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The Worst Sports Franchise Owner in North America Is in Ottawa

Move over, Dan Snyder and James Dolan—when it comes to pettiness, suspect accounting, shameless moxie, and team mismanagement, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk might be the best franchise destroyer on the continent

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Have you heard the one about the powerful weirdo—a guy who got rich by extracting millions from shady businesses—who was accused of commissioning dark Ukranian forces against one of his many detractors? No, the other one. His name is Eugene Melnyk, and he has owned the Ottawa Senators since he purchased the team when it was on the verge of bankruptcy in 2003. He is possibly (in a crowded field that is truly rich in generational talent!) the worst owner in North American sports.

Sure, the competition is fierce. Just this week, the Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder, who once left tubs of flavored ice cream on a coach’s desk because he thought his defense was “too vanilla” and who is associated with more than one online astroturfing campaign, summoned his head coach to a 5 a.m. meeting to fire him. Madison Square Garden’s James Dolan has banned reporters (and fans, and beloved former players) critical of him. The Mets-owning Wilpons are tightwads. The Bengals’ Mike Brown is worse than just a bad owner: He’s a boring one. The Phoenix Suns owner, Robert Sarver, keeps threatening to relocate, a long and storied tradition among these types.

But you know those thought experiments where you try to pick and choose various skills from different players in order to construct the ideal professional athlete? The speed of Usain Bolt with the accuracy of Tom Brady and the mustache of Lanny McDonald, that sort of thing? Melnyk is that, except substitute “franchise owner-destroyer” in the equation. He is more Mr. Potato Head than Voltron, a guy who combines:

  1. The suspicious origins of someone investigated by two countries for accounting fraud (his pharmaceutical company, Biovail, settled with the SEC for $24.6 million in 2008, a year after settling a class action for $138 million, and that’s not even the extent of the various lawsuits associated with the enterprise); with:
  2. A complete ongoing inability to ever read the room, best exemplified when he recorded and released a bizarre video last September that was theoretically meant to be motivational but instead led off with his characterizing the team he’d owned for 15 years as “in the dumpster”; and:
  3. The shameless moxie it takes to get sued for nearly a million bucks by the Mohegan Sun casino over, effectively, bounced checks from a 2017 St. Paddy’s Day gambling spree, and then claim that it’s not fair because he totally had tried cashing out when he was ahead but the casino wouldn’t let him; as well as:
  4. The petty shortsightedness necessary to ban one reporter from the team plane (because the reporter had covered the existence of a video posted by an Arizona Uber driver that showed some visiting Ottawa Senators talking shit about an assistant coach) and tell another reporter “I’ll bury you” (because the reporter had asked whether it was true that Melnyk hadn’t paid out bonuses to employees); oh and neither last nor least:
  5. The time, inclination, and global dark web connections to (aLlEgEdLy!) sic Ukranian hackers on a hockey blogger’s website in 2013 after said blogger began exploring the Potemkin village that was Melnyk’s—and by extension, the underperforming Senators’—financial structures. (A convincing gumshoe deep dive into Melnyk’s probable links to the hack involved a charity called “Help Us Help the Children” and a phishing attempt with “On-Paul-MacLeans-Offensive-Zone-Strategy” in the faux URL.)

Melnyk is the kind of guy who has been a resident of Barbados, which just so happens to be a great tax haven, since 1991. There is currently a lien out on a private jet registered to a company of his called “Clean Beauty Collective” because of nearly seven hundred grand in late payments. He has owned horse-racing operations and fragrance companies. He says he was accosted this summer at a Rolling Stones concert by a member of Ontario provincial parliament who called him a piece of shit and a loser, though he can take solace in the fact that his honor sometimes gets defended by a bunch of brand-spankin’-new Twitter users with questionable syntax!

The thing about the silly and passionate love that people have for their sports teams is that the majority of the absolute nonsense constantly swirling around Melnyk could probably be overlooked by fans as semistandard “Yep, that’s our owner!” eccentricities—if it weren’t also for the myriad ways Melnyk has, over the years, torpedoed the Senators.

Melnyk may have “saved” Ottawa from bankruptcy in 2003, but from the start, much of his wealth was tied to his pharmaceutical company, Biovail, which had been plagued by issues for years. (A 1998 Forbes article described Melnyk as “a smooth, well-tailored entrepreneur with only a medical publishing background, who has made a number of announcements about his company’s pending drugs that have yet to prove true.”) The same year Melnyk bought the Senators and their arena for $92 million, he also told investors—fraudulently, it was later ruled—that subpar Biovail profits were a result of a fatal truck accident in Illinois that had delayed shipments. Over the years Melnyk has relied on a daisy chain of loans to finance the Senators, the most recent being a $135 million line of refinanced credit announced in the summer of 2018.

All this has had ripple effects on the franchise. It was bad enough to lose team legend Daniel Alfredsson in the twilight of his career in 2013 in order to pinch pennies, but it was worse when Alfredsson was alienated for a second time after he returned for a front-office position. (It also wasn’t super reassuring when Melnyk explained his team-building strategy to the Ottawa Citizen after Alfredsson’s departure: “It’s no different than the horses,” he said. “You’ve got your superstars up here, then you’ve got the other 80 per cent.”) It was totally unnecessary when, on the eve of what was supposed to be a happy, low-drama outdoor hockey game in 2017, Melnyk said he’d consider moving the team if attendance became “a disaster,” and it seemed like gaslighting when he later complained about people bringing up relocation. Melnyk is so distrusted in Ottawa that even when he underwent a successful liver transplant in 2015, it was not without controversy.

It was only three seasons ago that Ottawa was a goal away from the Stanley Cup final, but it seems like an eternity. Rebuilds are inevitable, but the Senators have been home to and mismanaged some great talent of late. Erik Karlsson, one of the league’s best defensemen, was a player so important to Ottawa that an angry Melnyk vowed to use “forensic doctors”(?) against an opposing player whose skate blade cut Karlsson’s Achilles tendon in 2013. And yet the team balked at paying their captain market value in 2018, trading him instead to the San Jose Sharks. Ottawa engaged in a “blockbuster” trade to acquire forward Matt Duchene in 2017, only to trade him away within a season.

These sorts of erratic moves haven’t been limited to the team’s roster, either: With the February 2019 collapse of longtime plans for a major arena and real estate project near downtown Ottawa, Melnyk also botched the development of much of the surrounding city. Needless to say, a lawsuit and a countersuit are underway. With their payroll only barely scraping the league’s mandated salary floor (and a good portion of it devoted to cap-geek workarounds that enable the team to effectively pay even less) the Senators are maybe operating within the letter of the law, though probably not the spirit.

In February, Melnyk unveiled a grand vision. The next few seasons, he allowed, would be dedicated to more rebuilding, but it would all pay off before long! The Senators’ plan, according to a statement the team released, was to be “all-in again for a five-year run of unparalleled success—where the team will plan to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025.” It was a very Melnykian statement: somehow both blustering and pathetic, one hypothetical enough to be meaningless. It sounded a lot like the way he was described in Forbes more than 20 years ago, back when he was making those announcements about that company’s pending drugs, the ones that never wound up being true. The Senators are 0-2 in their first two games, but both the good and the bad news is: There’s a long season ahead.

An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the government official Melnyk encountered at the Rolling Stones concert. It was a member of provincial parliament, not a member of federal parliament.