Sens owner Melynk urges Canadian action on Ukraine
KATHRYN BLAZE CARLSON
OTTAWA — THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Last updated Friday, Mar. 21 2014, 10:29 PM EDT
Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators, stands in the visitors gallery as he is recognized in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill (FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press)
Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk stood in the House of Commons viewing gallery as his friend, Speaker Andrew Scheer, drew the chamber’s attention to his presence above.
Scheer, who had earlier lunched with Melnyk in the parliamentary dining room, formally recognized the “distinguished” Ukrainian-Canadian businessman and philanthropist, eliciting shouts of “Hear, hear!”
As Melnyk waved to the MPs in thanks, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird shouted: “Don’t trade [Jason] Spezza!”
It was March 4, the eve of the NHL trade deadline, and there were rumours the Sens captain was in for a move. Melnyk, who has played host to Scheer in his private box at the Canadian Tire Centre (the Speaker paid for his own tickets), smiled and said: “No chance.”
It was a light exchange at a tumultuous time.
Melnyk flew from Barbados to Ottawa on his private jet to meet that day with the Foreign Minister about the situation unfolding in Ukraine as Russia was in the process of laying claim to the Crimea region.
The pair also spoke by phone in December, ahead of the minister’s trip to Kiev. And the Toronto-born businessman discussed the crisis with Ukraine’s ambassador on March 4, too.
“What I said to [Baird by phone] is that I know my own people,” said Melnyk, a member of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) advisory council. “I told him it’s very important that everyone recognize we’re dealing with a whole new generation of people, some of whom only know freedom.”
As for his face-to-face meeting with Baird, “it was a private conversation,” Melnyk said in a phone interview from Barbados, where he has lived since 1991.
It’s not as though Melnyk is privy to cabinet secrets, nor is it clear the extent to which his advice carries weight. But another notable Ukrainian-Canadian, who has the ear of Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the subject of Ukraine, called Melnyk’s political role an “important” one.
“It’s important for our government to hear that prominent Canadians are supportive of key decisions,” said UCC head Paul Grod, who is in regular contact with Melnyk. “We value Eugene’s input as an important stakeholder in developing, and communicating, the UCC’s message.”
Melnyk, whose parents, Vera and Ferdinand, were born in the Ukrainian town of Chernivtsi, has long been involved in his community, both in Canada and in the former Soviet state. He recently invested $10,000 in a Ukrainian Canadian Students’ Union leadership project as a “Ukrainian dragon,” a play on the CBC show Dragons’ Den.
And his nearly two decades of work with Help Us Help The Children (HUHTC), a Toronto-based initiative providing humanitarian assistance to Ukrainian orphanages, led him – literally – up a mountain with former Ukrainian prime minister Viktor Yushchenko, at the time a presidential hopeful.
Now 54, wealthy and no stranger to controversy or headlines, Melnyk grew up one of four children in what he described as a middle-class home. With his father’s “devastating” death when Melnyk was 17, he took on several part-time jobs, including pumping gas and working at a Styrofoam cup company.
His education stops, really, with a high-school diploma. He dropped out of Toronto’s York University business and economics classes because he found himself wondering: “What in God’s name is [the professor] talking about, and how is this relevant to me making money?”