Publishing date:Jan 04, 2021 •
Eugene Melnyk would love to see fans back in the seats at the Canadian Tire Centre.
And, the Ottawa Senators’ owner is hopeful someday soon that will be the case.
While the reality is it may not happen during this 56-game season with the province of Ontario in lockdown until at least Jan. 23 and the case count of COVID-19 taking almost a daily rise in Ottawa, Melnyk remains optimistic Senators’ faithful will be able to make a safe return when the club gets the green light from health authorities.
Speaking on the Naz and Wally Sports Hour on Zoomer radio in Toronto Sunday morning, Melnyk expanded on the club’s plan to allow 6,000 people on a nightly basis at the Canadian Tire Centre.
He said the focus is on health and safety.
“I’m a believer that you can have fans in (the rink) right now,” Melnyk told hosts Naz Marchese and Walter Rigobon. “I’ve got a plan, and it’s been submitted, that we can put 6,000 people in our arena by distancing, testing, putting on a mask and just making sure that you do all the right protocols. It can happen already, we can do it.”
Due to the uncertainty, Senators’ president of business operations Anthony LeBlanc has focused on season ticket sales for the 2020-21 campaign, but the club does have priority list in place if there were to be a green light.
Melnyk has consistently stated he believes a rapid testing kit outside the rink, where people wait in their cars, is a way to speed up a result so people in the rink know they’re negative for COVID-19.
“The key is testing, testing and testing. Everybody wants to be with big groups of people. We’re social animals, it’s terrible because what you don’t see with the effect of COVID-19 is what it’s doing to mental health across the world for people being isolated,” he added.
Melnyk said the plan is extensive and would involve proper social distancing, but also knows the process of getting people back to the rink has to be done gradually.
“People will distance themselves, it will just take time. It’s going to take you an extra 10-to-15 minutes to get in and get out,” Melnyk said. “People are being cautious enough that they’re kind of staying away from others when they’re walking around in tighter quarters as long as people are educated that way. They can jump up (when they’re excited) but there’s nobody around them and they’re in a bubble. If you take a look at the football games on television today, they’re not becoming super spreader events.
“If you hand it over to the private sector, we have a responsibility, and a liability as well, and we’ll ensure it happens with the proper oversight. And, it can happen, we can start tomorrow. We just need to the convince the regulators, in this case the local regulators and the province, that we are responsible people, we know what we’re doing and we know how to get this executed properly. We can start right away. It’s got to start small with a lot of testing.”
The founder of Biovail Corp, a large pharmaceutical company, Melnyk is pleased vaccines are being distributed and administered in North America. He said the work that’s been done in a short amount of time has been remarkable, but he admitted he, personally, would be more comfortable waiting six months to a year to get a shot.
“Not until I see what happens with other people but that’s me,” Melnyk said.
The club started its camp New Year’s Eve and will be joined by No. 3 overall pick Tim Stuetzle next weekend when he’s done his seven-day quarantine following a standout effort at the world juniors.
Stuetzle had five goals and 10 points in five games at the juniors with Germany and arrived in Ottawa late Saturday from Edmonton.
“Tim really showed off and showed his leadership at the world juniors,” said Melnyk. “I can’t wait … It’s a very young team and our best years are coming, but I think you’re going to start seeing things like Tim Stuetzle. It’ll be a little different story in the NHL when he’s up against tough teams and tough players.
“Really, everybody is so excited in Ottawa. They know that we have something coming that’s going to get better and better every year.”
The Senators know an all-Canadian division won’t be easy and only four of the seven teams will move onto the post-season, but Melnyk would like this group to compete for a playoff spot.
“We’re in for really some tough competition,” Melnyk said. “I’m not one to applaud other teams, especially the other ones in Ontario and Quebec, but these are all improved teams. We’re improved. I think we’re more improved, but they really did well. Montreal and Toronto are very strong.
“It’s going to be tough. We want to be very competitive and it’s going to be a tight division. It would be an unbelievable achievement to hit the playoffs, but I think we can because you never know with these young players.”