It took me a while to put my finger on it. I could sense a change but I wasn't quite sure how to identify it. I knew it was something I had not felt since my preteen years when the Senators were just a young pup fresh from the litter. The Senators were runts in a league of purebreds but they were now our runts and I would support them through thick and thin. I now had a hometown team and the men who wore the red, black and white quickly became my heroes. Gone were the sporting allegiances handed down from my father, who was also quick to convert, and in were new faces of the men who represented my city. I grew up cheering for a team of castaways, underdogs and guys who never gave up. It took a lot of guts to play for those Senators teams in the early 90's. I gravitated towards the lunch pail players, guys who tried their best to make up for whatever deficiency in skill with hard work and being a good teammate. Darren Rumble, Darcy Loewen and Mike Peluso were my favourite players. They remained that way for years.
I remember having the opportunity through a family friend who was acquainted with Bruce Driver during his New Jersey Devils day to visit the locker room area after a game at the Civic Center. I remember meeting Bruce right away and he was a nice man and happily signed my ticket and a card I had brought. I was distracted when I met him. I was more interested in seeing my Senators. One of my greatest hockey memories was meeting Peluso that day. He signed my jersey and I had a picture taken with that gentle giant with the fading black eye and a mullet that flaunted he was all business, all over. He towered over me and his colossal hands were too big to fit entirely on my adolescent shoulder. Later on this photo would be developed and brought back to Mike where he addressed an autograph to me. According to my Dad, Mike took a look at it when it was handed it to him. He took a minute and paused to reflect before recalling the game that was taken from before happily signing it and handing it back to my father. I still have that photo hanging up in my childhood room. Guys like Mike are what embedded my love for the Senators. How could you not love a team with guys who remember their fans? As a kid, this meant everything to me.
We had the opportunity to interview Darcy Loewen on the podcast last season. We asked him about the difficulties playing for such a lousy team. He told us they knew most nights when they went out onto the ice they were going to lose. Even though their team had some of the best hair in Senators history, it didn’t matter. They were simply outmatched and outclassed. Darcy reiterated that despite the overwhelming odds, the team had to go out and play as hard as they could because that was the only way they were going to have a chance to win a game. They had to want it more and work harder to get it. The stats will show that the Senators had one of the worst seasons in professional sports history that year but what it will never show is the effort of those guys. They may have been losses but those Senators of old were winners to me and many other kids.
As the years went by and the losing seasons continued the team stockpiled a young arsenal of talent from around the globe. Mining the hockey resources of the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, Slovakia and Canada we became a perennial contender and started a winning tradition. The Senators made 11 straight post-season appearances including a trip to the Stanley Cup final. Something was happening. Without us ever knowing it, we had started a tradition and had become one of Canada's premier franchises on the ice.
There was also the misery. People from Ottawa are a different breed than the rest of the country. Ottawa has always been associated with political scandal, government double talk, overspending and representative of all scummy politicians to ever grace the Hill. The city has always been associated with being the political center of the country and not much else. When you hear people speak poorly of the government it's always as "Ottawa" and never as "The Government" or "The Politicians" it's just our city. The citizens had little to do with it. Our good city name just gets dragged through the mud because it's the epicentre for all the country's MP's and international ambassadors and other rhetoric spitting types. We have always felt a little insecure about our city as the result of this. It's no wonder This Hour Has 22 Minutes and The Royal Canadian Air Farce seemingly spent most of their time in front of Ottawa backdrops and ambushing politicians on Parliament Hill. It was always good comedy but it sometimes came at our collective expense. The city has always been a bit insecure. I'm sure more than one of us while traveling the world has been asked where we come from only to be met with a blank stare.
Guy - "Ottawa? Where is that? Is it near Toronto?"
Me - "Uh yes kinda, it's a bit of a drive but Canada is a big country. In some parts of the world you could drive through three countries in that time."
Guy - "Toronto is very nice city!"
Me - "Sure."
