Sports Senators' 'rock bottom' reaches new depths amid disturbing legal matters

00:57  14 june  2018
00:57  14 june  2018 Source:   sportingnews.com

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Eugene Melnyk wearing a suit and tie: Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. © (Getty Images) Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk.

Here we are, again.

Have the Ottawa Senators hit rock bottom? It was only six months ago to the day I first posed this question, and for good reason (at the time). The Sens were spiraling, the on-ice product putrid. Their captain and face of the franchise was embroiled in a public spat with ownership. Said ownership threatened to relocate the team. All very bad things for a club that, at the time, had been six months removed from a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

All was not well in Ottawa by most measures, but things have since taken a more dramatic, horrible turn for the worse.

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This has to be the worst it gets, right? Maybe.

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The latest problems entered the public eye May 30 with the arrest of assistant general manager Randy Lee on a second-degree harassment charge. Lee stands accused of making lewd and unwanted advances to a 19-year-old hotel shuttle driver while attending the NHL's scouting combine in Buffalo, N.Y. The 56-year-old, who has pleaded not guilty, is responsible for overseeing the Senators' AHL club, with many players close in age to the bus driver he allegedly harassed.

At the combine, Lee was interviewing and evaluating many prospects younger than that driver.

Fast forward to Tuesday. The Ottawa Citizen uncovered another ongoing legal matter within the Senators organization: Melinda Karlsson, the wife of star captain Erik Karlsson, has filed for an order of protection against Monika Caryk, the fiancee of teammate Mike Hoffman, over months of alleged harassment and cyber attacks targeting the Karlsson family, including some relating to their stillborn son, Axel, in March.

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It was one thing when the team was bad and stuttering. Hockey results matter — there is no doubt about that — and the real-world consequences carry over in a number of ways.

But what's happening in Ottawa now has taken on an entirely different tone, something the Senators and the NHL desperately need to resolve.

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Both matters can be boiled down to an unfit working environment, the genesis of which has to be pinned on those who run the franchise. The Citizen later reported that team officials have known about the allegations pertaining to Caryk for "weeks." With not-so-quiet rumors about Hoffman being on the trade market due to "personal issues," it's quite likely the team's knowledge of this situation extends well beyond that timeline.

Which begs the question: What, again, was being done to help Karlsson and his family, who have given so much to the franchise and city, only to ostensibly shown the door?

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And then there's Lee. The Senators have said they will let the police investigation play out before making further decisions. It's fair not to arrive at a final conclusion until all the facts are revealed, but until they come to light, and considering Ottawa is in the middle of the draft process, how is it Lee can be allowed to continue to do his job, given the nature of his work and the people he interacts with daily? How difficult would it be for the Senators to say, in the same breath, that Lee will not be a part of the draft process until the investigation concludes?

But again, this is the Senators we're talking about, a franchise that has perhaps the thinnest scouting staff in the NHL. Benching someone because of serious harassment allegations becomes more of a numbers game than checking your moral compass and doing what's right.

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From that story six months ago: It can't get any worse in Ottawa, can it?

Yes, it could, it has, and something needs to be done immediately to finally rescue a franchise in an obvious and dangerous free fall.

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In September of 2017, the NHL released its Declaration of Principles, a governing document championed by commissioner Gary Bettman and the world's hockey leagues and their member clubs are supposed to follow. To borrow a few lines from that document:

"Hockey's greatest value is the role it plays in the development of character and life skills."

"All hockey organizations — regardless of size or level of competition — bring value to players and families in their ability to deliver a positive family experience."

"All hockey programs should provide a safe, positive and inclusive environment for players and families regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and socio-economic status. Simply put, hockey is for everyone."

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When it came to the on-ice product, there was disagreement in the Senators approach. A surprise run to the 2017 Eastern Conference finals in which they fell an overtime-goal in Game 7 short of qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final, was followed by a very slow offseason.

There were plenty of reasons to believe their success could not be replicated, and the lack of subsequent roster moves would be the precursor to a big regression. It was, but that all feels material now.

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Because when you read the details of what's alleged against Lee — that he continued to rub the shoulders of a 19-year-old male, even after he was told to stop, and then made lewd comments about his own private parts — it makes your skin crawl. You don't need a master's degree in hockey to understand the difference between right and wrong here. Until the Senators have absolute clarity on what did or did not occur on that bus, Lee should no longer be a part of their draft process.

Brady Tkachuk, a top prospect the Senators may well select with the No. 4 overall pick June 22, is also 18 years old. Why should he or his family feel comfortable putting Tkachuk in an interview room with Lee, or putting his future in his hands?

