'He changed our city': Local business leaders assess Eugene Melnyk's legacy

Eugene Melnyk
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has died at the age of 62, the NHL team announced Monday night. File photo

Prominent business and political figures remembered Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk Tuesday as an ardent hockey fan and community builder who rescued the NHL franchise from the brink of bankruptcy and helped raise millions of dollars for local charities.

Melynk died on Monday at the age of 62. The cause of death was not immediately known.

In 2015, Melnyk had a liver transplant at the Toronto General Hospital. He was reportedly mere days away from death before a suitable donor was found.

The Toronto native had owned the Senators since 2003. Melnyk purchased the Senators and Canadian Tire Centre for US$130 million after reaching a deal with creditors. He also was a former owner of the St. Michael's Majors of the Ontario Hockey League.

Melnyk made his mark in business in the 1990s as the founder and former chairman of Biovail Corp., once Canada's largest pharmaceutical company. He put in an offer for the Senators after Rod Bryden’s deal to reacquire the franchise was unsuccessful. 

While the team advanced to the Stanley Cup final in 2007, Melnyk’s relationship with the city began to sour in later years as the team floundered on the ice and at the box office. During the NHL 100 Classic celebrations in late 2017, the owner publicly mused about relocating the team, prompting disillusioned fans to launch a #MelnykOut campaign.

Two years later, Melynk’s bid to build a new arena at LeBreton Flats with John Ruddy’s Trinity Development Group fell apart amid legal wrangling between the partners.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who sparred publicly with the late Senators owner over the collapse of the deal, offered his condolences to Melnyk's family and colleagues on Tuesday.

'Full of energy and ideas'

“While we didn’t always see eye to eye on some issues, I was always appreciative that Mr. Melnyk stepped forward to keep the (Senators) in Ottawa, solidifying the organization's place as an integral part of our city,” Watson said in a tweet.

Bruce Firestone, who was part of the group that landed the Senators expansion franchise in 1990, said Melnyk left an enduring legacy as an entrepreneur and sports executive.

“I remember Eugene as a younger man, full of energy and ideas,” Firestone said in an email to OBJ on Tuesday. “He was proud of his work with Biovail developing generic slow-release drugs for all of humanity. But he was even more pleased to be an NHL owner. Commissioner Gary Bettman does not believe that NHL franchises should be moved – look at his efforts to keep the Coyotes in Arizona. Gary worked hard to retain the Sens for Ottawa after their bankruptcy in the mid 2000s, and Eugene stepped up at that time so we could have NHL hockey in Ottawa for another nearly two decades.”

Former Senators president Cyril Leeder also paid his respects to Melnyk on Tuesday.

“I wish to extend my deepest condolences and sympathies to Anna, Olivia and the entire Melnyk family,” he said in an email.

The Senators appeared in the NHL playoffs nine times during Melnyk’s ownership tenure. But Ottawa hasn’t reached the postseason since 2017 when it lost to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins four games to three in the Eastern Conference final.

Melnyk was the owner, governor and chairman of the Senators and Belleville Senators of the American Hockey League. More recently, he was chairman and chief executive of Neurolign, a fledgling medical device company, and chairman of Clean Beauty Collective, a boutique company that produces ethically sourced products. He was also an Honorary Colonel of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Charitable causes

Melnyk also supported numerous charitable causes, including St. Joseph’s Health Centre, Help Us Help the Children and St. Michael’s College School in Toronto, his alma mater. He later resided in Barbados, where he founded Providence School for pre-kindergarten to Grade 10 and served as chairman of trustees and the board of management.

With Melnyk’s assistance, the Senators Community Foundation invested more than $100 million to support local charities and community programs that help children and youth across the region. He was the lead donor of Anna House, a childcare facility in Belmont, N.Y., and Roger Nielson House, a pediatric palliative care facility in Ottawa named after the former Senators coach.

