It was exactly one year ago – on a chilly Friday night in mid-December – when Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk’s frosty words plunged his relationship with the fan base into a deeper freeze.
Speaking to reporters just prior to his club hosting an outdoor alumni game on Parliament Hill on Dec. 15, 2017, Melnyk seemed to steal a lot of thunder from a marquee NHL event by openly musing about moving his franchise.
“I love the game of hockey. If it doesn’t look good here, it could look good somewhere else. But I’m not suggesting that right now. What I’m saying is, I would never sell the team,” Melnyk said.
When pressed on if he would sell the team, Melnyk laid out some scenarios where he could envision it happening.
“If it becomes a disaster? Yes. If you start not seeing crowds showing up? Yes.”
The comments made by Melnyk that day – coincidental or not – kick-started one of the most bizarre 12-month periods any North American sports franchise has had in recent memory.
For many Sens fans, the last 365 days has been the most forgettable and frustrating period in franchise history, filled with scandalous storylines that had little to do with the on-ice product.
So, as 2018 mercifully draws to a close for the Senators and their fans, it’s worth looking back one more time at just how bizarre the past calendar year has been in the nation’s capital.
Jan. 18 - Pierre Dorion opens the door slightly to an Erik Karlsson trade
With about six weeks until the trade deadline, pundits jumped all over general manager Pierre Dorion’s comments to the media, with many interpreting his comments that day to mean that Erik Karlsson was potentially on the trade block.
“Our first priority with Erik is to sign him. He’s a special player,” Dorion said. “Last time we spoke I think I told you even Wayne Gretzky got traded. If a team makes an offer you can’t turn down, you listen.”
Things would only intensify leading up the trade deadline, as rumours constantly swirled around Karlsson from that point forward.
Feb. 9 - Tom Anselmi quietly vacates his position as team president
In a press release that was issued at 6:05 p.m. on a Friday evening, the Senators caught a lot of people off-guard by announcing that team president Tom Anselmi was vacating his position as president and CEO of the hockey club.
The news was buried at the bottom of a press release announcing a three-year contract extension for general manager Pierre Dorion. The release was the first hint that a rebuild was on the horizon, as it stated there would be a new focus on scouting drafting and development.
“It may require changes to our lineup,” the press release stated. “Rest assured, we will only tolerate pain with an endgame in mind; building an organization that wins – at all levels – year in and year out.”
Feb. 13 - Dion Phaneuf is traded to the Los Angeles Kings
In a trade that started the jettisoning of older players from the roster, the Senators sent Dion Phaneuf and Nate Thompson to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Marian Gaborik and Nick Shore. Ten days later, the club shipped Derick Brassard to the Pittsburgh Penguins as part of a three-way trade with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Feb. 26 - Trade deadline passes and Karlsson remains on the roster
As the 3 p.m. trade deadline approached, the trade speculation around Karlsson reached an all-time high. Talks with the Vegas Golden Knights – possibly in a deal that could include Bobby Ryan – reportedly went right up to the deadline. But alas, the Senators could not find a suitable deal and opted to keep Karlsson for the remainder of the season.
March 1 - Melnyk pens open letter to fans
Melnyk pens an almost 600-word letter to season ticket holders, in which he reaffirms his commitment to Ottawa – while also overtly signalling the start of a rebuilding process for the Senators.
“Enduring a tough year has given us a chance for a clear-eyed evaluation,” Melnyk wrote. “This is an ongoing process but I can tell you one thing: we are not looking to just tweak our lineup nor mortgage our future for stop-gap solutions. The kind of change required to reclaim our standing needs a change in approach, requires difficult decisions and a commitment to a plan.”
March 19 - #MelnykOut billboards appear
A group of disenchanted Sens fans raised $10,000 to place four billboards up around the city with the simple message: #MelnykOut. The group wanted to draw attention to their opinion that the organization – and more specifically Melnyk – had lost touch with the pulse of its fan base.
