The Romantic Allure of Fatalism

By all accounts, the Ottawa Senators have had a pretty nondescript off-season. After making it within a double-overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final, General Manager Pierre Dorion has occupied himself with the relatively routine tasks of bringing back restricted free agents and replacing depth players. He re-signed his backup goaltender, Mike Condon, to a three-year, $2.4 million AV deal. Nate Thompson, an unheralded depth centerman with a history playing for coach Guy Boucher, received two years and $1.65 million AV. Tom Pyatt, another Boucher favorite, is back for two years and $1.1 million AV. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the homegrown talent and playoff hero, received a big raise, going from $900,000 AV to $3.1 million. [Edit: this originally read $600,000, which was the contract beforehand. Thanks for the correction, readers.] Dorion stayed away from the unrestricted free agent market, as small budget teams often do, knowing that they’d have to overpay. His big splash came last season in the run-up to the trade deadline, when Dorion traded prospect Jonathan Dahlen for a veteran in Alex Burrows, then promptly extended Burrows for two years and $2.5 million AV in a move that was roundly roasted as not just short-sighted, but emblematic of all of the ways the Ottawa Senators cannot get past their short-sightedness.

If you’re not an Ottawa Senators fan, these moves barely warrant clicking on a link: a team that was competitive in the context of one season and having received favorable match-ups did what it could to ensure that next year it will head into the season with the same lineup. Some marginal players were allowed to walk. Other marginal players came in. The most contentious of these moves – the Burrows deal – is a textbook example of what teams usually do heading into the playoffs, which is to mortgage some of the future to shore-up their chances in the present. Some players were given a little bit too much money, but not nearly the sort of overpayment we see with premier free agents. The Ottawa Senators’ recent management philosophy has been, in other words, the definition of a non-story.

And yet, to see the reaction among some of the team’s more engaged fans is to see in these routine moves confirmation of long-held beliefs that the team’s decision-making is fatally flawed. To be sure, each move is worthy of examination, and one can and should wonder how players who don’t seem to be in demand anywhere else, like Nate Thompson, can command a second year and $1.65 million instead of $1 million, or $1.25 million or even $1.6 million. These numbers tell none of their story, leaving the minutia of negotiation obscured, and so lead fans to fill in the blanks themselves. The only reason this player should command so much must be that the General Manager doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing.

Maybe he doesn’t! I don’t claim to have any more access to these discussions than anyone else. It’s entirely possible that Dorion and Boucher identified somebody they badly wanted and that player, not really caring if he ended up in Ottawa one way or another, turned Ottawa’s preference into leverage and an extra year on his deal. Far from this being portrayed as the most routine of occurrences in a league where the average salary in 2016 was $2.9 million, it was, instead, another nail in the coffin.

What I’m interested in here is how the routine becomes narrative, and how narrative bends negative. Because, on the surface of it, the despair seems disproportionate to the moves in question.

I want to distinguish here between ‘negative’ and ‘critical.’ Critical means assessing a situation to describe its causes and significance. There’s undeniable value (and fun) in trying to understand the motivations of managers and players in a system that remains largely closed to fans. Being negative, on the other hand, is to emphasize those less-than-ideal occurrences, be it through volume or frequency, and to amplify the significance of mistakes. And so it is that Nate Thomspon, depth forward who probably should have signed for one year and $1 million but who signed for two and $1.65 million, becomes emblematic of the Ottawa Senator’s inability to assess talent.

I think that what I’ve come to realize is that there’s a certain romanticism in being doomed. Baseball does this better than anyone – think about the Mets or the Cubs, with their decades-long struggles, or the Curse of the Bambino, which offered with each passing season the tantalizing possibility of an end. There’s a currency to being “most cursed.” Think of being number one on this list and then Lebron bringing home a Championship. Surely that’s more meaningful than being, say, Golden State.

To think of oneself as uniquely cursed is to make a win not just the outcome of smart asset management, but kismet, serendipity, divine intervention. It’s to single oneself out as somehow, mysteriously chosen – if I’m chosen to suffer uniquely, so too will I be chosen to win uniquely, to win in a bigger, stronger, more authentic way. Being cursed breeds an us-against-the-world mentality; to like a team that is cursed is to exempt oneself from the need to prove one’s bona fides. Being a fan of a systematically inept team makes one a truer fan than fans whose favorite player might be three-time-Stanley-Cup-and-every-other-award-winner Sidney Crosby and his perennial competitor Penguins. What would be more meaningful: if the Penguins three-peat next season – a truly momentous achievement in the modern era – or the Sabres bringing a Championship to Buffalo through sheer chance. It’s debatable.

There is a certain charm to being the underdog. Ottawa, with its pretty bad uniforms and historically awful early years and inability to get past the big-city rival in the playoffs, somehow feels doomed to irrelevance even when you consider that Ottawa is the only Canadian franchise to have made the Conference Finals three times in the last 20 years. (A somewhat arbitrary measuring stick for success, but still impressive when you consider how much money the Torontos and Montreals of the world throw around.) An integral part of Ottawa’s identity is that it is a second choice to better-funded original six franchises, just as the sleepy town itself is located roughly between each of those cities.