Most recently, Melnyk, whose parents were both born in Ukraine, pledged to assist the Ukrainian people in the country’s war with Russia. He said the Senators Community Foundation would direct funds to charitable causes in Ukraine and vowed to work with the local Ukrainian community to help collect donations, becoming the first NHL owner to publicly support the country. 

In 2017, two years after his successful liver transplant, Melnyk launched the Organ Project, a charity that aimed to educate the public on the benefits of organ donations and encourage people to sign their organ donor cards.

“That did change his outlook on giving back,” Ottawa businessman Peter Nicholson, who worked with Melnyk as an adviser on the charity, said of his transplant. “He really did feel that it was a lifetime gift – a gift of more years.”

Nicholson, the owner of local financial services firm Wealth Creation Preservation & Donation, advised Melynk on how to maximize the tax benefits of the Organ Project. The charity’s efforts were suspended in 2019 after the organization said its success was difficult to measure under the province’s online registration system.

“(Melnyk) was passionate about (the Senators Community Foundation), but I think it reached another level with his liver transplant to make a real change in Canada and globally on people knowing the value of signing your transplant card,” Nicholson said. “That was dear to his heart.”

Well-known Ottawa businessman and philanthropist Dan Greenberg, arguably one of the Senators’ most die-hard fans, got to see a more personal side of Melnyk during a dinner they both attended as part of the 2014 NHL Heritage Classic in Vancouver, where the Senators faced off against the Canucks.

Greenberg, owner of Ferguslea Properties, sat at the restaurant dinner table right next to Melynk and the late Bryan Murray, who was the team’s general manager at the time. 

“It was a magical evening,” Greenberg said of the long conversation the three of them shared that night. He doesn’t even remember speaking to anyone else during the meal – including his wife, Barbara Crook, who was busy chatting with dinner host Cyril Leeder and his wife, Lydia.

“This one night I basically spent probably three hours with Bryan and Eugene. Can you imagine? I think I really got to connect with both of them on a level I never had before.”

"He did this incredible thing; he rescued this team essentially from bankruptcy."

Greenberg’s biggest takeaway from that conversation was how proud Melynk was of his Ukrainian roots and how important it was to him that he create a legacy for his daughters. “Those two passions came out so clearly.”

Greenberg, whose company was also the title sponsor of the annual Sens Soirée organized by the hockey club’s charitable arm, still remembers with fondness the early days of the team under Melnyk’s ownership. 

“He was this glamorous figure who came out of nowhere. Who knew who Eugene Melnyk was before he bought the team? He bought not only the team but he also bought the building.

“He did this incredible thing; he rescued this team essentially from bankruptcy.”

Greenberg touched on a few highlights, from when the team was just one goal away from going to the Stanley Cup final in 2017 to when Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf was traded to the Senators. 

Greenberg, who’s certainly no Leafs fan, found himself going from hating the new player to loving him. “I’m still in touch with Dion. He’s a great guy.

“All these things happened because of Eugene Melnyk. He really changed our city, that’s for sure. He changed our city. Absolutely.”

Nicholson once watched a Senators game with Melnyk in the owner’s private box and was impressed with his encyclopedic knowledge of – and passion for – the sport.

“He was an owner that really understood the game of hockey,” Nicholson said. “He would say the worst game for him is when they had the lead and they lost the lead in the third period. He would be angry for days until the next game.” 

Melnyk was also a successful thoroughbred horse-racing breeder, twice being named Canada’s top owner. His horses won all three legs of the Canadian Triple Crown, including Archers Bay capturing the ’98 Queen’s Plate and Prince of Wales Stakes en route to being named Canada’s champion three-year-old male horse.

Archers Bay was named after an area known for sunsets in northwest Barbados. The colt was the first horse Eugene Melnyk ever ran in the Queen’s Plate and the victory confirmed his decision to spend $125,000 for the son of Silver Deputy at a Kentucky yearling sale.

In 2013, Melnyk reduced his horse-racing operation and went from breeding to purchasing yearlings and racing those instead. Melnyk was inducted into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame in 2017.

– With additional reporting from the Canadian Press