The old man trailing the phenom, they came off the practice ice, greeted by a friendly mob of autograph seekers.
It was quite a scene: The Swedish kid, Erik Karlsson, standing next to the Swedish royal, Daniel Alfredsson, in the tunnel leading to the Senators’ dressing room at Scotiabank Place, both reaching up to fans in the stands, signing jerseys and posters with their left hands.
Who would have guessed, 20 years ago when Ottawa made its way back to the NHL with a band of misfits and castoffs that the region’s hockey world would be rocked by a pair of Southpaw Swedes. But so it is.
Alfredsson the Elder was a raw rookie in 1995-96 when he exploded onto the Senators’ roster, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top first-year player. To say Alfredsson was a pleasant surprise is to understate. As the team’s SECOND selection out of the sixth round in the 1994 draft, 133rd overall (where are you now, 131st overall selection Mike Gaffney?), Alfredsson was in his own world in Sweden. He didn’t know there was an NHL draft. When he heard he’d been chosen, he figured he might try this North American league for a year or so, then probably return to his Frolunda pro club in the Swedish Elite League.
He could not have envisioned, 19 years into the future, becoming the most prominent person in Ottawa, a lock for mayor should he ever opt to run for office. How different the path has been for Karlsson, selected 15th overall in 2008, the Swedish prospects by then utterly plugged into the NHL draft, locked onto NHL stars like Forsberg, Lidstrom and Alfredsson. Karlsson was in the house at Scotiabank Place on draft night, cocky, walking with a swagger to the dais, where none other than Alfredsson was at the microphone to announce the Senators’ pick.
Last season, Karlsson, in the master’s footsteps, won his first major NHL award, the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman, an astounding feat for a scrawny, fearless 22-year-old blessed with instant ignition. How perfect that Alfredsson scooped an award as well, winning the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions to the community — Alfredsson applies his powerful presence to mental health issues.
Having recently turned 40, Alfredsson finds himself reflecting a little more these days. It’s surreal to him, to see the ‘More Alfie’ ads that run in the newspapers, to promote this shortened 48-game season, to think that a prime motivation for Ottawa fans to forgive the lockout is the opportunity to watch Alfredsson perform — perhaps, perhaps not — in his final NHL season.
“I’m honoured, obviously,” Alfredsson said this week, as the team made preparations for Saturday’s season opener in Winnipeg. “It’s always humbling, when you’re out, at rinks, or anywhere in the city, to get the appreciation I get, it’s amazing … it’s been a pretty unbelievable journey for me, my family, coming from Sweden, starting a family here and having the connection I have with the city and the fans. That’s one of the reasons I’m really happy to be able to play here again.”
There are moments, Alfredsson admits, when he needs a break from Alfie Mania. “There’s times when I just want to be by myself, be with the kids, like any normal dad.”
Alfredsson had this romantic idea of being a stay-at-home husband and dad during the lockout, helping his younger brother, Henric, coach the Kanata minor atom AA Blazers team. Of course, Daniel’s oldest of four boys, Hugo, plays for the Blazers, as does Ben Phillips, son of Senators defenceman Chris Phillips.
Ever-grounded, Alfredsson says of his budding career behind the bench: “I wouldn’t say I’m a great coach. I have a lot to learn.”
It’s one thing to know hockey, he says, another to teach and engage kids in the game.
For the most part, the stay-home experience was wonderful, although Alfredsson’s emotions ran the gamut during that awful, unnecessary, four-month lockout. Oh, and have YOU tried staying home to tend to four boys under the age of 10, two of them in minor hockey, the youngest boy not yet two?
“It’s a lot of work,” Alfredsson says, with a tip of the cap to his wife, Bibi. I wish there had been a (Senators) road trip here and there for me.” He laughs. “But it’s great.”
For fans of the game, this latest lockout was infuriating, provoking more anger than apathy. Alfredsson was just as annoyed as anyone, even sharing the popular sentiment of — don’t bother coming back, NHL.
“In the beginning, I was frustrated a bit with the season not starting,” he says. “But then the longer it went, I felt, ‘I don’t even care if it starts up again. I’m perfectly happy with this, and maybe it’s time to start thinking about what I want to do after I stop playing.”
Mercifully, that day was postponed when a collective bargaining agreement was reached between the NHL and its players, prompting Alfredsson to crack a smile, and to crank up his skating.
Speculation has been that the compressed schedule will be murder on aging players — the NHL of 1995, the year of the last 48-game schedule — was vastly less demanding. Yet, Alfredsson, for one, believes he is better suited to the short, intense demand of a three-month schedule versus the usual 82-game grind over six months from October to April. What coach would dare push his team in practice when teams are playing every other night? Is this not the definition of NHL veteran heaven?
“I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all for me,” Alfredsson says. “There’s going to be a lot of games, but at the same time we’re not going to practice as much. I think that fits me perfect and I’m looking forward to it.”
With seven back-to-back game situations (better than some teams with as many as 12), will he take games off to rest and heal? Alfredsson is not sure. That’s something he will discuss with head coach Paul MacLean as the season goes along. General manager Bryan Murray quips that Alfredsson might be limited to “25 to 30 minutes” a night.
“My mindset going in is playing as much as possible,” he says. “I’m not looking to take days off here and there but at the same time I’ve got to listen to my body.”
He looks and feels great, his back healthy again after surgery in 2011, although he provides team massage therapist Shawn Markwick steady work. While he isn’t as quick as he used to be, speed was never as big a part of Alfredsson’s game as smarts, vision, guile, and a blistering shot that improved immensely over the years. These are the earmarks of his 16-year NHL career, with 416 goals and 1,082 points.
There’s no question he compensates, somewhat, for the ravages of age with the wisdom and experience of nearly two decades in the league.
“Oh, for sure, you do,” he says. “My game has changed a lot since I came in. I was all over the place, trying to do everything. I still believe my game involves a lot of skating. I haven’t lost a step, if you compare it to two, three years ago. Five, six years ago, maybe. But I feel after having my surgery, and being able to improve my strength, I don’t see (mobility) as an issue.”
Never mind his back, will he BE back for another year? At the dawn of the season, he isn’t sure. Let’s “see how I feel, how I perform,” he says.
There’s a lot to consider. Training for hockey is year-round and time-consuming. Having four kids is also year-round and time-consuming. For now, it’s enough to be back on the ice, captain of a young team on the rise.
Last season, with the NHL All Star Game in Ottawa, and the Senators in 20th anniversary mode, it felt like Alfredsson’s farewell tour. This time, he doesn’t want to imagine it could be his last as a player. There will be no souvenir keepsakes, no last look around. He wants to assume he’ll play a full 2013-14 season until he decides otherwise.
“I don’t know if I’ll know towards the end of the year, it depends how the season goes,” Alfredsson says. “I’m just going to take it and enjoy it for as long as I can.”
Amen, says the congregation of the Church of Alfie.