At times I’ve struggled to understand why the thinking of some fans will skew so immediately to the negative. Pageau is one of the most beloved roster players on the team, and his re-signing for three years could not prevent some from tweeting, as their first reaction, that his salary was higher than expected. I think what I’m coming around to is that to find the negative first is to make claim on a thing as one’s own: if I declare this thing bad, I declare my fandom of this thing real and true. I must be a real fan; only a real fan would love a team who can’t do a single thing right. So I’m going to make sure that every single thing they do is portrayed as wrong.

I can often be found on Twitter myself, lamenting the seeming inability of a small facet of the fan base to get past the fact that Ottawa, despite adhering to a strict internal budget, has made the occasional mistake of overpaying a player. But it occurs to me that in beating that horse again and again, I’m missing something essential about being a sports fan. Even if Ottawa made fewer mistakes, there would be those who would find in what mistakes remained as much evidence as they needed of the team being idiosyncratically dysfunctional. The idea of the “long-suffering” fan base is in many ways a fiction, but a foundational one when we consider how arbitrary this hobby happens to be. “We suck” is as close as many sports fans get to letting their freak flag fly.

In the future, I’ll try to apply that lens more often when I encounter negativity. Maybe what’s being said is not, “You’re wrong to enjoy this thing,” but “This thing is ours.” I can dig it.

Guest Post: Thoughts on Methot

Today’s post is by Stefan Wolejszo. Stefan is a criminologist and social scientist who often writes about the intersection of hockey, analytics, and “intangibles” such as grit and leadership on his blog Stories Numbers Tell. If you read his blog enough, you’ll come to realize that these intangibles are, in fact, much more tangible than one thinks. Just because we don’t measure something doesn’t mean we can’t. In general, I find Stefan to be an extremely pleasant and thoughtful person, and if you need more people like that in your life, you can follow Stefan on Twitter here


Although fans were braced for this exact scenario, the loss of Marc Methot in the Las Vegas expansion draft still stung. Some fans focused on positives such as the possibility of reinvesting Methot’s salary elsewhere or greater opportunities for Freddie Claesson. Others (as Wayne Scanlan hints at here) sharpened their respective pitchforks and made angry comments on talk radio or social media that laid the blame for Methot’s loss on management’s overvaluation of Cody Ceci, or Dion Phaneuf’s refusal to modify his No Trade clause.

Thinking through the sequence of events leading up to the loss of Methot, it seemed clear, at least to me, that overvaluing Ceci and being required to protect Phaneuf were really just symptoms of larger issues in player assessment and Ottawa’s ability to work within limited means, issues that have plagued the team for years. The story of these issues, and how they led to the loss of Methot, was like a tragedy that unfolded in five main acts.

Act I: The Mini-Rebuild

The Ottawa Senators traded Nick Foligno for Marc Methot on July 1st 2012 after deciding to let Filip Kuba go via free agency. The idea was that Erik Karlsson needed a stable stay-at-home type of defenceman as a partner in order to free him up to work his magic. An equally important factor was that the Senators were shedding money from their budget at the time. Marc Methot had three years left in a deal that paid him $2.75 M, $3.25 M, and $3.75 M in real dollars, whereas Kuba was looking for, and eventually received, a contract that paid an average of $4 M per season. The only consistency Foligno had shown to that point was in never passing on an opportunity to run an opposing goaltender, and Kuba was what is commonly referred to as “crappy at hockey,” so it all seemed pretty reasonable at the time.

The mini-rebuild that led to good decisions such as trading for Methot was also at the heart of a youth movement wherein plodding vets were replaced by inexpensive ELC players like Jared Cowen. Inexpensive assets are never inexpensive for long in the NHL, and after holding out and missing a large part of the team’s 2013 training camp, Cowen signed a four year deal with an incremental pay structure ($1.5 M, $2.5 M, $2.7 M, and $4.5 M) that was apparently built on two assumptions: 1) that Cowen would gradually develop into a top four defenceman, and 2) that the budgetary restraints the Senators were working under would improve by the time the bigger dollars kicked in. Those assumptions were equally wrong.

Act II: The Second Pairing Collapses

Hockey careers eventually wind down, and the organization correctly decided to part ways with Sergei Gonchar in the summer of 2013. Gonchar was an aging veteran who was what is commonly referred to as “very good at hockey,” and his calm play under pressure helped to stabilize the defence. While he was a Senator, Gonchar helped to bring along Patrick Wiercioch as well as Cowen, and his wonderful all-around play made up for any rookie mistakes his partners were making.

When the well-past-his-prime Gonchar left to mentor whatever semblance of a defence Dallas claimed to have, it left the Senators with limited options for addressing the new hole in their top 4 D. Chris Phillips was also in the twilight of his career and was best utilized in limited minutes. A strict internal budget meant the Senators were no longer big players in the UFA market, and they used the 2013 summer UFA period to acquire depth signings such as Mike Lundin and a final contract version of Joe Corvo. Their own choices were to trade for solid D on reasonable contracts (good luck with that) or promote D from within. In the end they rolled the dice on Wiercioch/Cowen as the second pairing with paper-thin depth behind it and the results could best be characterized as “hoo boy”, to use the lingo of industry insiders.

