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Hockey world reacts to death of Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk

Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk was remembered for his committed and complicated relationships with his NHL club and business holdings, as well as his passion for horse racing Tuesday.

The Senators announced late Monday night the corporate and sports mogul had died at the age of 62 in Toronto.

“He was a human being that gave a lot,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said.

A shrewd businessmen, Melnyk’s corporate empire provided the capital to purchase the Senators in 2003 when the franchise faced bankruptcy and a tenuous future in Canada’s capital city.

The team he purchased for US$92 million is worth $525 million today, according to Forbes.

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Dorion fought back tears Tuesday at the NHL general managers meeting in Manalapan, Fla., where he reflected on Melnyk’s legacy.

“Eugene Melnyk was a son, he was a father to two great daughters, Anna and Olivia,” the Sens’ GM said. “He’s someone that meant a lot to a lot of people.

“He’s someone that brought stability to the Ottawa Senators franchise. If not for Eugene Melnyk, the Senators would not be in Ottawa. He’s someone that had great passion for the game of hockey.

“He made a commitment to the city of Ottawa, to the franchise to try and build a winner. I think one of the saddest parts about his passing was that won’t get to see all the work that we all did together to try to build a winner.”

The Senators played in the Stanley Cup final in 2007 when Ottawa lost in five games to the Anaheim Ducks.

After reaching the conference final in 2017 — Ottawa was a double-overtime goal in Game 7 away from reaching the Cup final again — the Senators have missed the playoffs in five straight seasons.

The team currently boasts a core of talented, young players, including Brady Tkachuk who at 22 is the youngest captain in franchise history.

“We play with heavy hearts, of course,” Tkachuk said Tuesday in Nashville before a game against the Predators.

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“We just want to put our best effort in. There should be a lot of eyes on us today, so we want to make sure we play well and honour Mr. Melnyk with a good game tonight.”

Melnyk’s relationship with the Senators’ fan base soured in recent years.

The owner’s comments before a 2017 outdoor game in Ottawa, indicating he could move the team in the future if attendance didn’t increase, sparked a “#MelnykOut” campaign on city billboards and social media.

“He was occasionally controversial in the media, but that was something that we admired and respected about him, and he will be missed,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in Florida.

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“I remember when he was in my office, and we reached an agreement almost 20 years ago that he was going to buy the franchise. I think he will be remembered as somebody who purchased the franchise at a difficult time in the franchise’s history, stabilized it, made it competitive, and was always passionate about the game.”

Melnyk founded Biovail, a pharmaceutical company specializing in controlled-release drugs, and sold it for millions in 2010.

He also purchased a controlling interest in a cosmetics company in 2007 and founded a medical device company in 2019. Melnyk’s net worth was estimated at $1.15 billion in 2017, according to Canadian Business magazine.

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“I will remember a younger #eugenemelnyk who loved being NHL owner of the #ottawasenators & was a pioneer in generic drugs that slowly released in humans,” Senators founder Bruce Firestone said Tuesday in a tweet.

Melnyk underwent a liver transplant in 2015 after an emergency public appeal for a donor.

“It’s a big loss. He died, obviously, young,” Bettman said. “Over the last few years, I think his illnesses have been well-chronicled.”

The NHL commissioner expected no immediate change in the Senators’ operations without their owner.

“The franchise will run in the ordinary course,” Bettman said. “They have professional management.

“I’ve been in touch with the executor of his estate. I’ve known pretty much what the focus has been, but beyond that, all of the issues in terms of what the future looks like, we said, ‘Let’s focus on Eugene, and his condition, particularly over the last few weeks.’

“Those are questions that will get dealt with over time, particularly by his daughters, Anna and Olivia, and by his executor.”

Melnyk was no stranger to corporate litigation as both a complainant and a defendant.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission sued Biovail in 2008 for its business practices and Melnyk eventually paid a settlement.

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The Ontario Securities Commission fined Melnyk and banned him from senior roles in public companies for five years in 2011 because of conduct “contrary to the public interest.”

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Corporate infighting and lawsuits between Melnyk and a developer over building a new downtown arena in Ottawa ultimately torpedoed that deal in 2019. Ottawa mayor Jim Watson publicly sparred with Melnyk over its collapse.

“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 Tuesday in a tweet.

Melnyk was a standout among Canadian thoroughbred-racing owners and breeders.

He was twice 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.

“Eugene Melnyk was a true Canadian sportsman, one of our leading owners, and a dear friend of Woodbine and the horse racing industry here in Ontario,” Woodbine Entertainment chief executive officer Jim Lawson said Tuesday in a statement.

“His contributions to the sport were significant and he was recognized with many accomplishments and awards along the way, highlighted by Sovereign Awards, an Eclipse Award, and ultimately being enshrined in the Horse Racing Hall of Fame.”

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– With files from Joshua Clipperton in Florida

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