When the video tribute was over, No. 11 in the visitor whites skated out toward centre ice, blonde hair in the breeze, and raised his stick in a one-armed salute.
Senators fans stood on their feet, feeling chills, saluting in return.
Welcome back, Daniel Alfredsson.
All is forgiven. All you did, not forgotten.
In his first game in Ottawa as a Detroit Red Wing, the former captain of the Senators returned home to an older, wiser nation’s capital, a sports town that has shed some of its small-town insecurity.
This wasn’t as evident in the summer when the news broke that after 18 years and 17 NHL seasons in Ottawa, Alfredsson was bolting as a free agent to Detroit; the fan ideal of No. 11 playing every one of his NHL games as a Senator suddenly a broken dream.
Fans felt jilted, they were mad at Alfie, mad at the organization that let him go. A kind of Cold War ensued between the hockey club and its departing icon, a Cold War that has clearly thawed, as evidenced by Senators owner Eugene Melnyk telling TSN before Sunday’s game that if he were a betting man, he’d wager that Alfredsson’s No. 11 jersey will one day hang from the rafters of the Canadian Tire Centre, his number permanently retired.
If time heals all wounds, this one mended in about five months.
Modestly, Alfredsson said he doesn’t know if he’s worthy of such an honour as a jersey retirement. It was tough enough for him to put the events of Sunday evening into words.
“It’s hard to describe — how do you feel you deserve to be cheered on like that when all you do is play hockey?” Alfredsson said. “It’s kind of surreal at times to have that feeling.
“But it’s a mutual feeling. I definitely respect this city, and this team.”
The ex-captain stuck it to his old club pretty good, using his skill and guile to rip home an empty-net goal from afar, to put the Wings up 4-2 after the Senators had clawed back to within a goal. Say goodnight.
Alfie also recorded an assist, on the Red Wings first goal, by Johan Franzen and would have had another assist, if his old pal Chris Phillips hadn’t stopped Justin Abdelkader from tapping the puck into an open net.
Other than scattered boos during the game, Alfredsson only heard jeers after his name was announced for scoring the goal that killed the Senators chances of a glorious comeback. It was easier for fans to be part of the pre-game Alfie-fest.
“I really appreciate the gesture from the Sens organization and the fans, and it’s extremely humbling,” Alfredsson said.
The video tribute, played to U2′s Beautiful Day, Alfredsson’s goal song in Ottawa, was neither over-the-top nor understated, but fitting. As Alfredsson watched while standing on the ice, leaning on the boards by the Wings player bench, the montage hit all the highlights: the Calder Cup-winning rookie of 1995-96, early playoff battles, his controversial hit on
Darcy Tucker, and the infamous broken stick-toss mimic of Toronto’s Mats Sundin. Game- winning goals, Sweden’s Olympic gold medal of 2006, the march to the 2007 Stanley Cup final, game No. 1,000.
Then, we watched clips of Alfredsson in the community, supporting mental health causes, the man of the people.
So, yes, they stood as one Sunday evening and saluted No. 11 for what he did on the ice for the Senators — nearly 1,200 games played in an Ottawa uniform, leading the club in triumph and defeat — but just as heartily for the community figure people knew away from the rink.
So many in the National Capital Region have a personal story of meeting Alfredsson — at the golf course, the donut shop, at the Ottawa Hospital. Inevitably, they came away remarking on his cool class.
I know of a telling Alfredsson moment from a visit he made to a local alternative high school, a story never told.
The students he spoke to in Ottawa that afternoon were teenagers that, for one reason or another, did not thrive at conventional secondary schools. Some came from troubled homes, many had drug, alcohol or social issues. Some experienced all of the above.
While Alfredsson stood on a stage, patiently answering not-so-subtle questions from students, his wife, Bibi, in the final trimester with the couple’s fourth child, stood among the students and teachers.
The Q & A over, an impromptu line formed for Alfredsson autographs. There was no team official to regulate the crowd or control the requests. No matter, Alfredsson sat and signed dozens and dozens of autographs until the last student (and teacher) was satisfied.
One of the students was from Russia and Alfredsson chatted with him for a few moments in Russian. Russian?
“You pick up a few phrases here and there playing hockey,” Alfredsson said later.
With that, Daniel and Bibi drove off, another day in the life of his time in Ottawa, a time celebrated Sunday, at least until Alfie and his new team walked off with the win.
“The result makes it a lot sweeter, especially because they handed it to us twice pretty good in our building,” Alfredsson said of the Senators.
“Even if we’d lost, for me personally it would have been a night I’d always remember.”