Just as the addition of Methot marked the start of an era when the Senators had one of the best first D pairings in the league, the loss of Gonchar marked the beginning of an ongoing “the Sens have to fix their second D pairing” discussion. Wiercioch became the “analytics versus eye test” poster child, as his often stellar underlying numbers never quite jibed with how awkward he looked while generating those numbers. Still, at least he was clearly an NHL player. Cowen was a big lumbering D who was a throwback to the days when GMs thought Jim Kyte was a good idea, and despite serious red flags in his game, the team seemed content to patiently wait for him to slowly morph into Zdeno Chara. In reality, a series of injuries that hampered his already subpar movement effectively ended any chance he had of actually becoming a top 4 defender.

Things really came to a boil in December 2013. By this time it was already apparent that Ottawa’s second pairing was not working out, and then-GM Bryan Murray began working the phones in an attempt to add another D. Media began widely reporting that, despite the Senators being one of the lowest spending teams already, due to the team’s internal budget any deal would need to be “dollar-in/dollar-out.” When Marc Methot went down with the flu, the Senators were forced to recall Cody Ceci who promptly scored a huge goal in his first game. Team management then proudly declared that Ceci had “stabilized the D”, and gave him a regular spot in the top 4 playing alongside Chris Phillips.

Act III: Stabilizing the D or “Stabilizing” the D?

Ceci’s first season results were “meh”, as the old coach’s saying goes, but at least there was reason at the time to believe he could grow into a larger role as his development continued. It is tempting to view keeping Ceci, who was on a $925k entry level contract, with the big team was a purely financial decision. Although finances clearly forced the team’s hand, I think there were more contributing factors at play, and I am convinced the team genuinely believed in Ceci’s potential. Considering the cost in assets of trading for a young D with high end potential, and the financial cost of picking an established D as a free agent, it is hard to blame the team for giving Ceci every possible opportunity to succeed. There is nothing inherently wrong with giving players in your system every chance to succeed.

Bringing Ceci into the fold left the team in an uncomfortable position. Karlsson and Methot were cemented as the top pairing and were paid accordingly. The organization felt it best to pair Ceci with Phillips with the latter acting as a mentor both on and off the ice. That was all fine, but then what should have been done with Wiercioch, who was making $2 M per season, and Cowen whose back loaded contract was looking worse by the day? GM Bryan Murray, who never really warmed to Wiercioch, seemed to continually push for Cowen to get more ice time to allow him to build up his confidence and work on his game. While there is nothing wrong with giving players in your system every chance to succeed it is essential to know when to pull the plug on a given experiment.

Quietly, behind the scenes, the team began to explore trade options for Cowen. This occurred in the team’s usual fashion, which was to leak to the media something to the effect of “Edmonton offered Jordan Eberle for him but the Senators don’t want to give up on Cowen just yet.” When blowing smoke around failed to produce a fire, and with Cowen’s contract heading into the budget crashing $3.7 M and $4.5 M years, the team was over the proverbial barrel. In addition, with Phillips at the end of his career, it seemed that the team had no plan in place or resources in terms of finances and movable assets, to fix the second pairing. What was worse was that the strategy of using back diving contracts to save money now at the expense of later was starting to catch up with the team.

Act IV: Killing two birds with one stone, or just killing birds?

It is in this context of a collapsed second D pairing and having budget killing contracts with which a team of limited means could never compete that the Senators traded for Dion Phaneuf. On Feb 9, 2016 the Senators moved out Cowen, Milan Michalek, and Colin Greening, along with a second tier prospect and a 2nd round pick, to Toronto in exchange for Phaneuf and four minor league players. In this deal the Senators gained a top four defenceman earmarked to play with and mentor Ceci in exchange for players on shorter term “bad” contracts that would expire within a couple of years. Phaneuf’s long term and expensive contract, which had no-trade provisions on the off chance that the dollar figures alone weren’t enough to keep less than stellar NHL GMs away, is what fans often characterize as “hahahahahaha.”

Buyouts are verboten under the current regime, so that was never an option for the team when it came to getting out from under really bad contracts. However, a major criticism of the deal was that the Senators could have exercised a bit of patience and got out from underneath those other contracts in a shorter amount of time. But the Senators felt that adding Phaneuf was a long term solution to their lingering problem with the second pairing and were fully willing to accept Phaneuf’s contract as-is. The team was also committed to the idea that Ceci was still developing into a top player and needed a mentor to help him reach his potential. Much like the back loaded contract signings that marked the low budget era, the last few years of the Phaneuf contract were a problem that would be left aside for another day.

Act V: The Expansion

The 2017 expansion draft could not have come at a worse time for the Ottawa Senators. If it had occurred a few years ago, the Senators would likely have lost a marginal player or could have explored burning assets to try to entice Las Vegas into taking Cowen off of their hands. As it turned out, expansion happened when the team had just come off a good season capped with a final four playoff run. Chris Wideman, who stepped in and gave the team a legitimate 3rd pairing, was a huge and often underappreciated part of the team’s regular season success. Freddy Claesson had spot duty during the regular season and was brilliant in the playoffs. For the first time in years the Senators had depth at D and so it always seemed to be a given that Las Vegas would take one of those good defenceman in the expansion draft.

