Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘I’ve done a lot of learning’: Michael Andlauer reflects on first season as Senators owner

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OTTAWA — Roughly 20 minutes after Travis Green’s introductory news conference concluded last Wednesday, Michael Andlauer was sitting inside the players’ lounge behind the Ottawa Senators dressing room. 

Andlauer had just finished an impromptu media scrum of his own, answering a handful of questions in French and English from reporters curious about the organization’s selection of their new head coach. 

Now in a more relaxed environment — sipping a cup of coffee that was brewed from the machine inside the lounge — Andlauer has agreed to an extended interview with The Athletic about his first season as owner of an NHL franchise. The premise of this conversation is fairly straightforward: an opportunity for Andlauer to divulge what he’s learned at the helm of the Senators. 

But as the interview starts, it’s Andlauer who actually poses the initial question. 

“Do you remember what I said in my first press conference?” he asks. 

Andlauer wants to start the conversation by rewinding back seven months to his introductory news conference at the end of September. It was a lavish affair inside the main entrance of the Canadian Tire Centre, which included a champagne toast alongside NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. 

“My priority off the bat is the learn,” Andlauer said on Sept. 22. “I’ve got a lot to learn here.”

And with that as a reference point, Andlauer explains that the past several months have been filled with teachable moments inside the owner’s suite. 

“I’ve done a lot of learning,” Andlauer says. “I’ve only been here for seven months, but it feels like a couple of years.”

His first season probably felt dragged out for a myriad of reasons. 

Andlauer was forced to part ways with both his general manager and head coach. 

The hockey club was stripped of a first-round pick for the Evgenii Dadonov trade debacle

Shane Pinto was suspended for 41 games for a gambling-related violation.

Those latter two incidents caused Andlauer to give a passionate and stirring news conference in November in which he openly lamented why he inherited such a dysfunctional mess. 

All of that noise helped contribute to a very underwhelming season on the ice, where the Senators finished with only 78 points and were well out of the playoff race by the All-Star break. Instead of the Senators being catapulted into a new era of success and prosperity under new ownership, it felt like the entire organization was stuck in neutral. 

Andlauer reveals that when the Senators held their season-ending exit meetings on April 18, he addressed the entire hockey operations department — including players, coaches, equipment and medical staff — inside the team’s dressing room. 

“I explained to them a few things I learned this year,” says Andlauer. “And the one thing I learned is that I hate to lose.”

During his speech inside the dressing room, Andlauer talked about the two pillars that he believes have fostered a winning and positive culture in his other business environments. 

“I told them, ‘You have to work harder than everybody else and you have to care more than everybody else. Those have been the ingredients of success for me,’” explains Andlauer. “If you’re selfish, you’re not caring. Playing responsibly? That’s caring. Respecting each other is caring.”

Andlauer wanted to strike a balanced tone with the players and staff and was sure to point out a handful of positive moments from the season. Among the highlights he specifically mentioned was Ridly Greig’s controversial slap-shot goal against Toronto in February. Maple Leafs fans invading Canadian Tire Centre has been a sore spot for Ottawa players and fans for the better part of two decades. But this marked Andlauer’s first experience with the infiltration of opposing fans and he admits he was “bothered” by hearing Brady Tkachuk roundly booed during the pregame introductions. 

The scene irritated him so much that he says he was forced to recede into the background during the national anthem that evening, as he didn’t want television cameras to catch the disgust on his face.

“I don’t have a very good poker face,” he says. 

So when Greig sealed Ottawa’s 5-3 victory with an emphatic slap shot into an empty net, Andlauer says he was fully supportive of his rookie’s actions. 

“That slap shot was an exclamation point to the Toronto fans in our building. It wasn’t to slight the Maple Leafs players,” explains Andlauer. “To me, it was a statement to those fans who were in our house, booing our Ottawa Senators.”

Andlauer got his first taste of the passion of Ottawa fans during the home opener against the Philadelphia Flyers in October. He says people lined up for 45 minutes to take a picture with him, giving him a window into how badly they are craving a winner in this market.

