OTTAWA — Let’s suppose a visitor is new to the city, if not new to the planet.
His name is Frank and he’s in town for the NHL all-star weekend, and then sticks around for several days, long enough to take in the Ottawa Senators-Toronto Maple Leafs game at Scotiabank Place on Saturday.
At the all-star fest, Frank is bowled over by the adoration, bordering on deification, of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. The mere sight of Alfredsson’s countenance on the new arena scoreboard, let alone the sight of him scoring two All-Star Game goals, results in standing ovations and cheers that threaten to blow the roof off the building.
What feats Alfredsson must have performed here, the visitor thinks to himself. Even rival all-stars are banging their sticks on the ice in tribute. Coaches on both benches are clapping.
In terms of hockey and its heroes, this Alfredsson fellow must walk on water.
Six days later, Frank walks into the same building, sees Alfredsson’s face on the same scoreboard screen and hears the worst sorts of catcalls and boos rain down on him. Not once. Not twice. But every time his face is shown or he touches the puck or throws a bodycheck.
What the . . .? Has Alfredsson murdered someone in the interim? Has he been shamed on social media? What could he possibly have done to turn fans against him when they adored him so last week?
“Well, Frank, it’s like this,” an Ottawa resident would explain to the stranger. “The Leafs are in town, see, and they have an older franchise, with a lot of fans in the Ottawa Valley, and they don’t much like Alfredsson (because of a clever mimic of Mats Sundin and a hit on Darcy Tucker . . . 10 years ago!), and there’s so damned many of them in the building when Toronto pays a visit, they have the ability to drown out the home crowd.”
“Oh. I see.”
The words express understanding. The visitor’s look expresses pure bewilderment.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to help locals see things for what they are. Even the most diehard of Senators supporters were taken aback by the atmosphere on Saturday night, during a rare 5-0 thrashing by the Maple Leafs, a beat down that seemed to render Senators fans mute, and chased more than a few of them out of the building entirely.
A 15-year Senators season-ticket holder was so disgusted by the behaviour of Ottawa and Toronto fans, but mostly Toronto fans, she wrote to tell me she doesn’t even feel it’s safe for a fan to attend a game alone when the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens are in town “since the corridors are bedlam before the game and after.”
This serious Senators supporter has heard some fellow season-ticket holders say they may not renew next season, just to avoid the Leafs/Habs fans who take over the building. Keep in mind, the Leafs and Canadiens visit three times each, filling every last seat, filling the cashboxes, but annoying hometown supporters to no end.
Twenty years in, we thought the Senators’ fan base was growing to the point that they it would soon dominate its own house, regardless of the opponent. Saturday’s horror show was a reminder that the day of Senators fans asserting themselves at home is far, far away.
Perhaps Leafs fans were in payback mode after some Ottawa fans behaved badly during the NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft, mercilessly booing Toronto forward Joffrey Lupul every time he approached the microphone. Whatever the case, Saturday felt like a Leafs home game, except if you’ve been to one at the Air Canada Centre, the wine-sipping patrons there make only a fraction of the noise.
Or maybe the invading army was reacting to the juvenile “Leafs suck” in-game video feature that an eight-year-old must have put together.
Can both sides in this Battle of Ontario clash please grow up enough to lift this debate to the high school level?
Senators players would really rather not talk about the issue. Alfredsson has repeatedly said the booing doesn’t bother him and that he enjoys the energy of a Leafs and Habs games in Ottawa.
Still, what a difference a week makes.
“I don’t even pay attention to it anymore,” says Senators centre Jason Spezza. “It has always been that way, since I’ve been here, the Leafs fans are always 50-50 here. To be honest, it doesn’t even register anymore.”
Spezza believes the hometown fans will gradually grow and win out, and that in a one-sided game, “Sens fans know they’ve got to get out and beat traffic.”
Newcomer Kyle Turris, a former member of the Phoenix Coyotes, says that in a playoff series against Detroit three-quarters of the building was supporting the visiting Red Wings. But they didn’t boo, and certainly didn’t deride Coyotes captain Shane Doan.
“They were just chanting ‘Go, Wings, Go,’ ” Turris said.
The season-ticket holder who wrote was discouraged that “the thugs and hooligans are ruining Senators games and no one can or has the chutzpah to do anything about it!”
She had a good expression for the “gold category” Leafs and Canadiens dates at Scotiabank Place: “high priced, but high anxiety as well.”
Steep prices combined with an annoying atmosphere might explain why some home fans literally yield to the invading blue and white army.