Karlsson was always going to be protected and the no-trade clauses in Phaneuf’s contract meant he had to be protected unless he agreed to being exposed. This left one spot open that would go to either Ceci or Methot. The team tried asking Phaneuf to waive in order to free up an extra spot on the protected list for Methot but Phaneuf rejected that idea. Somewhat ironically, some fans who cheered Phaneuf for saying that he loves playing in Ottawa jeered him for exercising his contractual right to avoid any possibility of leaving. The problem for GM Pierre Dorion was that offering Las Vegas something to the effect of a first round pick and a prospect for bypassing Methot would mean they would likely also lose Claesson. Also, Methot is set to earn $4.9 M the next couple of seasons and the salary savings could be redistributed elsewhere. To no one’s surprise Las Vegas claimed Methot in a selection Senators fans referred to as “aww, fuck.”

Conclusion: (Less than 50) Shades of Grey

Many fans, including me, were emotional over the loss of Marc Methot. This makes sense given that he is a very popular player who had successfully formed a bond with the fan base. While fans have every right to their opinions regarding why Methot is no longer an Ottawa Senator, and some will inevitably play the blame game and focus on one isolated factor or another for why he is gone, I think it is also worthwhile to step back a bit and take a look at the bigger picture of how decisions have been made by the organization. For years now, a limited budget has impacted decision-making just as decisions, both good and bad, have had an amplified impact upon what the team can do within their budget. A fair bit of bad luck, such as Gonchar hitting retirement age at the worst possible moment and the timing of the expansion draft, was also at play. All of these factors played a part in the story that ended with the team losing one of its top pairing D.

Thanks That Was Fun

Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but I don’t feel the crushed by the weight of history this morning. The playoff losses of the early 2000s had a way of compounding each other until we got to a point where watching even the most formidable teams in franchise history felt like spending time with disappointments that hadn’t happened yet. This year’s Sens team was so unlike those that came before it that I feel like the loss is separate from that history. The idea of “heart” is entrenched in hockey vocabulary, but what made this year’s Sens special went beyond heart. This year’s Senators team had soul, to use Guy Boucher’s phrase. I’ve never watched another Sens team that had such an intrinsic will, such a deeply ingrained ability to give a fuck. This team’s ability to bounce back after a bad shift, a bad period, a bad game, was unprecedented for the franchise. If someone asks you “Did you enjoy that two-goal comeback OT win?”, the correct answer is “Which one?”. The upshot of this is that going into last night, I’d never been more confident that the Senators would not let me down. They did not. Sure the Senators franchise was 0-5 in Game 7s going into last night and now they’re 0-6, but to me it feels more like they’re 0-5 and there’s this other team I cheer for that is 0-1.

Seriously, how can you possibly put that last night on the same astral plane as the other Game 7 losses? The rest all have some sort of shorthand to refer to the exact cause of the disappointment. Tugnutt’s glove, Jeff Friesen, Ed Belfour, Nieuwendyk skating down the left wing, and Henrik Lundqvist are all phrases designed to conjure extremely precise memories. They are shibboleths of pain. What are you going to say about last night? The Senators did everything right and were a single bounce away. The OT winner was a screened shot off of a nothing looking play. It could have happened to anyone. The Sens didn’t beat themselves, and that’s not something you can say about many Sens teams of the past. We don’t need to wonder “what if” this year. They were right there right up until they weren’t.

What a disappointment though, good lord. After the franchise and its fanbase waited 15 years to make its first Cup Final, we had to wait another decade for the mere opportunity to make it back. Who knows how long it will take for everything to break for the Senators again? I worry about the future. Smart people will paint the journey to success as linear. Smart people will say there’s no reason that next year’s Sens team can’t be even better with Thomas Chabot and Colin White in the lineup. Smart people will say that Ottawa’s core will be back next year, and that their window, such as it is, is still open. These smart people are full of shit. There is no such thing as momentum from season to season. Anything can happen. Just ask Tampa Bay or Dallas or San Jose or Philadelphia or every team that isn’t Pittsburgh, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Success in the NHL is delicate. You can’t go around assuming you get unlimited opportunities.

I leave you with Warren Zevon’s words, famously uttered during his last Letterman appearance: “Enjoy every sandwich.” I enjoyed the hell out of this one.

I hereby dedicate this last cut to Eugene Melnyk.

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Game 7

This wasn’t supposed to happen. The Sens weren’t supposed to be here.

This season was supposed to be about the past.

After a disappointing 2015-2016 campaign in which Ottawa missed the playoffs and yet another coach was fired, the offseason moves by rookie GM Pierre Dorion didn’t inspire confidence in many. Dorion selected Guy Boucher as the new head coach, and not Bruce Boudreau like a lot of fans wanted. He traded the young and talented centre Mika Zibanejad for an older, local player Derick Brassard. The move raised more concerns about the team’s finances and budget. He failed to upgrade a porous blueline. These perceived failures weren’t new and it felt like another difficult year was ahead.

In some circles, the lack of enthusiasm for the team on the ice meant the focus of the 2016-17 season wasn’t on the current roster, the season’s schedule, and the team’s Cup chances, but rather on the past and the organization’s 25th anniversary. Early highlights of the season included the announcement of a Ring of Honour, a salute to the many people who have made the Senators what they are today. Former coach and GM Bryan Murray was deservedly the first inductee, and the ceremony honouring the man who undoubtedly left one of the biggest marks on the franchise was the highlight of a January game against the Capitals.

