The League Owns the Melnyk Mess

What an embarrassment.

An entire fanbase, sitting on the edge of their seats, refreshing Twitter, waiting to see if the owner of their favorite team will destroy it. An entire trade deadline day, covered to the hilt by every network and dominated by speculation about when – not if – Ottawa will self-immolate.

Obviously, there’s a lot of blame to go around, and a huge share of that blame is Eugene Melnyk’s. He’s been so ham-fisted in the way he’s handled the past, well, several years, that they should use him as a case-study in crisis-management courses. But even if he’d revealed himself to be an insightful hockey thinker during one of his many interviews on Toronto sports radio, it should have signaled to the league that he was a meddlesome owner.

The owner is supposed to be invisible and sign the checks. When cornered at charity events, he should recite the line: “I let my hockey people make the hockey decisions.” Behind closed doors, sure, he’s the owner and if he wants to call the GM from Barbados and offer his thoughts on goaltending, that’s his right. But airing dirty laundry on sports radio should have been a red flag to the league.

The reason it hasn’t been over the years is that Melnyk used to be rich. Now he’s not, so now it’s a problem, but that wasn’t exactly out of the realm of the imagination. In Melnyk, we find proof positive that the NHL has been and perhaps continues to be far too comfortable with the risks associated with sole proprietorship of one of its franchises.

Melnyk bailed out this franchise over a decade ago and was welcomed as a conquering hero. Little did we know then that the pharmaceutical industry was about to experience a decade of contraction and that Melnyk’s personal fortune would shrink considerably. Hindsight is 20/20. But what can the league learn from this, only the latest in a long history of embarrassing owners? If tomorrow a different, whacky billionaire showed up whose fortune had been earned in, say, telecommunications or real estate, will the league make the same mistake in rubber-stamping the transfer of ownership just so long as he or she shows a bank statement with a lot of zeros?

Throughout the league, we see fanbases handcuffed to the investment portfolios of billionaire personalities: Jeff Vinik, Jeremy Jacobs, Ted Leonsis. The going is good in many of those markets, and not all billionaires are made equal. (Melnyk looks like a tin-pot dictator next to Vinik.) But we’re one worldwide liquidity crisis away from the league selling one of its franchises to the two guys who made Saw.

What’s the alternative? I couldn’t help but alight upon this Tweet yesterday:

What Winnipeg and Nashville have in common is not only patience – not that either franchise has had the funds to be especially hurried – nor is “good ownership” defined. What they also have in common is a diverse ownership group. It’s true that someone chairs that group and there’s usually a majority owner, but when a significant proportion of the funds for a franchise are put up by others, there tend to be mitigating governance structures that prevent a whacky billionaire returning from a rough weekend in Atlantic City from cutting payroll.

The league can and should be doing much more to build ties between potential owners at the local level. It can start by establishing principles for NHL owners that include public relations. What kind of sanction has Melnyk faced for threatening relocation during the league’s 100th-anniversary celebration? A stern phone-call from Gary Bettman? Having to film a canned statement on the league’s dime? To what can the Board of Governors refer when considering that one among them is comparing their product to fast food and what kind of sanctions are available to them? What diversity of investments should a group of investors create before they can realistically bid on a team?

Yes, Melnyk is the most stereotypical, embarrassing kind of clueless tyrant imaginable. Everyone in the league – not just in Ottawa – should be concerned when an owner takes over as President and fans are kicked out of games for holding up signs that criticize him. But we shouldn’t entirely villanize him without asking what sort of conditions led to him having such power over a franchise. The Ottawa Senators will be sold at some point; I can only hope that the league is changing the way they do business so that they don’t simply hand the keys over to some other, budding Melnyk.

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