Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Ottawa fans have lost hope in Eugene Melnyk. There’s no getting it back

There’s something missing in the reaction to this week’s latest round of Eugene Melnyk drama, and it should make you feel terrible for Ottawa Senators fans.

The situation began with last week’s announcement that the Senators would be parting ways with their charitable wing, The Sens Foundation. That situation raised eyebrows, and there were a few days of back-and-forth over what exactly it might mean, and who could be at fault. Then came a devastating report from The Ottawa Sun’s Rick Gibbons, accusing Melnyk of meddling in the foundation’s giving while his own charity organization raised $1 million for organ donation while only putting $5,000 to good use.

The charity story is still unfolding, and there may be further layers. Melnyk will be called on to offer an explanation. He might even have one.

At this point, though, that hardly seems to matter. I watched the reaction to Monday’s report unfold in Ottawa, on Twitter and local radio and the various places where fans gather. There was outrage, and disgust, and more than a little confusion. There was an inspiring effort to raise money for charity that brought in $18,000 and counting. There was anger. There were the usual wild rumors and the typical hot takes.

But here’s what was missing: Any sense of shock. Any surprise. Anybody saying “No, this story can’t be right, they wouldn’t do that. Not our team. Not our owner.”

It’s the Eugene Melnyk era. Nothing is off the table, and nothing feels impossible, not even some ill-defined plot to rip off his own charity that borders on cartoonishly evil. Nobody that I could see was stepping up to defend the guy because Melnyk has spent years burning his credibility with the fan base to the ground.

That credibility is gone now. Not diminished, not running low – gone. And when that happens, there’s no rebuilding it.

I know because I’ve been there, having grown up as a Maple Leafs fan in the Harold Ballard era. If you were a Blackhawks fan in the Bill Wirtz years, you know it too. If you’re an NBA fan in New York, an NFL fan in Washington, you’re living it right now. There are probably a few others, but only a few. The NHL has always had owners who temporarily lost part of the fan base, like Darryl Katz in Edmonton or Stan Kroenke in Colorado; that’s bad, but the trust can be rebuilt. There have been outright disasters, like John Spano; those are embarrassing, but they tend to be short-term problems. It’s rare that an owner can get to that Ballard or Wirtz zone, where they’ve completely decimated the fans’ faith without any exit plan in sight.

It’s the worst possible place to be as a fan. It’s literally hopeless. And it’s where Senators fans find themselves these days.

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