Sens fans on strike?

by Nov 22, 2019

Jason Greene is a “fan on strike.” He watches games from his home in Kanata but won’t buy tickets. Photo by Samantha Campling.

 Ottawa Senators fans are mad. So mad, in fact, that they’re not going to games.

Last month the team saw its lowest-ever attendance in a game against the St. Louis Blues, reigning Stanley Cup champions. And although it was an all-time low, the Oct. 10 turnout was in line with the declining attendance since 2014.

How does an NHL team based in the capital city of  “hockey country” get thrown in the penalty box by their own fanbase?

Fans cite two main reasons the team is seeing more red seats than red jerseys on game night: location and ownership.

Ottawa Senators or Kanata Senators?

The Canadian Tire Centre, which can hold up to 17,000 fans, is located in Kanata, Ottawa’s far western suburb. For many fans, getting there is too far a venture.

“It’s been an enormous barrier going to see the Senators by virtue of them being in Kanata,” said Jordan Holmes, a 20-year Ottawa resident who lives in the Byward Market.

He called himself a “fair-weather fan,” going to about two games a year if the team is doing well. He says that this would change if the team moved to a more central location.

“I would go and see a Sens game on a Tuesday after work, even if they were dead last in the league just for the fun of it and to support the team,” Holmes said.

By any measure, the Canadian Tire Centre is not close to downtown.

Fans can’t walk there from Ottawa’s biggest attractions, such as Parliament Hill or the Byward Market. The Canadian Tire Centre’s website suggests that it would take the common bus or car commuter 15 minutes to get from downtown to the arena. However, even with the best conditions – no traffic, good weather and no all-too-common transit delays – that commute time is impossible.

Driving from downtown? It’s at least 50 minutes during rush hour traffic. By bus? Close to an hour and a half. This becomes an even bigger issue for weeknight games when commuters are coming straight from work. This differs from other Canadian cities such as Calgary and Toronto, where the NHL arenas are downtown. 

Elizabeth Malcolm, a self-proclaimed Toronto Maple Leafs fan and co-host of Real Gud Pros, a podcast about NHL news, explained why Toronto’s downtown layout is favourable for an NHL team.

“In Toronto, you go to the game and you can make it an all-day event,” said Malcolm. She points to the location of the Scotiabank Arena, close to all the other Toronto attractions, as a major contributor to high ticket sales. 

‘The Canadian Tire Centre in Kanata is surrounded by parking lots and fields. Photo by Samantha Campling.

Ownership woes

“For now we consider ourselves on strike as fans,” said Jason Greene.

Greene has lived in the Ottawa area for 37 years, and now resides in Kanata. He has held season tickets to the Senators’ games for the past eight years. This year he didn’t renew his season tickets. He said it’s because of the owner, Eugene Melnyk.

Melnyk bought the team in 2003 after the franchise filed for bankruptcy protection. CBC reported the team owed $160 million to its creditors, including the NHL. He also bought the arena, which owed $200 million.

However, since 2003, some fans have turned on Melnyk.

“He has put a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths,” said Malcolm, mentioning his 2015 ask for a liver donation.

Malcolm also mentioned the failed plan for a new central arena. Melnyk and his partners in the RendezVous LeBreton Group, such as John Ruddy, failed to reach an agreement in mediation after both Melnyk and Ruddy launched lawsuits against each other. This caused the partners’ plan for LeBreton Flats to fall through.

Some blame Melnyk for the recent departures of franchise players.

“The final straw for us was when Erik Karlsson was traded before the start of the season – and it only got worse as we saw some of our most talented and key players like Mark Stone and Matt Duchene moved as well,” Greene said.

Melnyk has said he is rebuilding the team. But Greene said he doubts trading these star players was done as a rebuilding strategy.

“It instead felt like it was a desperate attempt from an owner bleeding money and stubbornly unable to admit he is unfit to own a hockey team at the NHL level,” said Greene.

Melnyk has been quoted saying he will never sell the team.

Relative to other NHL teams, Senators’ attendance continues to decline whether or not things are going well on the ice.

At the time of publication, the Senators organization did not comment on low attendance numbers.

Some fans still have hope

Sean McLaughlin is a self-proclaimed life-long fan of the Senators and thinks the team will stay in Ottawa. 

But even as a life-long fan, McLaughlin says he has to be realistic. He says he understands the issues surrounding the team and has thought of potential solutions.

“The biggest solution would be the sale of the team,” McLaughlin said. “Second would be a new arena, but with a new owner I think fans would be willing to wait for that. Finally, the product on the ice has to improve, but that comes with time.”

In a moment when the Senators have hit their all-time low in attendance, McLaughlin embodies the fanbase that believes there’s still hope. 

“Overall, Ottawa is a hockey town,” McLaughlin said. “Anyone who says otherwise is either completely lost or probably a Leafs fan.”

Sean McLaughlin stands in front of the Ice House rink B at Carleton University. McLaughlin says he believes his favourite NHL team, the Ottawa Senators, will get better and stay in Ottawa. Photo by Samantha Campling.