There was a small window of time on Thursday where Ottawa Senators fans were trying to be optimistic.
To be precise, it was a two hour and 49 minute window that started at 3:41 p.m. ET, when TSN Hockey Insider Bob McKenzie tweeted that, unless there was the framework of a contract extension in place, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel would likely join Matt Duchene as healthy scratches in New Jersey.
Social media and talk radio was abuzz with the possibility of Stone stepping on the ice at the Prudential Center, which would signal a contract extension with the most popular player on the roster was merely a formality. This type of drama and intrigue in the minutes leading up to a game is usually reserved for the Stanley Cup playoffs, not a regular-season game in February.
And yet, in their heart of hearts, every single Senators fan knew that Stone wouldn’t be on the ice at 6:30 p.m.
Optimism is not a sentiment that comes easily to Ottawa fans. Instead, resignation is the default emotion around these parts.
So when Stone, Dzingel and Duchene were absent from the pregame skate at the Prudential Center, it pushed the situation closer to the resolution that most Sens fans were expecting all along: all three players are likely headed out of town.
Duchene is the first domino to fall, headed to Columbus for a return that doesn’t come close to matching what the Senators gave up for him. The Sens worked hard on trying to convince Duchene to stay over the past few months, as that was their preferred outcome. Instead, Duchene felt more comfortable rolling the dice with a franchise he’s never played for rather than signing up for eight more years in Ottawa.
The Senators have an image problem and this latest turn of events will only amplify the notion that the organization can’t hang on to its star players. Depending on how far back you want to draw the line, you could go with departures like Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, Alexei Yashin and Dany Heatley. Or you could focus on more recent exits like Daniel Alfredsson (twice), Jason Spezza, Kyle Turris and Erik Karlsson.
Whatever timeline you use, each departure of a high-profile player was cloaked in mystery, intrigue and tension. In virtually every aforementioned situation, it feels like a reasonable explanation for the departure wasn’t given that satiated the fan base.
It’s almost like the plot from a B-level horror film that received funding from the Canadian government: One by one, a serious of high-profile hockey players disappear from a city without a reasonable explanation.
With Duchene off the board and the departures of Stone and Dzingel just a matter of time, it simply feels like we’re back to copy-and-paste journalism. Re-writing and re-telling the same story, just with altered names and dates.
Something has to change in Ottawa and it’s not the attitude of the fan base. This isn’t a small handful of angry fans, carrying virtual pitchforks and torches on the internet. This is a majority group of passionate fans who feel alienated by the direction of an organization. They aren’t a cavalier group of fair-weather fans who are fleeing the bandwagon after a rough patch in the road. They stuck through four playoff losses to the Leafs, Jeff Friesen’s goal and a disappointing visit to the Stanley Cup Final.
But what Sens fans are enduring right now goes beyond what would be considered within the normal range of ups and downs of a sports franchise. You expect your favourite sports franchise to leave you heartbroken; that’s the unspoken rule when we strap ourselves into the roller-coaster ride of being a sports fan in the first place.
What you don’t sign up for is perpetual state of dysfunction that leaves you hopeless. We cheer for sports teams because we need an escape from the drama and tension from our own lives; we don’t seek that from our favourite teams.
A conservative estimate would place the drop in season ticket sales to about 20 per cent from last season, as the club was trying to recover from a disastrous season both on and off the ice. This season was supposed to be a fresh start, with the slogan #OttawaRising being used by the club to launch a new era.
That marketing campaign and hashtag were premature. There was still some unfinished business for the team in the form of their big three free agents. That, coupled with the fact that Ottawa is sitting in last place and not in possession of their own first-round pick, only adds to the precarious situation that has enveloped the Senators. The slogan #OttawaRising is more apt to work eight months from now when a lot of this is in the rear-view mirror.
But when we get to training camp in September, Sens fans will already be fretting over the future of Thomas Chabot, who enters the final year of his entry-level contract next season. A reasonable person would point out that Chabot is under team control for several more years, so the thought of him leaving shouldn’t cross anybody’s mind for another few years. But these aren’t reasonable times in Ottawa and the idea of Chabot accepting an offer sheet in the summer of 2020 that is too rich for the club will certainly be on the radar if he’s not locked up before then.
That’s the problem with pessimism; it clouds your ability to enjoy anything because you’re constantly convinced the worst outcome is just around the corner. So while the Senators will undoubtedly trumpet a new era featuring the likes of Chabot, Brady Tkachuk and Colin White, many of their most loyal fans will respond with a collective shrug, counting down the days until they hit unrestricted free agency.
The majority of blame for the Senators’ current predicament is being placed squarely at the feet of owner Eugene Melnyk, who has been the one constant over the past 15 years. Melnyk, however, has disappeared from the public sphere – a sharp change of direction for a man who once had the reputation of never meeting a microphone that he didn’t like.
An educated guess would suggest that Melnyk’s disappearance has less to do with a coordinated PR strategy and more to do with his complete lack of trust with local reporters. He believes his words get twisted and turned against him, so he has opted to simply release statements and pre-cut videos in lieu of doing press conferences.
But now is the time when Ottawa fans are desperately craving some sort of clear, concise message from someone in charge. Not a vague statement promising more resources will be poured into scouting, drafting and developing. Not a press release promising to spend to the cap down the road during an era of unprecedented success.
They need someone in front of the microphones right now to speak to the majority of their fan base who feel alienated and emotionally disconnected from the team.
There is a movement on social media to start a “Melnyk Out” chant inside the Canadian Tire Centre on Friday night as the Senators host Duchene and the Blue Jackets. Though they’ve been reluctant in the past, it’s time the Senators engage with that portion of the fan base.
The words “Melnyk Out” could easily be replaced with “We Demand Better.” That’s the crux of the message here to Melnyk: These fans want to throw their money at your team and become emotionally invested in the Senators again. But you have to find a way to get their trust back. Of all the emotional connections between a fan base and a sports team, trust is the one bond you cannot break.
Right now, it’s shattered into a million pieces on the floor.
Not being able to sign three pending UFAs – in particular a fan-favourite in Stone – doesn’t help matters. If this rebuild and vision wasn’t good enough for Stone, why should it be good enough for the fans?
It’s a legitimate question to ponder.
Senators’ fans are now waiting for the inevitable. Duchene is gone and Stone and Dzingel won’t be too far behind.
But sadly, the fans in this city know the drill all too well.