The Senators and Dany Heatley, the franchise’s persona non grata, meet face-to-face Tuesday in San Jose, their first on-ice confrontation since the conclusion of their messy and public divorce, which became the story of the summer of 2009.
Regardless of how Tuesday’s game turns out, the more interesting development over the long term will be the fate of the Senators’ arbitration case against Heatley, which is larger in scope than originally believed. It goes beyond the idea of simply recouping the $4 million lump sum payment owner Eugene Melnyk was forced to give Heatley July 1 after Heatley refused a deal to the Edmonton Oilers.
Now, according to an NHL source, the Senators will be trying to recoup damages they feel were inflicted upon the franchise through Heatley’s actions over the summer.
Certainly, Heatley is not the first star player to have asked to be traded and not the first to have invoked his no-movement clause to prevent being traded to a location not up to his standards (sorry, Oilers fans).
But he might be one of the first to have a team try to prove his actions had a serious negative effect on the business of the franchise and that he should be financially responsible for the damages. Melnyk was thorougly steamed when he had to stroke Heatley that cheque, hours after Heatley refused to accept a deal to go to the Oilers because he wanted more “options.”
A source indicated the Senators could potentially have their sights set much higher than that $4 million hit Melnyk took after Oilers president Kevin Lowe and general manager Steve Tambellini failed to convince Heatley to move his act to the City of Champions and the clock struck midnight July 1.
Quietly, behind the scenes, the Senators are preparing to engage the necessary legal minds to build their case against Heatley.
“They’ve got to show cause and prove damages,” said one legal source. “I know there was a lot of skepticism out there about Melnyk’s chances (of winning the arbitration case), but don’t believe it can’t be done. There was a lot of negativity around the franchise because of the Heatley sideshow. What happened to their season ticket base? What happened to corporate sales?
"The challenge will be showing a cause-and-effect between Heatley’s actions and damage to the Senators’ business.”
Senators president Cyril Leeder said recently the Senators season ticket base is in the 10,000-range, down about 3,000 from its peak in the 2007-08 season. That came in the afterglow of the team’s first trip to the Stanley Cup final in the modern era.
Attendance is down in Ottawa this season by an average of 1,110 fans a game compared to the average of 19,081 last year. At an average ticket price of about $60, that’s a drop of about $70,000 in ticket revenue each game, or about $2.7 million over the course of a 41-game home schedule. Then there’s the associated decline in parking, concession and merchandise revenue.
But how much of that is due to the team missing the playoffs last year? The challenge, of course, is proving a cause-and-effect between Heatley’s actions and a decline in the Senators’ revenue.
Sounds like a stretch, but you have to love the way Melnyk won’t let it go.
Imagine if the Senators were to prove Heatley’s actions cost them money and were able to recoup damages? It would set an interesting precedent when it comes to player accountability.
“There’s a moral question, as well,” said another interested observer. “It’s pretty low to demand a trade three weeks before the bonus is due and then turn down (the Edmonton trade).”
The Senators have been down the arbitration road before and emerged winners. They took forward Alexei Yashin to arbitration in 2000 after he held out for a season, winning their claim that he owed them another season to fulfill his contract.
It is not expected the Heatley-Senators arbitration case will be heard soon. It’s believed the backlog is at least a year.
“As it works its way up the ladder, the league is going to have to decide if it has merit and whether it is worth pursuing,” said an NHL insider. “At some point, (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman will have to look at it and decide if this is an arbitration case they can win. If the best they can do is prove Heatley’s actions cost the Senators $400,000, they probably won’t proceed. It won’t be worth it. But if they can build a body of evidence that suggests the damages are well into that seven-figure range, I’d bet they decide to go to the wall.”
Melnyk will have lots of people in his corner.
With this column, Ottawa Sun sports columnist Chris Stevenson becomes Sun Media's national hockey columnist. Based in Ottawa and working out of the national bureau, Chris will be the go-to person on all hockey issues such as the Phoenix Coyotes, the NHLPA upheavals and anything Gary Bettman has to say. It is important to note here that all hockey is his mandate, not just the NHL. Chris has been with the Sun since 1988 and in February, he will be covering his sixth Olympics with the Sun team.