All this made it so much more difficult during the close-to-glory years where the Senators were on top of the league (during the regular season) and a constant playoff threat. Sure the Senators were having success but whispers around the city and the internet indicated the character of many of the players and their hockey abilities were cut from a different cloth. The speculation was rampant. The rumours gained so much momentum that they made their way to TSN. In 2008 Michael Landsberg even addressed them by confronting Ray Emery during an interview on Off the Record. He denied the speculation. I prefer not to think about these types of things too much. They bother me to hear them. I think about kids, like I was once, with posters in their room of guys who have as much moral fibre as Richard Nixon, falsely worshiping them. I think about the Emery road rage incident.
How can you look up to guys like that? How can a parent read the paper not know how to approach their child and tell them that maybe there's a different Senator you should cheer for without sparing them the details? Maybe my heroes back then weren't saints. I'll never know. However, in my experiences with them 20 years ago as well as last year, I have no reason to believe they weren't the stand up guys I believed they were as a kid.
Then there was Dany. It can all be summed up with just one word. No forced situational nickname does him justice. He’s just Dany. He put our team against a wall. He turned his back on a city that worshiped him. Some have taken to calling him cHeat-ley for some reason. I think it's because these fans feel he cheated the team in some way. I think he did everything in his legal power to do what was necessary to get the change he so desired. That's fine. It doesn't make him a good person though. I think the only people he cheated were the fans and the city. As I mentioned before, Ottawa is a fragile city not really sure how to act outside of our Parliamentary heritage. This sports thing is relatively new to us. We compete against world class cities. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and err...Buffalo? But the point remains; when Dany left Ottawa, he wounded our collective ego. Not since the Yashin fiasco have we ever felt so insecure about our city and the team we cheer for. It left us all wondering, “what's wrong with us?” What did we ever do to you to make you so mad that you had to skip town? Judging by the amount of self vandalized Heatley Jerseys and t-shirts you see kicking around town he obviously meant a lot to many people in the city. Enough that they would emblazon their hometown kit with his name. A positive association and one they felt represented themselves and were proud to wear. Dany represented Ottawa and then burned us all. That's a tough one to stomach and will probably never get any easier. His character is as soiled as his name.
The fabric was eroding.
Then the great Alex Kovalev arrived. He arrived and was greeted with a wait-and-see reception in Ottawa. We waited and saw nothing but an unmotivated and expensive waste of everyone's time and energy. He may have had all the talent in the world, maybe he still does, but he never had an ounce of the compete level that Loewen had. Alex would have been too good to play for those early Senators teams but I believe the guys in that locker room would have been too good for him. I don't think many parents in the crowd at Scotia Bank Place sat there and told their children, "See that number 27, that's how you play hockey!" He was lazy and unmotivated. He was just another marquee player signed to be a band-aid solution that few fans could identify with.
I guess there's that saying about the dawn and darkness but it's not like we're coming from the ‘86 Mets roster or anything. There are good people that have been around and are still around. Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Mike Fisher and Chris Neil have all been quality individuals on and off the ice. Chris Neil has clearly been identified as part of the core in Ottawa having staved off last year’s fire sale. I don't doubt he was a hot commodity at the deadline for one second. You win with guys like that. Graeme and I may have been critical of his dumb penalty face and his contract over the past few years but at the end of the day, he's a guy I want on our side when the chips are up or down.
He's emerged as a leader and let’s not forget the role he played during the Dany saga. The Ottawa Sun ran this article with Neil during this time where he said, "We want guys who want to be in a Senators uniform. We've got a good thing here. I stayed here because it's a great organization, a nice city and they've bent over backwards to accommodate all of us." He took a stance and stuck by his team. He was sure to tell the public that he was well liked in the dressing room and a talented player but at the end of the day if he didn't want to be an Ottawa Senator he was best to move on. That endeared me to Chris. I appreciate him standing up for the city and the team that way. Clearly this city is in his veins. He was recently named as the successor to Mike Fisher as the honorary chair for Rogers House. Looks like the torch has been passed from one stand up guy to another. Even if you don't believe in fighting in hockey or have a hard time explaining to your kids why what Chris does on the ice is acceptable there but not in the schoolyard you have to admit that his off-ice accolades are worthy of role model status. People like Chris should be emulated no matter what your profession or situation. I really believe in the importance of fostering a better local community and improving lives however you can, with what you have. I'm proud he's still a Senator and I think if I was 10 all over again he'd probably adorn my bedroom walls as well.
