There was a quote by then-Ottawa Citizen columnist Roy MacGregor that always stuck with me over the years, not only because it was so memorable, but because it perfectly captured the sensibility of the Ottawa fanbase when it was written (way back in April 1998 after the Senators had dispatched the New Jersey Devils for their first ever playoff series win).
MacGregor wrote the next day, “Ottawa has nothing to apologize for – not after this. Perhaps not ever again.”
Believe it or not, for anyone who remembers what it was like to follow this once hapless Senators team from their humble, or rather disastrous beginnings, that sentence seemed completely reasonable at the time.
Of course, MacGregor was referencing the famous quote by the first Senators GM, Mel Bridgman, after a series of very public errors at the team’s inaugural draft. But the sentiment was right on the money. The outright joy in that arena and in the city after Igor Kravchuk iced the series for the Senators with an empty net goal was a real, visceral emotion that even managed to surpass the Steve Duchesne marker in 1997 that sent the Senators to the playoffs for the first time.
When Duchesne rifled that shot past Sabres goalie Dominik Hasek during the last, vital game of the year, it seemed like the city was more stunned than overjoyed.
It seemed too incredible to comprehend. The same lousy team that finished dead last in the NHL for four seasons in a row had just finished one of the most remarkable late season comebacks to make the playoffs in recent memory. Most people were still getting used to having NHL hockey in their small, sometimes sleepy town, let alone being an actual contender for the Stanley Cup.
When the ’97 Senators bowed out in seven games to the Sabres in the first round, not many fans were upset. They were still grateful for the unexpected success, and fan resentment towards “millionaire athletes” was not even on the radar in Ottawa at that point.
Players like Alexei Yashin and Alexandre Daigle were mostly appreciated, or at least tolerated, and weren’t subjected to daily trade rumours and personal attacks that became the hallmark of the next decade when talk radio came to town and people started using this quirky little forum called a “blog.” Heck, in 1998, I didn’t even have an email account. Not many did.
Yet after one playoff series win, this team was arguably celebrated even more than past Ottawa Rough Riders Grey Cup champions. And if you were there, it felt just about right. The Senators were a team people could get behind, after all their failures, after all the economic turmoil, after all the uncertainty. People truly appreciated what they had, as modest as it was. No need to apologize indeed.
Fast forward almost ten years later, to the spring of 2007, with the Senators on their biggest playoff ride so far. Despite MacGregor’s bold statement, there had been a few apologies rendered in the intervening years.
Daigle turned out to be a bust and was dealt to the Flyers. Yashin sat out a year in a contract dispute and was soon peddled off to “Mad” Mike Milbury and his Islanders for youngster Jason Spezza (who, it seemed, somehow became tainted from the trade in the eyes of many leather lunged fans over the years). Once a saviour, now bankrupt, former owner Rod Bryden had lost control of the team and a brash pharmaceutical executive from Toronto, Eugene Melnyk, picked up the pieces for a bargain and a handshake with a grateful Gary Bettman.
There were endless playoff disappointments at the hands of the hated Maple Leafs and expectations unfulfilled when, just after the lockout, the Senators sported the likes of Zdeno Chara and Dominik Hasek on their star-studded roster.
Actually, all the Senators did was apologize for about 10 years once the glow faded from the highs of the late 1990’s.
Then came the march to the Stanley Cup final and the city was in love again. When captain Daniel Alfredsson scored the overtime goal against the Sabres to end the Eastern Conference final, I turned to my brother Ben, after he peeled himself off the ceiling and repeated MacGregor’s quote out loud. And this time it felt just as genuine as it did when it was written in 1998.
We walked down Elgin Street among the throngs of jubilant Senators fans and followed them to Parliament Hill of all places, usually a place of fakery and scowling, now transformed into a chanting mass of happy people with nowhere else to go but up. On the way back my brother even high-fived then-mayor Larry O’Brien in the middle of the street (but still didn’t vote for him!)
When the Senators eventually lost to Chris Pronger and the Anaheim Ducks, there was still hope that they could go that far again. The future looked bright with young stars Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza soon to be locked up in multi-year contracts and a brash, athletic goalie named Ray Emery, who was equal parts Ron Hextall and Curtis Joseph, ready to rise to the goaltending elite.
Then something happened.
To the players, the fans and the media.
Everybody stopped getting along.
With everybody’s expectations heightened, and off to a fast start with new coach John Paddock, the Senators began to wear down late in the 2008 season, beset by tired stars played too frequently, a number one goalie who went through injury and personal problems and a locker room that was rumoured to have gone astray. It was a far cry from the tight, genial teams and player personalities that were presented to the public in the early days when the only portal between fans and the skaters was a conservative set of columnists and reporters who likely kept a lot of little secrets untold for the sake of civility.
That’s when the big change came. Whether it was the sudden outpouring of opinion afforded by the explosion of the blogosphere, the increasingly aggressive nature of sports radio as an entity, or just simply the climate of the times, the nature of the relationship between Senators fans and their team seemed to sour.
Suddenly, anyone who could open a blogspot account (like myself) and string together a few nasty rumours, could find themselves being read daily and just as much as the more established writers who actually went to school to learn their craft and broke stories by talking to the players and management themselves.
Like never before, player after player in the Senators organization was pointed to as the “bad guy,” and losing games only exacerbated the situation. Ray Emery, Wade Redden, Jason Spezza and, more recently, Alex Kovalev, became convenient punching bags for everybody, mainstream media included, as if they adopted the “can’t beat ‘em, might as well join ‘em” attitude.
Players became known for their contracts more so than what they did on the ice, and fans turned into capologists overnight, flocking to “trade rumour blogs” (these blogs actually proudly call themselves rumour sites) to hear what mostly anonymous writers can conjure up from their “sources.”
In short, the discourse become ugly rather quick, often needlessly, and the Ottawa players now find themselves in a fishbowl almost as intense as the ones in Montreal and Toronto (causing some to request trades like Heatley and Joe Corvo, and some, like Spezza, to wonder politely if it would be better for everyone if GM Bryan Murray found a way to move his contract).
Yet, the only solution to fan disquiet seems to be winning hockey, but with this Senators team aging quickly and lacking bona fide forward prospects for the future, will locals still find the urge to open their wallets and their hearts for a team that will likely be fighting for a playoff spot for a handful of years?
Is there any way to recreate that warm relationship that once existed in this town when a scrappy young team was defying all expectations back in 1997 and 1998? That seems like a long time ago, but ironically, even with all the star power the Senators currently have, they are now in a position where they have to scratch and claw themselves into the Eastern Conference top eight. Just like the old days.
The long honeymoon between the Senators and their fans has been over for some time, but if you look closely there’s still some of that same old spirit in the Kanata rink, whether it’s in the young fans pressed up against the glass wanting autographs, or that smirk Alfredsson still gets when he scores a big goal.
To guys like him, it’s still just a game that’s fun to play — something that many disgruntled fans should remember from time to time.