We waited for Chris Neil to have his moment. At 37 it’s clear his career is coming to an end, but for one night, Neil took centre stage, appreciated by the fans at the Canadian Tire Centre and by the only NHL team for which he has played; by the NHL team that drafted him half a life time ago.

The highpoint of the season was supposed to be a night in December when the Sens faced off against the Detroit Red Wings. Daniel Alfredsson’s number 11 was raised to the rafters and the first modern Senator ascended to a rarified place in hockey’s hagiography. It was the sort of night Sens fans had wanted for years, a night that provided a touchstone to the team’s history for all of us. It provided a chance for fans to show our appreciation to The Captain. What it crystalized for fans of this team, both new and old, was this team had a story. This team had a past, a past that contained excellence and a fair amount of heartbreak. A backstory that could now be passed down from long-time fans to newer followers, from older generations to younger ones, from parents to children. There are fans who never got to see Alfredsson play, who have gravitated to the Senators in the four years since he last pulled on an Ottawa jersey. These fans rely on YouTube highlights and the stories those of us who remember his playing days convey.

These were the things that were supposed to sustain Sens fans through another mediocre season. Making the playoffs seemed to be a pipe dream, at least according to most expert predictions. In this situation it was better to focus on what we used to have, the past, than hope for elusive playoff glory.

But the present kept breaking through our collective nostalgia. In the present there is adversity, difficulty, and pain. But at its best, hockey connects us to others who feel the same as we do about a player or a team, cheer the same goals, agonize over the same losses. At its best, hockey distracts and heals, if only temporarily. At its best, hockey provides community. Community made visible by a sticker on the back of each helmet signaling solidarity. Community made visible with a surprise visit. Community made visible online or in person, at the game or watching at the bar.

With each historic achievement or moment of this anniversary season, the present intruded. Despite predictions, the Sens started the season relatively strong. Pundits waited for Ottawa to fall off the pace and out of playoff contention but it didn’t happen. Even in March, when the injury bug hit, the Sens pulled through.

Early round victories against the Bruins and the Rangers were mocked and derided. Ottawa’s opponents had weaknesses, injuries, deficiencies. Yet Ottawa remained the underdog; when it came to predictions the team remained the choice of fans only, the experts repeatedly choosing Ottawa’s opponents to seize the day, banking on the Sens regular season results being a mirage.

Yet here we are, deep in May and there is still ice at the CTC. Ottawa is one of only three teams still competing for the Stanley Cup and is in a position the organization has only encountered twice before. We are on the precipice of something truly spectacular.

Tonight the present collides with history. A game seven against the defending Stanley Cup champions and their two generational talents. A win secures a trip to the finals and a chance to compete for the NHL’s ultimate prize. But it also secures something else: another chapter in the team’s history. It is rare to be present when stories become legends but for those of us who have watched every moment of this run we can say we were there. We were there when Mac scored for the first time in nearly two years and then capped his improbable return to the ice with a series-clinching goal. We were there when Jean-Gabriel Pageau added another verse to his personal mythology with a comeback securing, overtime winning, four-goal outburst. We were there when Craig Anderson staved off elimination with a 45 save effort. We were there when Bobby Ryan rose from the ashes of his worst regular season to lead Ottawa’s offense. We were there when two unreal assists from the injured Erik Karlsson, exclamation marks in a dominant postseason effort, forced much of mainstream hockey media to realize he’s the best player in the world right now. We were there when he made the case that his career is already worthy of the Hall of Fame, a week before his 27th birthday.

Many years from now the long-time fan will look back on this moment in Sens history and say “I remember”; the new fan will look back on tonight and say “I’ll never forget”. For much of the Senators’ existence, fans have lamented the team’s lack of storied past. But in its 25th year, Daniel Alfredsson’s number 11 hangs from the rafters and the present, throwaway season has proved historic.

We were supposed to reflect on Sens history in 2016-2017; Boucher, Karlsson, Anderson and company decided to make it instead. Tonight that history grows in magnitude.

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How to Talk About A Team You Don’t Care About

Legend has it that this blog was first formed many moons ago by a group of socialist nerds who, after reading a particularly heinous Don Brennan column, concluded that there was no reason they couldn’t write about hockey better. Whether or not that is actually true is still up for debate, but the fact remains that this blog’s roots are planted firmly in the garden of Media Criticism. We’ve always been interested in, not just The Story, but The Story Behind The Story and the ways in which we can frame and talk about The Story.

In light of this, it is with a heavy heart that I must report that The Media is at it again. This is hardly a new state of affairs. To be a Senators fan is to be reminded almost constantly that your team is an afterthought, even in its own market. The Leafs and Habs get the lion’s share of the media coverage on television and on national media, and while Ottawa has many fine writers covering the Senators locally, Ottawa simply doesn’t have the critical mass of fan eyeballs necessary to propel those writers to bigger outlets.

