Eugene Melnyk survived because of a liver transplant. Then he created The Organ Project.
At first, Eugene Melnyk had prewritten his speech for the big announcement. But by the time the Ottawa Senators’ owner took his seat Wednesday morning and began to talk, the meticulous notes had been scrapped entirely. “When I started practicing it, it sounded so not me,” Melnyk said later. “So I kept the headlines, but I wanted to just tell my story.”
Many of those listening at Canadian Tire Centre—and the entire hockey world, for that matter—understood well the basics of Melnyk’s journey, and by extension the symbolism of his presence. On May 14, 2015, in that same media room, members of Senators management had made a public plea on Melnyk’s behalf, calling for help in finding a live liver donor that was needed to save his life. Within hours, 2,000 people had volunteered through Toronto General Hospital. Through examinations, the field was whittled to 200, and then 20. Five days later, an ideal match was identified. Now, Melnyk considers himself fully recovered.
But even the best and worst details are still trickling out. Before Melnyk began the news conference to unveil The Organ Project, an enterprise aiming to raise awareness for the transplant process, he had found Dr. Atul Humar, head of transplant at Toronto General. “I had heard from people, because nobody ever tells you when you’re in the hospital, that I didn’t have much time left,” Melnyk recalled saying. Six days before the transplant, Humar then confirmed, Melnyk had been transferred into the ICU with a suspected bacterial infection.
“Basically, they thought if you can’t fight this off in the next 24 hours, he’s a goner,” Melnyk said after the announcement, in a telephone interview with SI.com. “They fully expected me not to survive. When you start getting the priests coming around, you know things are starting to get dark.”
The light wasn’t far away. Melnyk still doesn’t know anything about the donor, who has remained anonymous. But he did learn one thing the donor had told doctors at Toronto General, while explaining his rationale behind stepping forward: “I just wanted to make sure Eugene is around to bring back the Stanley Cup.”
Pre-surgery, Melnyk had been intensely private about his illness. It was a struggle attending the Senators’ picture day in 2015, but he snuck in and out so no one would question an absence. To protect his identity at the hospital, the whiteboard outside his room simply listed the letter Q instead of his full name. (“I can’t figure it out and no one will tell me why,” he says.) Even when it was clear that only crowd-sourced aid would keep Melnyk alive, he resisted. “It was the last resort,” he says. “I’m a none-of-your-business kind of person, especially when you’re sick.”
Around the one-year anniversary of his surgery, though, Melnyk began brainstorming ways to help. Many of the final 20 matches had agreed to stay on the list—Melnyk’s condition had vaulted him to the top—and donated their livers to others in need. Around the hospital, some began calling the sudden surge, The Melnyk Effect. “I made the decision to go full out,” he says. “The worst thing about the transplant was not the pain, before or after. It was the torture of being in a lineup. Every morning, you get up, you get told that today’s not the day. What do we do to eliminate those damn lines? You want to get rid of that.”
Put another way, the mission of The Organ Project is to register as many as possible to donate—whether they do so while alive, or allow permission for after they die—and slice into a waiting list that’s roughly 4,600 deep in Canada, according to its website. Toronto General, it’s still the biggest by far in terms of transplants,” Melnyk says, “but they still see two a week go out in a body bag, waiting in line.”
For now, Melnyk envisions building The Organ Project incrementally. He wants to focus on–the-ground resources in Ontario for the next year, commercials and sign-up drives and such, before spreading to the rest of Canada this time next year. Around then he’ll start “rolling out the plea for live liver donations,” which generally last longer in their new hosts than dead ones. Melnyk needed to go this route, because direct blood matches are usually required when harvesting deceased organs, and no one was coming into the Toronto morgue with his rare AB type. “I was the sickest man in Canada for two months,” he says. “No ABs were dying.”
By 2019, as Melnyk recently told NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, he aims to hit the United States, starting with the markets he knows best. “My idea is to go through every media department of every hockey team and make this a National Hockey League initiative,” he says. “There is an opportunity for me to tap into 30 markets outside of Ottawa.”
His breadth of contacts has proven handy in other ways, too. Melnyk says that Bettman helped him connect with actor Morgan Freeman, who contributed voiceovers to four commercials. In 2011, when Melnyk was exploring trades for forward Mike Fisher, he chose Nashville because Fisher’s wife, country music star Carrie Underwood, was based there. As a thank you, Underwood will headline a 650-person gala March 31 at the Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, where Melnyk hopes to raise at least $2 million through donations and an auction. Among the available packages for bidders: Walk onto the set of “Vikings,” or use the owner’s box at Canadian Tire Centre for a Senators game.
Through Tuesday, Ottawa (29–19–6) was tied for second place in the Atlantic Division with Boston, trailing Montreal by six points but with four games in hand on both the Canadiens and Bruins. A big matchup against Toronto, which currently holds the second wild card, looms this weekend. “If we beat the Leafs Saturday, then I think we’re well on our way into the playoffs,” Melnyk says. “I got burned before by saying we’re going into the playoffs and we lose four in a row, but I’m optimistic. This is a different team that’s still young, and they’re only going to get better.”
When Melnyk was still toiling the transplant list, his team was roaring into the ’14–15 playoffs, mostly thanks to goalie Andrew “The Hamburglar” Hammond. By points percentage (.604), Ottawa wound up posting its best regular season since its Cup Final run in ’06–07, but Melnyk paid the success little attention. “I didn’t care, honestly,” he says. “That’s how bad it was. And I don’t miss a minute of any game, ever. I was just groggy, didn’t give a damn. That’s the only regret, to tell you the truth. But hey, we’re going to make up for it this year.”