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Melnyk brings much-needed stability to team

Melnyk brings much-needed stability to team

MARK BRENDER

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The NHL, with varying degrees of success, has more than once opened its arms to tycoon owners who promised to become hockey fans. Eugene Melnyk is a tycoon hockey fan who wanted to become an NHL owner. For the Ottawa Senators, that difference makes all the difference in the world.

Eugene Melnyk

   Born: May 27, 1959, in Toronto

   Home: Barbados

   Occupation: Chairman and chief executive officer of Mississauga, Ontario-based Biovail Corp. Reported revenue of $788 million in 2002, publicly traded on New York and Toronto stock exchanges.

   Sports involvement: Purchased the NHL Ottawa Senators and Corel Centre on Aug. 25 for $130 million; owns St. Michael's Majors (Ontario Hockey League team); owns Winding Oaks Farm in Ocala, Fla., a stable for some 370 thoroughbred horses including 1998 Queen's Plate winner Archers Bay.

Ottawa breathed a collective sigh of relief Aug. 25 when Melnyk officially took ownership of the formerly bankrupt team. Under his control, the emotional and financial roller coaster that has been the Senators' existence for much of their 11 years appears to be over. The ride for the foreseeable future should be a smooth one, and — for all the talk about weak small markets and the Canadian dollar — maybe even profitable to boot.

"Put it this way. If we don't make the playoffs, I'll probably lose a few million dollars. If we make the playoffs, we make a few million," says Melnyk, the 44-year-old founder, chairman and chief executive officer of pharmaceuticals giant Biovail Corp. "That's kind of how tight it is. It's very well managed."

Melnyk grew up in Toronto collecting hockey cards with his brother and idolizing the likes of Dave Keon and Bobby Hull. When at his home in Barbados, he pays $1,000 an hour in satellite charges to watch games of his junior team, the St. Michael's Majors of the Ontario Hockey League. He attended Senators games last spring in the playoffs and has the private jet routine down pat. If he's out of his Toronto office by 5:30, he's in the Corel Centre in plenty of time for the 7:30 puck drop.

Melnyk hasn't yet memorized last year's stats for every Senators player, as is his desire, but he certainly knows that making the playoffs won't be an issue for this team, one of the NHL's youngest and strongest.

It turns out that after bankruptcy proceedings cleared the team and Corel Centre of their huge debt this summer, the Senators were a bargain waiting to be had for anyone who had the cash to buy the two properties outright. That's where Melnyk, a university dropout and the son of a Toronto doctor, comes in. That $130 million price was but a drop in the bucket.

Melnyk earned his first millions by founding and later selling a medical publishing company in the 1990s. He owns about 18 percent of Biovail's stock. Biovail scored big in the mid-'90s by hitting on technology to make sustained-release versions of existing drugs. Patients liked the idea of taking one pill a day instead of two or three. Melnyk's shares in the company translate to well over $1 billion. His net worth has been estimated at more than $2 billion.

Ever since his name became linked with a Senators bid last winter, Melnyk said his only motivation was making sure Canada doesn't lose another hockey team and that the Senators stay in the nation's capital. In the bankruptcy discussions that followed, people who saw him working described him as focused, energetic and interested in the details.

"You can also judge a very busy businessman by the kinds of people who work for him and he relies on," said Bob Caporale of Game Plan LLC, which brokered the sale. "And his acquisition team was just outstanding, very qualified and capable and hard-working people."

He also knows how to bring back the good times. On Oct. 8, the night before Ottawa's home opener, Melnyk is bringing the Eagles to the Corel Centre to perform a free show for season-ticket holders. He has given contract extensions to senior management personnel, who didn't see even a cost-of-living raise last year, and says all 200 club employees have been given reason to feel secure.

"The thing that he's doing right off the bat is he's making people feel comfortable," said Bill Daly, NHL executive vice president and chief legal officer. "It's kind of a return to normalcy. That franchise's fans and employees have been put through a lot of uncertainty for the last two or three years and he's sensitive to that."

The peaceful, easy feeling shouldn't necessarily extend to players looking to cash in on the boss's dough, however. Ottawa's payroll will rise from roughly $30 million a year ago to close to $40 million in 2003-04. Melnyk said he is willing to spend if it's necessary for a Stanley Cup run. On the other hand, fourth-year winger Martin Havlat was still sitting at home in Slovakia in a contract dispute as training camp opened.

"We will not change under any circumstances the way we do our business," said Senators President Roy Mlakar, preaching the need for a tight eye on the budget. "I have absolutely no indication from him [Melnyk] that he isn't happy with the way we do our business."

On the business side, Melnyk has dumped Ticketmaster in favor of CapitalTickets, a new company that will sell tickets to all Corel Centre events. The Senators had sold about 8,500 season tickets at the time the Eagles concert was announced in late August, and have a goal of reaching the league average of 11,000.

Mlakar believes Melnyk's contacts in Canadian financial circles can only help Ottawa expand its season-ticket base, which still lags in the middle of the NHL pack. "He's already helping by contacting banks, ones that he's done business with and saying hey, you guys have got to get off your behinds [and support the team]," Mlakar said. "So I love that."

Apparently, so does the Ottawa community. When Mlakar introduced the new owner at a cystic fibrosis research fund-raising dinner in mid-September, the surprised crowd responded with a three-and-a-half minute standing ovation.

Melnyk plans to attend 15 Senators games in Ottawa this season (not counting playoffs) and another five or six on the road. As for the rest, he'll watch every minute of every game on television except if he's in the air, in which case he'll tape it and watch it later.

It might take a few years, but Melnyk believes the new stability and a consistently competitive team will allow fans to repair emotional attachments with the club that may have eroded through the recent turmoil. If the local technology industry eventually bounces back and begins to support the team again, as Melnyk believes it will, so much the better.

"All in all," he says, "I'm very optimistic of where we're going."

Mark Brender is a senior writer with The Hockey News, based in Toronto.

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