“That was an eye-opener for me,” says Andlauer. “I realized how much of a responsibility I have here.”

Michael Andlauer became the principal owner of the Senators in September. (Arianne Bergeron / NHLI via Getty Images)

While his other business — Andlauer Healthcare Group — is run primarily out of the Toronto area, he found himself spending a good chunk of time in Ottawa during the season. He lamented the fact he didn’t have a chance to skate on the Rideau Canal this winter, but says he now finds himself feeling like Ottawa is his natural home. 

“One of the things is that I learned is that I really fell in love with this city. I bought a house here and I just feel that I fit in well here,” says Andlauer. “People are respectful and passionate.”

But Andlauer’s first season hasn’t just been filled with admiration and praise in Ottawa. Some of those passionate fans are wearing the scars of a difficult stretch in which the Senators have missed the playoffs in seven consecutive seasons. They fear that Green was simply another budget-conscious hire by an organization that was notorious for cutting corners in the previous regime. And so in recent weeks, there has been some criticism lobbed in the direction of the owner’s suite. 

Andlauer says he does not have any social media accounts himself, but family members often relay negative feedback they see on various platforms. He says he understands the frustration of the fan base and doesn’t mind taking some of the heat for the club falling short of expectations. 

“I know I’m not going to make everybody happy. I’m not here to win an election. Ultimately, I’m the guy responsible and I’m OK with that,” says Andlauer. “I didn’t buy this team to get admiration.”

Some of the most critical and jaded fans are ready to put Andlauer’s catchphrase of “best in class” in the same category as “unparalleled success” and “rest is a weapon.” Those phrases were meant to be organizational philosophies, but quickly devolved into punchlines and memes when the team struggled on the ice. 

When it comes to the term “best in class,” Andlauer took the time to reiterate what that phrase means to him. He wants Ottawa fans to know it’s not simply about opening up his wallet and signing a blank cheque. And he believes it will take a significant amount of time for the organization to live up to the expectations set by his catchphrase. 

“For me, best in class is how you approach things. It’s not just material stuff,” Andlauer explains. “Culture takes time to change. It’s not going to happen overnight. We’re not best in class yet. Far from it — we’re not even close. But every time we can find a better way and we’ve improved on where we were the week before or the quarter before, that’s progress.”

As for addressing the question of how much he was willing to pay for a head coach, Andlauer refuses to publicly divulge the salary on Green’s four-year contract. But he wanted to push back on the idea that Green is a budget hire. According to CapFriendly, Green’s last contract in Vancouver paid him $2.75 million annually. 

“This coach may very well be getting paid more than what they pay for a coach in a larger market,” says Andlauer. “Let’s put it this way, this coach is getting paid more than any coach in the history of the Ottawa Senators.”

And staying on the financial front, Andlauer says he isn’t philosophically opposed to buying out a player’s contract if it makes sense. He believes the mechanism is in place for a reason and wouldn’t be afraid to exercise it if general manager Steve Staios felt like it was necessary. 

“At the end of the day, it’s there to deal with mistakes. And we all make mistakes. I mean how many coaches still have term left on their contract when they get fired?” Andlauer says of the buyout option. “So if you make a grave mistake, that’s what it’s there for. So that’s OK, because to me, it’s part of the puzzle.”

Later he added, “Steve has a plan to make sure we have a team that has the right pieces to fit that puzzle.”

As he concluded his thoughts on what he learned in his inaugural season as owner, Andlauer made it clear that he still believes in the upside of this group. He referred to Jake Sanderson as a “potential future Norris Trophy winner.” He talked about the high-end skill of Tim Stützle and Tkachuk. And he is optimistic this club is on the precipice of turning a corner — while conceding there is still a lot of room for growth and improvement. 

“I learned there is a lot of work to be done. But that means we have a lot of potential,” says Andlauer. “And I learned that things don’t happen overnight.”

(Photo of Cyril Leeder, Michael Andlauer and Gary Bettman: Fred Chartrand / The Canadian Press via AP)

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