How Sens can win back fans

A five-point plan to help get the Sen­a­tors out of Dys­func­tion Junc­tion at last

Ottawa Citizen - - FRONT PAGE - WAYNE SCAN­LAN

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.

TONY CALD­WELL

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.

Cyril Leeder

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