April 2 - Karlsson plays his last home game and picks up the puck as a souvenir
As the 2017-18 Ottawa Senators home finale came to an end with an overtime loss to Winnipeg, Karlsson fished out the puck from his own net and put it in his pants pocket. Many interpreted this move as the captain picking up a souvenir – knowing this would likely be his last game in a Senators jersey at Canadian Tire Centre.
“I was down there and I saw it was in the net so I just picked it up and decided to keep it,” Karlsson told reporters after the game, admitting he heard the chatter about this potentially being his last home game. “I’m a social guy. I read a lot of things and I’m not reading too much into it, but obviously the word is out there [from the media].”
April 10 – Melnyk, Dorion hold town hall meetings
In attempt to calm the masses, Melnyk and Dorion held three town-hall style meetings with Ottawa Senators season ticket holders. Fans were given an opportunity to ask the management team any questions in a no-holds-barred format. Many were upset with Melnyk’s explosive comments at the outdoor game and the Sens owner addressed those fans directly.
“What was reflected in the press wasn’t what I said,” stated Melnyk, who urged the fans to go back to YouTube and re-watch his comments from December. “But if it makes everybody feel better, I do apologize for the mischaracterization.”
Dorion, meanwhile, pleased those in attendance with a vow to make an aggressive and market-value, eight-year contract offer to Karlsson once he was officially allowed to negotiate with his superstar defenceman on July 1.
“At the end of the day, it will be his choice. If we offer him a fair contract and he doesn’t want to sign here, then we have to look at other options,” Dorion told the room. “The ball will be in his court.”
April 12 - Dorion puts Guy Boucher’s future into doubt
Meeting with reporters in his season-ending press conference, Dorion refuses to confirm that head coach Guy Boucher will return for the following season. The general manager said there would be an evaluation process that took several weeks, but that he was disappointed in Boucher’s unwillingness to play younger players and his penchant for giving the players days off.
“We’re going to practice more,” Dorion said of the approach moving forward. “Rest is a weapon – if I hear that one more time, I’ll go crazy.”
In early May, Dorion announced that Boucher and his entire coaching staff would return for the 2018-19 campaign.
May 27th – Alfredsson creates a stir with his off-the-record comment
Daniel Alfredsson was on hand at an event to launch the re-election campaign of Ottawa mayor Jim Watson. The former Sens captain and franchise icon reportedly told Ottawa blogger Sue Sherring that he was hopeful for a change in ownership in Ottawa.
‘We’ve talked a lot, we’ve talked about the future of the Senators and of its ownership and we agree,” Alfredsson said. “We hope we get a new owner.”
Alfredsson later said he believed those comments were made off-the-record, but Sherring posted them to her blog anyway – creating a mini-firestorm in this market.
June 1 - Assistant general manager Randy Lee charged with harassing shuttle bus driver
While at the NHL draft combine in Buffalo, assistant general manager Randy Lee is accused of inappropriately touching and making lewd comments towards a hotel shuttle bus driver. Lee had his passport confiscated and was forced to spend a night in jail.
Upon returning to Ottawa, Lee resumed his regular duties with the Senators for the next two weeks. However, on June 15, the club decided to suspend him pending the outcome of his court proceedings in Buffalo.
June 12 - Cyberbullying story between Karlssons and Hoffmans comes to light
The Ottawa Citizen breaks a salacious story, which sheds light onto the Senators’ dysfunction behind closed doors.
According to the report, on May 4, Melinda Karlsson – Erik’s wife – filed for an order of protection against Monika Caryk – the fiancée of Mike Hoffman. This was done after the Karlssons claimed to be the target of a vile internet campaign, allegedly orchestrated by Caryk.
According to court documents, there were over 1,000 examples of defamatory and negative posts dating back several months.
“Monika Caryk has uttered numerous statements wishing my unborn child dead,” Melinda Karlsson’s sworn statement said. “She has also uttered that she wished I was dead and that someone should ‘take out’ my husband’s legs to end his career.”