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“The Ottawa Senators will always hold all members of the organization to the highest standards of behaviour, regardless of the environment in which they operate," the team said in the statement it released.

That gets us back to the situation involving Hoffman and Karlsson.

It is abundantly clear now that the trade rumors swirling around Hoffman coincide with these allegations against Caryk, whom the Senators forward has been dating for years. And while the Senators will likewise have to await the results of an investigation — Ottawa police are probing the case's merits of criminal harassment charges — some close to the situation have already chimed in, with a guilty verdict.

It is impossible to know what the Senators may or may not have done in their attempt to mediate the problem internally, other than trade Hoffman. The optics, of course, speak for themselves, and leave the Senators once again looking like they're asking Karlsson, the subject of trade discussions himself, to jump aboard a boat that's taking on water, and do so in a tattered life jacket.

For the past nine years, Erik Karlsson has given everything to this franchise, not only on the ice, but in the community. He's a pillar, the exact kind of player you never want to put on another sweater because: 1. He's a generational talent, and 2. He is the perfect ambassador for the team.

But to run down exactly how he and the team got to this point: Karlsson is due for a new contract next summer. He currently makes $6.5 million from a deal signed in 2012, a massive underpayment. At the time, Karlsson agreed to a seven-year term, knowing well that the market would be dramatically different in the final years of that contract, and he was likely going to be making below what he deserved.

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2018 UFA RANKINGS: Forwards | Defensemen | Goalies

So, when asked about his upcoming contract negotiations, Karlsson gave an honest answer.

"When I go to market, I’m going to get what I’m worth, and it’s going to be no less, no matter where I’m going," Karlsson said in Novemeber. It came after Drew Doughty, another possible prized free agent defenseman in the summer of 2019, specifically cited Karlsson when discussing the dollar and cents of a potential new contract.

"I know I’m going to talk to Karlsson back and forth, kind of see what money he’s looking for," Doughty told The Athletic. "I’ll kind of look at what money I’m looking for. I don’t know if he’s going to re-sign with Ottawa, I don’t know if I’ll re-sign with L.A. You just never know what’s going to happen.”

The backlash to Karlsson's comments was severe, forcing him to walk back what he said. But that simply wasn't enough. In December, general manager Pierre Dorion entirely left the door open to a Karlsson trade, a concept that was hard to imagine when he was carrying them through the 2017 playoffs.

"If an opposing team phones you and makes you an offer you can’t refuse, all I know is ... if Wayne Gretzky got traded, I think any player in the NHL can be traded," Dorion said. "We love Erik Karlsson. We understand he went through a pretty serious operation. His condition is finally getting to the level where it needs to be. We love him. We want him to be an Ottawa Senator for life."

They have a funny way of showing it.

Consider that Karlsson played through injury this season (and last), played on a subpar roster with a constantly changing defensive partner, played while his team's front office tried to posture him as a villain for literally just saying he wouldn't take a hometown discount, and played after the tragedy his family went through.

The environment in which he and his wife Melinda were forced to operate was toxic. If this harassment really did come internally, if that was the source of an Instagram comment that read, “I feel bad for the baby he didn’t have a chance with Melinda popping pain killer medication everyday," it sinks to the lowest level a human being can reach.

Comments by Hoffman's agent, Robert Hooper, made to The Citizenprovide more context into how bad things have become.

“What we’ve indicated to Pierre is that, and let’s call a spade a spade, it would be very difficult for both parties — both Erik and Mike as well as the wives and the fiancees — to co-exist in the same wives’ room and the same dressing room,” Hooper said. “This isn’t something we talked about with Pierre just today. We’ve been aware of this situation since the end of the season."

So while Hooper and Hoffman have denied the allegations, no one is denying what sounds like a rift between teammates. And no one is denying the team's knowledge of said problem, dating to at least early April, and very likely dating back much further than that (the order of protection cites threats as early as November 2017).

The peace bond was filed May 4, according to CTV, meaning in the month after the Senators' season ended and the team said it knew about what was happening (which, again, probably extends much longer than what's on public record) and when the order of protection was actually filed, nothing changed enough to indicate to Melinda Karlsson she and her family were not at risk.

A franchise's responsibility for policing these types of incidents is totally up for opinion. But to argue that Karlsson has been treated close to fair over the past 10 months is to carry the same water that's rapidly filling up the boat Karlsson so desperately needs to evacuate.

It's really hard to imagine things getting much worse for the Senators, but then again, many fans probably long for the days of threatening relocation or seven-game losing streaks. Because this is no longer about wins and losses, but items of grave concern that are much more important. And until someone can take ownership for this situation, assume accountability and begin to clean this mess up, then, well, maybe there are new depths still to be reached.

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