One goal. One Chris Kunitz knuckle puck over Craig Anderson’s blocker in double OT of game 7. This is how close the Ottawa Senators were from a surprise berth in the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals. Two years later, the team could not be on a more different path, poised to finish last in the league standings. Dispassionate fans, declining revenue, and the departure of star players all raise questions surrounding the franchise’s future in Ottawa.
Don Cherry, host of Hockey Night in Canada’s “Coaches Corner,” along with Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, have entertained the idea of relocating the team. Were this to happen, only one location makes sense, and that is Quebec. Fans in this city long for the return of the Nordiques, and its proximity to Montreal makes for a classic, francophone rivalry.
A Gradual Decline
For much of the 2000s, Ottawa had one of the most passionate fan bases in the NHL. Consistent playoff berths, a President’s Trophy season, and a trip to the Finals in 2007 generated excitement in the city. The Senators’ core players began leaving the team, including 17-year veteran Daniel Alfredsson, who chose to play his final season in Detroit in hopes of playoff success. The team became increasingly uncompetitive, and attendance suffered. During their heyday in the late 2000s, Ottawa averaged nearly a sellout each game in their 19,000 seat arena. According to Hockey Database, average attendance at Senators home games for 2018-19 is a paltry 14,456 fans.
Along with the team’s poor play, part of the reason for such dismal attendance may be the Canadian Tire Centre’s inconvenient location. Located in the suburb of Kanata, nearly 15 miles from downtown Ottawa, commuting to this arena is a hassle for many Senators fans. Plans to convert the LeBreton Flats area of downtown into a housing and entertainment district, along with a new arena have stalled, leaving Melnyk to pursue other plans for the Senators’ long-term future.
Ottawa’s commitment to rebuilding is evident, based on GM’s Pierre Dorion’s actions over the past two seasons. The first of such transactions involved trading defenseman Erik Karlsson to San Jose in September of 2018, in exchange for prospects and conditional first and second round picks.
The Senators also dealt forwards Mark Stone, Ryan Dzingel, and Matt Duchene at this season’s trade deadline, again hoping for long-term returns in the form of draft picks and prospects. All of the aforementioned players are relatively young, with long careers ahead of them. Their trade value is high, and the draft picks gained could well pay off. However, fans do not take well to seeing their team lose, particularly after tasting playoff success just two seasons before.
The relationship between Melnyk and a large contingent of Senators fans is quite sour. Many accuse him of giving up, and responded by purchasing billboards throughout Ottawa reading #MelnykOut. They blame Melnyk for not doing enough to support the team. He has fired back at Senators fans, criticizing their weak attendance, even making a vague threat to move the team “if it becomes a disaster” during an interview with Sportsnet.
Don Cherry agrees with Melnyk, making his case for relocation during a broadcast of Coach’s Corner. With the LeBreton Flats arena plan relegated to a pipe dream, and an increasingly acrimonious relationship between ownership and fans, Melnyk may well decide to invest his time and money in a market which supports his vision.
Uncharacteristically, I’m siding with Don Cherry. Both Melnyk and the fans appear unwilling to compromise on the desired direction of the franchise. Rebuilds are tough, but fans of formerly dominant teams such as the Maple Leafs and Islanders remain loyal, enduring decades of disappointment.
Should neither side be enthusiastic about the future of the Senators, there is a hockey-crazed city about five hours to the east who would welcome them with open arms: Quebec City. The city has been without a team since the Nordiques left for Colorado in 1995, leaving Canada’s second most-populous province with only one team.
The Centre Vidéotron, built in 2015, seats 18,259 and is considered state-of-the-art compared to the Nordiques’ old arena, the Colisée Pepsi. With about 800,000 residents in the metro area, Quebec City is the largest Canadian metropolis without an NHL franchise. The existing arena, coupled with Quebec’s history of producing top-notch players, makes it a slam-dunk destination for the Senators to relocate.
Although not having a team in Canada’s capital may seem odd on the surface, so does leaving a team in a city where attendance is consistently at the bottom of the league. Moving the Senators to Ottawa would restore the Canadiens-Nordiques rivalry, which was particularly heated in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and give Eugene Melnyk what he desires: a more passionate and receptive fan base. ■
Joe Banish is a die-hard Red Wings fan who lives in the pro hockey vacuum of the Pacific Northwest. He also likes beating goalies high glove side, playing basketball, and cheering on his alma mater, Michigan State. Follow him on Twitter @BanishJoe.