June 19 - Senators trade Mike Hoffman
One week after the story broke about his fiancée allegedly orchestrating a cyberbullying campaign against the Karlssons, Mike Hoffman is traded to the San Jose Sharks in exchange for Mikkel Boedker. A few hours later, the Sharks flipped Hoffman to the Florida Panthers for draft picks. Pierre Dorion made it clear that the organization made this move as a direct result of the fallout from the alleged cyberbullying scandal.
“Today’s trade showcases our determination to strengthen the future of the team by improving chemistry, leadership and character in the locker room and on the ice,” Dorion said in a statement.
Aug. 21 - Randy Lee resigns his position as assistant general manager
After being placed on administrative leave with his harassment charges pending, Lee announced his resignation from the organization with a statement issued by the club on his behalf.
“I have to think about my obligations to the hockey team. They need an assistant GM who can focus completely on the coming season. Until this matter is behind me, however, I’m not in a position to do that,” Lee wrote. “For this reason – in consultation with the Ottawa Senators and my family – I have chosen to resign as assistant GM of the Ottawa Senators and GM of the Belleville Senators.”
Sept. 10 - Club releases video featuring Melnyk and Mark Borowiecki
The Senators organization had been tight-lipped for several months, but finally broke their silence by issuing a late-night video featuring Melnyk in an extended conversation with defenceman Mark Borowiecki.
The video was immediately panned by critics for being awkward on multiple fronts, as it fell short of its intended mark. Less than 40 seconds into the video, Melnyk admits that “right now, we’re kind of in the dumpster.”
Sept. 13 - Senators trade Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks
After more than nine months of wild speculation and drama, the Senators finally decide to trade Karlsson to the San Jose Sharks on the first day of training camp. The club received defenceman Dylan DeMelo, forward Chris Tierney, prospect Josh Norris, a future first-round pick and two other prospects from San Jose.
Despite the fact he likely knew this trade was coming for months, Karlsson still appeared visibly shaken when addressing the media on the podium.
“I wish we were standing here in different circumstances. It’s an emotional day and a sad day,” Karlsson said. “I don’t think that I’ve ever in my wildest imagination thought that I would ever leave this place. But unfortunately, we’re here under these circumstances and that’s not something I’m going to go into detail about.”
Sept. 25 - Senators place Zack Smith on waivers
Though he doesn’t have the stature of Karlsson, the decision to place Zack Smith on waivers seemed to have a significant impact inside the Senators dressing room. Players were upset with the way a loyal, veteran teammate was unceremoniously placed on waivers.
“I’ll be honest, it’s a kick in the balls for us,” Matt Duchene said at the time.
Nov. 5 - Uber video surfaces featuring Senators players mocking coaching staff
Postmedia dealt the Senators another blow by releasing a video showing several members of the Ottawa Senators making disparaging remarks about assistant coach Martin Raymond. The video was shot during the club’s road trip to Arizona at the end of October and the players were completely unaware their candid and disparaging comments were being recorded.
The players involved – Matt Duchene, Chris Wideman, Colin White, Thomas Chabot, Dylan DeMelo, Chris Tierney and Alex Formenton – issued a statement the night the story broke.
“We want to apologize publicly to Marty Raymond, our teammates and coaches for our comments in Phoenix, Arizona on October 29. Our private conversation was recorded without our knowledge or consent. We’re passionate about our team and focusing on growing together. We are grateful for the support of our fans and organization. This is an important learning experience and we will do better.”
Nov. 23 – Melnyk launches lawsuit against Lebreton Flats business partner
With the development of Lebreton Flats bid seemingly hanging by a thread, Melnyk seemed to put an end to the idea of the Senators playing in a downtown arena anytime soon by launching a $700-million lawsuit against John Ruddy, his business partner on the project.
Despite the uncertainty over the arena situation – and over the future for stars like Duchene and Stone – heading into 2019, the collective feeling around Ottawa is there is absolutely no way that the upcoming year can be any worse than the 2018 that this market just experienced.