DETROIT — From helmet to the bottom of his socks, Daniel Alfredsson was dressed all in red here Monday, surrounded by the sea of red seats in the venerable Joe Louis Arena.
There was no “C” or “A” on his new winged wheel Detroit Red Wings jersey and to the naked eye, there wasn’t a single “Alfredsson” sweater anywhere in the crowd as Detroit played host to the San Jose Sharks.
Instead, a glance around the 34-year-old building Monday showed massive support for current Red Wings stars Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, along with respect for past legends including Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Chris Chelios.
Where was the Alfredsson stuff?
“Well, it hasn’t come in yet,” said the guy running the souvenir shop in the upper concourse.
You blink once, twice, to take it all in. It just doesn’t look right. We’ve come to expect an Alfredsson presence inside and outside the arena, on billboards, in newspaper advertisements, just about everywhere you turn. Walk around any neighbourhood in Ottawa and you’re still apt to see someone sporting an Alfredsson sweater or T-shirt, a tribute to his 18 years as the heart-and-soul of the Ottawa Senators, the final 14 years as captain.
Even after his shocking summer departure as a free agent — following the contract dispute and somewhat bitter war of words with Senators owner Eugene Melnyk that he chooses not to revisit publicly — he owns the respect as the best player to ever play for the Senators.
But here, 10 games into his Red Wings career, he’s recognized as a solid veteran player on a good team overloaded with players who have extensive playoff experience. Nothing more, nothing less.
Come Wednesday, when he plays his old teammates for the first time in his new colours and new surroundings, Alfredsson acknowledges it’s going to feel strange, indeed.
“I’ve thought about it, no question,” Alfredsson told The Citizen in an exclusive interview in the Red Wings dressing room an hour after San Jose’s 1-0 shootout win over Detroit. “Probably in the last few days here, I’ve been thinking about it more and more. (Tuesday and Wednesday), there is going to be a lot of attention on me, and the game itself.
“To be honest, I’ve asked myself, ‘How am I going to feel?’ I have no idea. I think the hardest part is going to be leading up to the game. Once the puck is dropped, it’s such a fast game that you get caught up in it and you know what you’re going to do. The hardest part is going to be the hours leading up to it.”
Players get traded or sign with new teams every year, but friendships don’t end. Alfredsson remains close with many of his old teammates — Erik Karlsson will have dinner with him and his family in their new home in Birmingham, a community of 20,000 25 minutes from downtown Detroit — and he keeps up to date on what’s going on with the team. Alfredsson says Karlsson is “one of the reasons I’m still playing,” due the “energy, enthusiasm and great personality” he brings to the dressing room.
“Of course, I follow them pretty closely and I will continue to do so,” he said. “You watch on TV and you kind of catch yourself. We were having dinner the other night and I was watching (Jason) Spezza, wearing the C, and from a distance, I said, ‘wow, I almost thought that it was myself’. It has been so long for me, playing in Ottawa, of course, that it’s different.”
Wednesday’s game will no doubt be full of odd emotions and strange feelings for players on both sides, but Alfredsson says the transition to his new dressing room, complete with recognition of the Red Wings 11 Stanley Cups and the tributes to countless Hall of Fame players, has been relatively seamless. He has one goal and eight assists in 10 games and is currently playing on a line with Todd Bertuzzi and Johan Franzen. Considering that Senators coach Paul MacLean was a longtime assistant to Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, there are similarities in the way the teams operate. There are also seven fellow Swedes on the Red Wings roster.
“Some of the guys here I knew from before, that’s the easy part for me,” Alfredsson said.
“For me, the biggest difference is the attention is not on me. I do and I don’t (like that). I can focus more on myself. There’s not too many expectations after practice or after games, as there was in Ottawa.
“With all the ups and downs (during the season), I’m not the guy who’s accountable to the outside. At this point in my career, I can still bring and help out in the leadership when it’s needed, but Zetterberg, Kronwall and Datsyuk, they’ve been around some of the best players in the world and they’ve learned from the best.”
The compliments are returned in kind. Kronwall labels Alfredsson as one of the best Swedish players of all time, in the same company as Lidstrom, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg. While Kronwall always knew of Alfredsson’s offensive talents, he has a new appreciation for his “all around game” and ability to read the play.
Franzen, originally shocked when he heard Alfredsson had signed in Detroit as a free agent, figures a weight has been removed from the shoulders of the former Senators captain.
“I’ve always been a big fan,” Franzen said, casting his eyes at the media scrum surrounding Alfredsson Tuesday, in advance of the Senators arrival. “He can relax and focus on hockey. He doesn’t have to deal with that everyday. I think he’s having fun here. It’s a little different for him and he has a different role.”
Unquestionably, the biggest adjustment has been in the family situation, as Alfredsson, wife Bibbi, and their four sons — Hugo, Loui, Fenix and William — adapt to an entirely different living experience.
When he’s asked if they’re settled, Alfredsson lets out a sigh of relief.
“We are … now,” he said, happy to have found a neighbourhood full of parks where he can toss a baseball or football around with his sons and where their dog, Bono, can run free.
“We stayed for about a month at a hotel before we moved into the house. It has been two or three weeks now in the house. It’s a really good area, it’s great school for the kids (all but William are in school), but it’s … different. It’s not Kanata, where we’ve lived for so long.
“I knew it was going to be a challenge in terms of everything that’s involved with a big move with a big family, but it has probably been more work and a bigger challenge than I expected. Not just about finding the right place, but just getting to schools, getting American cellphones, credit cards, there are so many things and I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone. I’ve learned a lot.”
There’s also an anonymity here that he didn’t enjoy in Ottawa. When he goes to a restaurant or a park or watches his kids play hockey, he’s often just another guy in the crowd, wearing a Tigers baseball cap like half the people in the city.
Alfredsson is still involved with charities and several businesses and he hasn’t completely turned the page on returning to Ottawa some day. Friends from Ottawa have visited and the family will make trips back to Ottawa periodically.
Yet when it comes to what went so wrong with negotiations in Ottawa, leading him to become a free agent, Alfredsson is taking the high road, not wishing to pick at the summer scars.
To recap, after Alfredsson left for Detroit as a free agent, Melnyk told the Citizen that the Senators couldn’t afford his contract demands. A week later, in response, Alfredsson explained that he had been previously promised a $6-million salary for the 2013-14 season because he has played the 2012-13 campaign for $1 million. Alfredsson ultimately signed with the Red Wings for $5.5 million, including a $2-million bonus that kicked in after playing his 10th game on Monday. The Senators claimed that Alfredsson’s agent, J.P. Barry, played a part in the ordeal, not keeping Alfredsson up to date during the process. Alfredsson denies that, saying he knew what was going on all along.
Today, he says it’s all water under the bridge and he maintains a respect for Senators general manager Bryan Murray.
“As I said when had I had my press conference (in August), I don’t feel disrespected at all,” he said Monday. “Sometimes, I believe things don’t work out and there’s a reason for it. I have no hard feelings. I totally understand (people have questions), but both sides have talked about it. I think I’ve said my piece. I don’t feel like I have anything more to say about it. It has happened and I’m looking at a new challenge and trying to make the most of it.”
One of the biggest challenges will come Wednesday, when he faces his old team for the first time.