OTTAWA - Roy Mlakar took over as president of the Senators at a low point for the franchise and on Wednesday, he took the high road in discussing his departure from Ottawa.
After 13 years with the club, it was announced earlier this week that Mlakar's contract wasn't renewed as part of a front-office shakeup following a disappointing season in which the Senators missed the playoffs for the first time since his arrival in 1996.
Despite being dumped, Mlakar, who will leave his post at the end of the month, had nothing but praise for owner Eugene Melnyk and the team he helped turn around during his tenure as president and chief executive officer.
"Thirteen years is a long time. I'm the senior (team) president in all of Canada," Mlakar, 58, said during a farewell news conference from Scotiabank Place. "I have never been treated with anything but respect by ownership. I don't remember a time when we've had any type of disagreement that had caused a conflict."
This past year, with 83 points, the Senators experienced their worst season on the ice since they amassed that same amount during the 1997-98 season. Their performance resulted in the firing of coach Craig Hartsburg midway through the campaign.
Off the ice, Ottawa experienced a dip in average attendance and season-ticket sales from the previous year in which the Senators were coming off a high after having made a run to the Stanley Cup final in the spring of 2007.
Most recently, they were rocked by the news that star left-winger Dany Heatley asked general manager Bryan Murray for a trade.
However, Mlakar said he wasn't given a reason for why Melnyk chose to let him go, leading to the promotion of former chief operating officer Cyril Leeder to his role.
Melnyk did not attend the news conference. Mlakar said the two spoke over the phone for 40 minutes, and the decision was reached after an "excellent" conversation.
"There isn't anything really specific, it's just a young, fresh approach and you expect that," Mlakar said.
The Senators had just moved into Scotiabank Place, then known as the Palladium, months earlier when Mlakar was hired in June 1996.
At the time, Ottawa ranked 24th in the then 26-team NHL in revenue and last in attendance. This past season, despite the struggles, the Senators still ranked sixth and seventh in those categories, Mlakar said, adding that league commissioner Gary Bettman calls the Senators "a model franchise."
Since Mlakar's friend and former GM John Muckler was fired in June 2007, he's been less noticeable around the team and the writing has appeared to be on the wall for some time.
Leeder, who was introduced as the team's new president and CEO on Tuesday, has frequently appeared at Melnyk's side. Leeder was front and centre with Melnyk at Scotiabank Place during the world junior championship tournament last December, and played a large part in Melnyk's failed bid to land a Major League Soccer franchise for Ottawa this spring.
Despite claiming he'd had "only 48 hours to think about it," speculation in Ottawa is that Mlakar will resurface with another franchise in the near future, although not necessarily in the NHL.
In addition to spending seven seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, two more with the Pittsburgh Penguins and at the American Hockey League level, the Parma, Ohio, native, has also worked for the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers and Major League Baseball's Cleveland Indians.
"I think I've had the resilience before to bounce back quickly. I'm certainly looking forward to staying in sports," he said. "We'll see what comes up in the National Hockey League, for sure."