Media professionals such as Down Goes Brown and Steve Dangle have been able to break into the mainstream simply by being well-known Leafs fans who produce good content that is enjoyed by fans of many teams. I would never suggest that DGB or Steve Dangle are undeserving of their professional success, but there’s no denying that they enjoyed a huge advantage by way of their audience possessing a certain cultural literacy apropos of the Leafs. The ubiquity of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the national consciousness and discourse means that even fans of other teams, myself included, are able to enjoy the content that DGB and Steve Dangle produce. It will be considerably more difficult for even the even best Ottawa-focused writer, podcaster, or video producer to break through because the audience for Ottawa-focused content is comparatively limited1. There is such a thing as Leafs Privilege.

I am not speaking out of bitterness, I am merely stating fact. Ottawa’s small fanbase means that the incentive to respectfully cover the Senators is small, and many of those who cover hockey, particularly on the internet, make no effort to hide their disdain for the Senators. James Mirtle, Tyler Dellow2, and Ryan Lambert (A dumb person’s idea of a smart hockey writer, although to Lambert’s credit this seems to be something he is unconsciously aware of) have all been the most openly dismissive of the Senators throughout the season or longer. Most Leafs bloggers are beyond hope at this point, which is fine because one does not expect Mouse Blogs to have balanced takes on Cats.

If Ottawa Senators fans are overly ornery or defensive, it’s because we have correctly ascertained that in this media landscape, it is literally Us against The World, and we don’t really care for The World at this point. When Bruce Arthur tweets “I have just learned that Marc Methot’s nickname is ‘Meth’.”, all he is doing is revealing the extent of his ignorance regarding the team he’s supposed to be covering for a national-ish outlet. If I went to England to write a travel column and earnestly tweeted, “Did you know they call a truck a ‘lorry’ here?”, it would be comparatively risible.

But here is the thing about this particularly lazy Bruce Arthur article: discussion of the ticket sales, or lack thereof, is a legitimate story. It’s one that has been covered from a few different angles, but it remains a newsworthy story in its own right. Discussion of the Senators’ ongoing lackluster attendance reminds me a great deal of post-election analyses of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 US Election. There are a myriad of factors which have contributed, and many of them are interconnected. In addition, if just one of the factors was changed, the outcome would almost certainly change materially to the point where there would no longer be a story worth discussing. Therefore, one can confidently state “Factor X is the reason for this phenomenon”, and simultaneously be correct, narrow-minded, and un-nuanced in their analysis. The reason on which you choose to focus says more about you than it does the about the actual ticket sales. Case in point: Bruce Arthur looked at Ottawa’s attendance and concluded the problem was……….TORONTO! Do a CTRL + F on Arthur’s article about Ottawa’s “oversensitive fan base” and you’ll find 8 references to Toronto. There you are. We are weird because Toronto made us this way. I read it in the paper.

What pushes Arthur’s hackery into the realm of diabolical is that he even talked to several Senators bloggers/media members to mine them for quotes that would support his article’s premise that he’d clearly already decided on well ahead of time, to say nothing of the fact that any pushback against his (flawed) premise would de facto prove that Sens fans are oversensitive. Credit where it’s due: It’s impressive that a Toronto based columnist managed to gaslight an entire fanbase using their bloggers’ own quotes. This is probably the finesse of the century, and I take my hat off to it. I also spit in that hat and mail it to the Toronto Star.

I say all that to say this: we all know the mainstream media doesn’t care for the Senators. It’s extremely obvious. Still, we must reach some sort of detente. The media has a job to do, and I’m sympathetic to it. In this spirit, please enjoy this short guide titled “How to Write About A Team You Don’t Care About”.

1. Don’t.

It’s ok! Just don’t do it. Don’t do it Dave Lozo. We know Twitter is abuzz with takes about how boring the Senators are, but you don’t need to have a take. If you can’t write something good, don’t write anything. We will understand, and we will be thankful. The mainstream media gets to mould the discourse and it’s the gateway to knowledge for thousands of casual fans. Don’t bother talking about Ottawa unless you have some insight to pass along to the average media consumer.

2. Write something good.

You can produce good journalism about the Ottawa Senators. It can be done. I have seen it. I’ve even seen Bruce Arthur do it.

Shannon Proudfoot routinely produced exquisite work at the national level, and also talked about this blog once. Ian Mendes is the most consistently excellent mainstream writer covering the Senators. Jack Han has produced some excellent analysis for The Athletic.

There are good stories about the Senators to be written. Need some ideas for what would make a good story? Please enjoy this partial list of pitches I have:

a. The resurgence of Bobby Ryan, an idea so easy even Cabbie thought of it.
b. A discussion of Craig Anderson, one of the most underappreciated goalies of his era, who is on the verge of his first Cup final at the age of 36.
c. How does Guy Boucher’s playoff success this year compare to his playoff success with Tampa Bay?
d. What was the professional relationship between Marc Crawford and Guy Boucher in Switzerland? Is this Crawford’s next shot at a head coaching gig in the NHL?
e. Is Pierre Dorion really deserving of a GM of the Year nomination or did just get lucky? How many of Bryan Murray’s fingerprints are still on this team?
f. How has Dion Phaneuf, a frequent target of criticism in Toronto, adapted to his reduced role in Ottawa? Is he enjoying a renewal of his reputation now that his team is going on a longish playoff run?
g. Does Marc Methot’s strong play make him an expansion draft target?
h. How has the flooding in the Ottawa area affected various members of the Sens’ fan base?