Then there's the next generation of Senators stars many recently plucked from around the world eager to join the organization that embody solid values we can all look up to. Graeme and I are both big believers in education and self improvement whether it's in the classroom or with all your belongings in a backpack in a foreign land. You can find wisdom in many places. Guys like Erik Condra and Colin Greening both graduated with stunning GPA's while balancing a their athletics with their studies. Greening graduated from an Ivy League school and Condra from Notre Dame, a prestigious school that doesn't let just any slouch in (just ask Rudy how difficult the admission process is). Chris Wideman is a University of Miami (Ohio) student and Pat Cannone is a recent graduate of the same school, one which is nationally recognized as one of the top public universities in the United States. Not to mention the plethora of other recent graduates or senior students who are Senators property like Louie Caporusso (Michigan Alum), Eric Gryba (Boston University Alum), Mike Peltz (current Yale), Mike Sdao (current Harvard) and Ben Blood (current U. of North Dakota). These are kids who have rightly placed education at a premium while developing their hockey careers. Whether they all make it to the show is another thing but they'll all have their academics to fall back on when their playing days are done. Talk about heads on straight.
I've been lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to talk with several prospects over the past few years while doing the podcast with Graeme. We've had a chance to talk with players like Jared Cowen, Chris Wideman, Louie Caporusso and Mika Zibanejad. After each and every single one of these interviews when the phone is hung up the first thing usually out of our mouths is something along the lines of "what a good kid." This is probably as close to these guys as we'll ever get. Same goes for most fans. We get a few passing words and positive impression. These are genuinely nice guys who have taken the time out of their day to organize the interview and then spend the time talking to two guys they've never met because they want to reach out to the hardcore fans who listen in. I really get the impression these are kids who want to reach out to the fan base and be noticed. We have a guest coming on shortly who even went as far to ask if we wanted him to come into the studios or do the interview over the phone. He's not even from Ottawa. Gives you an idea of the kind of people they are and the way they wish to be perceived in the public eye.
If you listen to the podcasts you've heard me rave about the enthusiasm shown by Matt Puempel and his excitement about joining the Senators from his SensTV interviews following the draft. We've read about Darren Kramer's excitement to be joining the Senators and how happy he was he's part of the same organization as his former captain Jared Cowen. Mika told us on the podcast he was thrilled Ottawa selected him and it was a city he wanted to come to and his parents even knew it. We asked Mika about players that stood out to him during the development camp. He told us there were so many different styles of player he was impressed with he couldn't name anyone in particular. I don't think that was a diplomatic answer. I think he really meant it. Statements like these go a long way with a fan base still licking their emotional wounds suffering from emotional abandonment caused by Dany. See folks, people do want to play here. People want to be Ottawa Senators. These are kids who grew up watching hockey when the Senators were in their prime. They know they're coming to an organization with a winning tradition. It's a testament to the age of this franchise. We have an identity and people want to be a part of the team and be part of restoring the lost glory. We have good people who want to be here on their way. We have many more who want to stay here on the pro roster. We have character again, something we lacked for a long time.
I'd also like to add this because I'm sure someone in the comments section will pull the 'just because they're good in the community doesn't mean they should be kept around' card. I agree. Hockey decisions should always be made with blinders on. This is a business; these players are assets and have self interested agents. We should never forget that. Like with Mike Fisher handing the reigns to Chris Neil in the community let’s hope there's always another good guy available to take over for another when the time comes.
Now after writing this I realize I sound like the 10 year old version of myself – as a self-professed homer, I’m packed full of optimism with a bleeding heart to boot. I realize these are all regular people but they're hockey players. People gravitate towards them and look to them for inspiration because they're all capable of doing things none of us can do. I'm sure everyone who reads this blog wishes they were an NHL player. I'm no different. At least this time we have players we can cheer for without having to listen for whispered allegations or fear guys with road rage.
It's good to be a Senators fan again. Some say familiarity breeds contempt but with great memories of the building years, it couldn't be any further from the truth.