Let me begin by saying I like the Ottawa Senators. I really do. I am-and remain-an Edmonton Oilers fan, which is why when I moved to the Nation’s Capital I promised myself I’d resist the urge to make any sort of emotional investment in the Senators. You see, at the time the Sens were coming off their second season since rejoining the NHL as an expansion team and were the joke of the professional sports world. Seriously. Not only had they finished last both years (by a country mile), but had captured records for sheer awfulness. They finished dead last their third season as well. And they’re fourth for those of you keeping score at home. My point is, when I decided to uproot myself and make Ottawa my home, the Sens weren’t just bad, they were historically bad. Adding insult to injury was the fact that they were still sharing a building with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s (the Civic Centre, capacity 10 585), and would continue to do so until early 1996. And the Oilers at the time, weren’t far behind in the punchline category. In fact, one team the Senators usually had some sort of chance against in those dark, early years, were the Edmonton Oilers. When pondering whether or not I should follow the Sens, as an established Oilers fan, did I really want to do that to myself? I mean let’s face it, if I was going to split my loyalties, why follow the biggest punching bag in all of professional hockey when I was already following one of the worst? Why not follow Detroit or Pittsburgh or the Montreal Canadiens, who claimed much of Ottawa’s relatively virgin fan base (while Toronto claimed much of the rest)?
But the truth is, the Senators grew on me. And why not? There were plenty of similarities between the two teams back then, aside from their dismal records. Both were small market Canadian teams trying to compete against much richer squads in the days before the salary cap, when the Canadian Loonie could buy you an American nickel. Both had a handful of shiny young players they were pinning their future hopes on-Ottawa boasted talented superstar centre Alexei Yashin, Alexandre “the Second Coming of Mario Lemieux” Daigle and the highly touted Radek Bonk while Edmonton’s prayers included names like Doug Weight and Jason Arnott. Ironically, both teams ended their losing ways at the same time, the Senators making the playoffs for the first time in 1997 while the Oilers ended a five year playoff drought that same year. Both teams flirted with relocation (the Sens sinking as low as bankruptcy before being rescued by billionaire Eugene Melnyk) and both teams flirted with greatness, with Edmonton making an improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2006 and the Ottawa Senators doing so in 2007.
So yes, I like the Ottawa Senators. I like to see them do well. Make no mistake, when they play Edmonton my ultimate loyalty remains with the Oilers (but cheering for an Edmonton win in overtime allows the Oilers to claim a rare victory while it allows the Senators to steal a point in what has become a claustrophobic Eastern Conference), but I have watched the Senators grow and have taken pride in their achievements and shared their sorrow during their defeats. I was happy for them when they made the playoffs for the first time in 1997. I swore at the TV whenever Alexei Yashin decided to wage another contractual temper tantrum and I cheered for them in 2003 when they advanced to the Final Four and again in 2007 when they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup final. I despised Dany Heatley as much as any Sens fan when he turned his back on the franchise that had welcomed him after his life and career became a literal train wreck in Atlanta (even more so when he snubbed the Oilers repeated attempts to trade for him) and I felt the swelling bitterness when Ottawa was driven from the post season by the hated Toronto Maple Leafs not once, not twice, not even thrice but four god forsaken times. Living in the Ottawa during all of those ups and down probably had a thing or two to do with my growing affection for the team as well, but as an Oilers fan, I became enamoured with underdogs. And whether it was luck or design, the Sens have been underdogs more often than not.
But being a fan has never completely blinded me to reality. OK, well, it has on occasion, but we’re talking less than 50/50 here. After all, I AM an OILERS fan. Delusion is part of the package. It’s how we cope. But it also equips you with more than enough pragmatism to look at a situation subjectively and size it up. It’s either “we’ve got a real shot here,” or “yeah, we’re totally boned.” I’m sure you get the picture. And last winter, I took a look at Ottawa and figured they were destined to miss the playoffs (if there’s one thing an Oilers fan is an expert at, it’s failure and post season futility).
I don’t think I was too out of line. Ottawa qualified for the 2012 playoffs by capturing the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, and they had the fewest points of any team that made the post season that spring. And that modest level of success exceeded most people’s expectations for Ottawa that year (the Sens missed the playoffs in 2011, and most predictions for the 2011-12 season leaned towards them missing the post-season again and participating in the Nail Yakupov sweepstakes). And some of the teams that trailed Ottawa by a handful of points in the East made some significant gains last summer. Carolina, who finished ten points behind the Senators, added top six forwards Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin. Steve Yzerman, whose Tampa Bay Lightning trailed Ottawa by 8 points come season’s end, added free agent blue liners Matt Carle and Sami Salo to his weak defense corps and bolstered his struggling goaltending staff by acquiring (then) highly sought after netminder Anders Lindback. But the team I felt represented the biggest threat to the Sens playoff presence was the Buffalo Sabres, who despite losing over 300 man games to injury and enduring a sub par year from franchise goalie Ryan Miller, finished a mere three points beneath the Sens. And none of that takes into account the Toronto Maple Leafs inevitable (some might say overdue) improvement from a basement team to a playoff one, or the remarkable turnaround of the Montreal Canadiens, jumping from dead last in the Eastern Conference to second place. What was Ottawa’s big move? Trading Nick Foligno to Columbus for defenseman Marc Methot. In fact, the only team I considered in more jeopardy of losing their playoff berth was the New Jersey Devils (well, I swung an even .500 on that one).
And all my crystal ball gazing came before the Senators avalanche of injuries.
Defenceman Jared Cowen underwent season ending surgery in November to repair a hip he injured playing for the AHL Binghamton Senators during the early days of the NHL lockout (though he made a surprising comeback at the end of April). Norris trophy winner Erik Karlsson returned to the lineup during the first round matchup against Montreal after missing over two months with a sliced Achilles tendon after a run in with a reckless Matt Cooke in February (Karlsson wasn’t expected back until next October). Jason Spezza was on the shelf between January and mid May with a herniated disc and Craig Anderson, easily the team’s MVP this season (whose absence from this year’s Vezina nominees has raised a few eyebrows) and sniper Milan Michalek have missed considerable chunks of time. Taking all that into account, would any sane man have bet on the Senators playoff chances? In fact, I know a lot of Senator fans who thought they’d be in the hunt for the first overall pick after the injuries started piling up (could you imagine adding Seth Jones to a blue line that already included Erik Karlsson, Jared Cowen and potentially Codi Ceci?). And I did go so far as to bet a co-worker lunch that the Sens would fail to qualify for the post season. Don’t worry Matt, I haven’t forgotten, although if you insist on McDonald’s I reserve the right to yak on your Senators jersey.
So here’s my apology Senators, because the one thing I should have learned about this team from the time I decided to begin cheering for the rare win while they were still playing on OHL ice, to this year’s Cinderella bouncing of the highly favoured Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs, is to never count this team out when the odds are against them. Make no mistake, there have been plenty of times this team has choked. There were years when they skated into the playoffs as the favourite to win the Cup, years where they had dominated the regular season, only to crumble under the pressure. But when they’ve been counted out before a single regular season game has been played, or before a single skate blade touched playoff ice, that’s when they’re dangerous. That’s when they’re most effective. Especially this year, when catastrophic injuries forced them to play playoff hockey all season long. And while things may not look so good for them against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins right now, the fact that they managed to make it this far, often with a roster that resembled an AHL team more than an NHL one, is no small victory in itself. So sorry Sens, in the future, I hope I’ll know better. You earned this.
Go Sens Go.