Agonizing and celebrating every close call, every hit, and every goal: Jeremy Milks talks Ottawa Senators

 

Chris Neil #25 of the Ottawa Senators stands outside the dressing room. (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

Jeremy Milks is the writer/editor of the blog Black Aces which covers the Ottawa Senators on a day to day basis. He is also the author of a book of short stories, “A Sane Man vs. The Thing From The Woods.”

It’s not the only game in town, but for many, it’s the only one that matters.

That’s life in a hockey-mad city, and the local NHL team, the Ottawa Senators, have given local fans a roller coaster ride ever since returning in 1992, marking an absence of nearly 60 years after the original franchise moved to St. Louis in 1934 to become known as the Eagles (who ceased operations shortly after).

To say the city has embraced the new Senators in their near 20 years of existence is an understatement, although the success of the team on the ice has not always been what everyone expected.

Fans from all sections of the Ottawa Valley make the pilgrimage to Kanata where an arena many thought would never be built now stands in what was once an undeveloped area of farmland. Taking a look around the area now, you can see the accelerated development that the Senators helped to bring to Kanata, thanks in part to the Senators original founders who, quite naturally, came up with the idea to bring a team to town in a dimly lit locker room after a game of shinny.

As author Roy MacGregor recounts in his book “Road Games” about the Senators eventful first year back in town, local businessmen Bruce Firestone, Randy Sexton and Cyril Leeder set out with a vision to bring the Senators back to Ottawa even though everyone who heard their idea thought they were crazy.

Resilient to the end, they overcame both perceptional and financial odds to beat out rival bids, one in particular by the city of Hamilton, to finally bring back NHL hockey to Canada’s capital city.

Spartacat, the Ottawa Senators' Official Mascot, made his first home game debut on October 8th, 1992 against the Montreal Canadiens at the Ottawa Civic Centre.

People were stunned at their success but quickly jumped on board. The Senators began play out of the comfy confines of Ottawa Civic Centre at Lansdowne Park (now the site of a major redevelopment slated to begin in the next few years) while they built their more permanent home in Kanata and suddenly the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux were coming to town to play four or five times a year, being spotted dining out at Hy’s Steakhouse on Queen Street and adding a bit of star power to what many mistakenly thought was a sleepy government town.

The first season was a huge success off the ice, but an unmitigated disaster on it. A then somewhat unknown local singer Alanis Morissette sang the first national anthem at the premier game, which the Senators won against the Stanley Cup bound Montreal Canadiens, but they didn’t win many after that.

Most fans were just happy to have a team back in town and the expected losses of a young team didn’t seem to bother them so long as the entertainment was there. As expected, with the city in the middle of Montreal and Toronto on the Canadian map, both with traditional “Original Six” NHL teams,  Ottawa was filled with either Leafs or Canadiens fans for many years prior to the Senators reappearing on the scene.

Some switched their allegiances to the Senators right away, particularly the younger fans who didn’t have longstanding attachments to the other clubs, but many found old habits hard to break. To this day you still see many Canadiens and Maple Leafs sweaters in the crowd at Scotiabank Place but as the years go on (the Senators will be celebrating their 20th anniversary next season) and the younger fans grow up and start to have kids of their own, we are starting to see that deep, ingrained fan base that is loyal to the core that other, more traditional clubs have enjoyed for generations.

In particular, the Senators run to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final seemed to convert many disbelievers who were disappointed in some of the team’s playoff failures up to that point, many of them against Toronto, their biggest rival in the league.

Although they didn’t beat Toronto on the way to the championship series (there are actually fans who would view beating the Maple Leafs in a playoff series just as satisfying as winning the Stanley Cup!), they were led by captain Daniel Alfredsson who cemented himself as a hero in this town by scoring the overtime goal against the Buffalo Sabres to send them to the final round.

Matt Carkner and Chris Phillips (Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images)

After that franchise defining game, Ottawa erupted like never before. Fans flocked to downtown Elgin Street, now known as “Sens Mile” since that historic run, shutting down traffic and many even marched to Parliament Hill, holding an impromptu rally on the ground usually used for political demonstrations or more serious purposes.  The original Senators had won 11 Stanley Cups between 1903 and 1927 (4 of them under the name of the Silver Seven) but most modern fans didn’t even have grandparents who remembered those games.

The final series against the Anaheim Ducks did not go in Ottawa’s favour but for many fans it was well worth the excitement and the team was expected to  challenge for the Cup for the next handful of years.

All the best laid plans went awry and the Senators began to struggle shortly after, resulting in this season’s edition where the organization has decided to rebuild with younger players, trading away local favourites like Mike Fisher and Chris Kelly for draft picks and futures.

About 400 children from 25 "priority neighbourhoods" in Ottawa were invited to Scotiabank Place for the season finale of the I Love To Skate presented by Canadian Tire Jumpstart program (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).

But not all is gloomy. The arena is filled to capacity most nights, even though a lot of fans have to travel quite a distance from downtown or other areas to catch the games. Daniel Alfredsson remains on this team and vows to be part of the rebuild and stay in his adopted home city. He even hints that Ottawa will be his permanent home after he is retired instead of returning to his home country of Sweden as maybe he once expected.

Over the years, a lot of players have come to Ottawa from other parts of the country (and the world) and have made it their home after they have retired. This city remains a priority destination for a lot of NHL free agents who enjoy the community for its high standard of living, its green space and the rabid hockey fan base that lives and dies with the team year after year.

Going to a Senators game in Kanata is an experience not many should miss if they happen to be in town during the winter months.  Win or lose, most come away feeling they’ve experienced an event, not just a hockey game. There is a certain community spirit in the rink that perhaps gets lost in translation in other big cities and the players themselves are some of the most accessible in the NHL as far as getting out into the community to meet the fans.

Just a quick look around the arena on game nights gives you one clue to the future success of the Senators in this city – the sea of kids wearing Senators jerseys.

When they grow up into adults and remain Senators fans, the franchise will take their place among the most traditional and storied  clubs in the entire NHL.

Until then, there’s a lot of hockey to be played. And an entire city will continue to agonize and celebrate every close call, every post hit, and every goal scored.

All we can say is ‘wow’ – big thanks to Jeremy for providing this great snapshot of the Sens!