I literally made up this list in 30 seconds, and hey, Game 6 is tonight and we may only need this list for another eight hours. Still, if you’re a journalist who is not used to covering the Ottawa Senators and you are interested in more ideas for Things That Are Good, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’m sure I can come up with a few more by deadline.

1. I am at peace with this. I think most in the Sens Content Sphere are at peace with this. It is a labour of love. I contribute to a blog and podcast because I enjoy it, and the day I stop enjoying it is the day I’ll stop contributing.

2. What I find particularly hilarious about Dellow’s work here is that the fact that Ottawa would play Boston closely could be predicted by someone who was merely moderately intelligent and just happened to be paying attention.

Living in the Age of Anything Can Happen

 

We’ve Created a Narrative Box, But it’s Just a Box

One benefit of following and rooting for any particular sports team is that success is a matter of objectively quantifiable fact. Sure, you can quibble about the way points are allocated, or suggest that those points are an inaccurate reflection of the true quality of a team – and you’d be right. But with the agreed-upon calculus of points being assigned to teams on the basis of wins resulting in a hierarchy we call ‘standings,’ there can be no doubt about who is ahead.

Knowing who is ahead creates a singular objective, fed by two, binary narratives that are the twin, propulsive forces behind most hockey writing: generally speaking, either you want to get the most wins, which will award you a championship, or you want the fewest wins, which will award you a high draft pick, which you might be able to use to draft a star, which will contribute to the accumulation of wins at a later date.

In other words, you’re either competing, or you’re rebuilding. This is an easy narrative to understand.

Though the strategy to accomplish either of these tasks can differ, the narrative of the competitive window v. the incremental rebuild remains pretty static, and it’s against this static, linear conception of success that we, fans and writers of hockey, project our expectations thusly: a team gets about 3-4 years of rebuilding before they’re expected to make the playoffs. Then 1-2 years of increasing success in the playoffs before they’re expected to compete for a championship. Then 2-3 years during which their window to win a championship is open. After that, the team is likely top-heavy with big contracts and 30+-year old players, the farm team is starved for good prospects, and it’s time to start selling off. At this point, a baboon lifts a baby lion cub up to the sun and Elton John provides us all with perspective.

Though there are myriad examples of teams not adhering to this tidy, linear map of what success should look like, it’s the Ur language of hockey journalism. Even those who want to be controversial will make statements relative to this easily understandable norm.

I say all of this in order to explain why the Ottawa Senators’ financial situation, and thus placement outside of the binary, has been so disruptive for fans and writers alike. Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has enough money to own and operate a hockey team, but not enough liquid cash on hand to spend on salaries or front-office staff to contend, or to sustain a multi-year rebuild without playoff revenue. Melnyk makes the Senators’ adherence to the Ur narrative impossible. But it also doesn’t make sense for Melnyk to sell, as the franchise continues to accumulate underlying value and the team is due to relocate downtown in the coming years. So here we are, in narrative purgatory.

One wrinkle: the team is having a successful season. A few savvy contracts to players like Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman, Mark Stone, Clarke MacArthur, Craig Anderson and, oh yes, the greatest player of his generation Erik Karlsson, has led to the team being competitive for a playoff spot despite these disadvantages, and now here we are in the Eastern Conference Finals, playing the defending champs and Exemplar of The Traditional Rebuild, the Penguins.

If the team was unsuccessful, it would be easier to write about them. At least then they would receive a higher draft pick and to some small degree be rebuilding, even if it would be despite themselves. This is what leads to such hot takes as “this current run of success is only leading to the Senators worsening their draft position,” as if there’s no enjoyment to be gleaned from watching one’s team make a deep run into the playoffs, or hoping for the unlikely to come true. For some, the narrative of “win it all” or “rebuild to win” is bigger than the game right in front of them.

It’s not uncommon to find fans and journalists alike bemoaning the team’s lack of a plan. But what we say when we say, “There is no plan” is that we’re unable to discern the direction of the Ottawa Senators on the spectrum of our dominant narrative of What Hockey Teams Do. And that leaves fans and journalists alike casting about for ways to talk about the team, with no easily accessible point at which to say, This is where I believe the team is relative to expectations. Silver Sevens had a nice piece about how few articles were written about the Sens this year, with many blogs, including this one (and me in particular) going dark for long stretches of time. This isn’t for lack of interest. We all still like hockey. But we’re having to learn new ways to talk about hockey.

People want, first and foremost, a story. This is us – the city, the player, the hero – and this is what we want to accomplish – to get better, to go further, to win. We can get together and drink beer and hope for the puck to go in the net, but the binary of compete/rebuild is the answer to the question What does the puck in the net mean? Not being a part of that binary means asking ourselves the scary question, What if this success doesn’t mean anything?

Becoming Ethnographers of Hockey

Though Melnyk’s financial situation denies us the easy narrative framework of compete/rebuild, we can also acknowledge that that binary is only one framework through which to view the progress of a hockey team. Of course, hockey means what we decide it means. We, as fans, can socially construct any narrative we like and assign it value. We don’t need mainstream media, the league, or marketing to do it for us.

