Erik Karlsson chose to remember the best of times with Eugene Melnyk this morning.
“I’m just gonna remember all the good and positive stuff that he brought,” the once-Ottawa Senators superstar said. “There was a lot of it.”
Melnyk, the long-time owner of the Senators, passed away from an undisclosed illness on Monday. He was 62. Karlsson said that he was unaware how sick Melnyk was.
The pharmaceutical magnate is credited with rescuing Ottawa from bankruptcy when he bought the team in 2003. Under his stewardship, the Sens made the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 and the Eastern Conference Finals in 2017.
Ottawa general manager Pierre Dorion pointed out, from the NHL GM meetings in Florida, “If not for Eugene Melnyk, the Senators would not be in Ottawa.”
But the brash owner also had a dark, unpopular side that would inspire a fan-funded #MelnykOut billboard campaign in Mar. 2018.
Parallel to that, Erik Karlsson was drafted in the first round of the 2008 NHL Draft by the Senators and became one of the best players in the world under Melnyk’s watch. He won the Norris Trophy in 2012 and 2015 and would lead Ottawa to a 2017 Game Seven Eastern Conference Finals loss to Pittsburgh.
That would prove to be the high point of Karlsson’s Ottawa career.
“We had a great relationship for a very long time,” Karlsson remembered of his much-scrutinized relationship with Melnyk. “Even when it ended the way it did, I don’t think it was horrible. I didn’t agree with a lot of things, but I also didn’t know what exactly was going on, on his end.”
The Sens were one win away from the Stanley Cup Final in 2017. But the next season, Karlsson’s impending free agency loomed, and the team crumbled in the standings. Unchecked trade rumors swirling around the popular defenseman, in part, spurred the #MelnykOut campaign.
In Sept. 2018, Erik Karlsson was traded to the San Jose Sharks. Around that time, stars Mike Hoffman, Kyle Turris, Matt Duchene, and Mark Stone were dealt as Ottawa embarked on a total rebuild.
Karlsson says he hadn’t spoken with Melnyk since the trade but shared that the Senators owner still sent he and wife Melinda flowers when his daughter Harlow was born in Oct. 2019 and son Stellan in Feb. 2022.
“We had a relationship, but obviously not as tight as when I played there,” Karlsson said. “People read things and they hear things, but there’s a lot more to the story. He was a passionate owner, he cared about the organization, and he wanted us to do well.”
Karlsson chuckled when asked if he remembered the investigation that Melnyk spearheaded to prove that Matt Cooke intentionally sliced Karlsson’s achilles tendon with his skate in Feb. 2013. There was no penalty on the play, and the NHL ruled it an accident. Karlsson returned to action two months later.
“That was never one of his issues,” Karlsson said of Melnyk’s passion for the Senators. “I feel like he did everything that he could for a long period of time to try and win the Stanley Cup and give that organization the best possible chance to do so. I was there for a lot of that. For that, I will always be grateful.”
The Senators haven’t been close to the playoffs since trading Karlsson, but unlike some of their equally passionate fanbase, the San Jose Sharks defenseman doesn’t put it just on the owner: “It’s unfortunate that it ended the way that it did, and they haven’t been able to pick up steam. But I don’t think that’s solely on Mr. Melnyk.”
Karlsson offered: “It’s easy, sometimes, to forget the whole story, the whole picture of things. I think if you map it out, he did a lot of tremendous things for that community and that organization. I think that’s what he’ll end up being [remembered for].”
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