ownership. On that same front, get another investor, even if it is a minority position. Share the wealth, give the ownership profile a different look and take the focus away from Melnyk’s singularly unpopular direction. There are ways for a newly established front office and management team to earn back the trust of fans. Failing that, it begins to look as though the only option will be to sell the club outright for a considerable profit. The value of NHL franchises has risen exponentially since Melnyk bought the team and building in 2003.
The Senators announced Friday they would be partying ways with president and CEO Tom Anselmi, right. That Anselmi wanted out is the latest in a pattern of scorched earth, says Wayne Scanlan.