There are so many other ways we could be talking about this Senators season, from the personal – what does this season mean to you, the reader or writer, and your family? – to the big-picture – what does this season mean in the context of the franchise, your community, the city, the country?

We could be writing about the individual events of each games. We could be telling the stories of the Clarke MacArthurs and the Craig Andersons and even the poor Chris Neils, he of 1000 games, the longest-serving veteran on the team and an anachronism, healthy and ready to play and never asked, the last man standing from those regular season juggernauts of the mid-aughts. We could be talking to other fans, and telling their story. We could challenge ourselves to find interesting and creative ways to describe what it means to be a hockey fan. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to previews, reviews, and letter grades. (Though those are fun, too.)

The foundation is already there. Ian Mendes does this all the time, covering the incredible story of Jonathan Pitre, or Kyle Turris’ involvement with the Capital City Condors. We need only decide to make those stories as foundational as the compete/rebuild narrative – to change our emphasis to storytelling rather than the pretense of continuous, objective measurement.

In other words, we could treat writing about hockey the way we treat other types of journalism, which is to start digging without necessarily knowing what the end point will be and to tell the story of what we discovered. More interviews, more discussions, more art and photography about hockey.

When ‘Anything Can Happen’ Becomes ‘It Happened’

First and foremost we should remember that even if “Get in and anything can happen” is not exactly a plan, it’s also true. We are experiencing the validation of a concept about hockey success that fundamentally acknowledges just how much variation there is in this sport. Shooting percentage, save percentage, scoring effects, match-ups, injuries – there’s a lot of noise surrounding the core quality of a team’s lineup. This season does not validate “Get in and anything can happen” as the ascendant model for dynasty building, but it does validate that…well, anything really can happen. This is going to present an increasingly big challenge for both Type A fans who want to see their team tell the story of a methodical build to contention and league marketers who’ve relied on “wicked prospect!” or “let’s get the Cup!” as the only two modes of story.

The league has introduced a number of mechanisms that make the road to a rebuild increasingly subject to variation, including weighted lotteries, RFA rights, and salary caps. I listened to a podcast the other day where it was suggested that Edmonton’s window might already be closing; McDavid’s RFA deal is up next year, meaning they’ll have to shed salary to sign him long-term. This, after 11 years out of the playoffs and four first overall picks in five years. Increasingly, teams are going to rely on the unpredictable happening knowing that the unpredictable comes for us all whether we like it or not. We may even see more teams adopting systems like Coach Guy Boucher’s, which stymie offense and capitalize on mistakes but can bring success even with a lower payroll.

In any case, we’re going to need to find a different way to talk about hockey, something more spontaneous, organic, and refreshing that reflects the randomness with which the NHL now contends.

To put it unkindly: look at Ottawa’s attendance this year. If the NHL can’t answer What does winning a hockey game mean? then people won’t pay to hear that story told. Each game is its own, small story, but each game is also a chapter in a larger epic. We get to choose what that epic is. Is it winning a Cup and that’s it? Or can we do more to talk about what’s happening, right now, in our hometown? How do we talk about hockey success once we acknowledge that luck and variation is the perpetual background radiation of the hockey universe?

What will happen when more and more teams understand success is the outcome of a series of fortunate events – winning a draft lottery, a goaltender getting hot at the right time, a favorable playoff matchup? Parity has brought more teams into the competitive fold, like a capricious grantor of temporary joy, but people like to understand how things work and see them unfold as projected. What the league needs to understand, and get out of front of, is that this Ottawa Senators season is what the future of the league looks like – surprising teams succeeding against the odds in a chaotic world. I think we can do a better job of telling that story.

 

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Ottawa Senators Playoff Beard Update

enough talk let’s see some BEARDS

Kyle Turris

turris2

not all heroes wear capes and not all heroes wear luxuriant beards, you know? our dude bachman turris overtime here just happens to be the FAIREST OF THEM ALL, so rather than ask him why he’s showing more chin than chain here, why don’t you just say thank you? i’ll wait

J-G Pageau

pageau5

okay this is also not the strongest beard but when you’re a street-smart mouse constantly hustling pizza through an air vent to feed your family you do what you can

Zack Smith

smith

alright alright, this is what i’m talking about, this is that paper towel lumberjack stuff, this is that “why has mom been in the laundry room for an hour with a glass of wine” stuff, and yes he started early on this one, but you know what they say, the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, the second best time is whenever this thing started, growing mightily from the smallest beard acorn

Chris Neil

neil2

well hey there gingersnap! oh, are you playing in the game too? well that is quite the accomplishment! you have fun, and don’t you let those other players push you around! but no mischief, you hear me, mister?

Viktor Stalberg

stalberg2

i think we know each other pretty well [you nod] and i’m not racist but [you leave] there are really two kinds of swedish beards, the fair well-groomed kind that’s all “while you were sleeping i made you this grapefruit muesli”, and the dark swarming kind that’s all “while you were sleeping i built you a shed from rough-hewn timber, that sound you hear is wolves” and anyway this is that second kind

Marc Methot

methot3

“i mean no novel is an easy process, but what i struggled with on this one was the realization that a lot of what used to be unconscious had become . . . kind of a formula, you know? like i was trying to produce something instead of just exposing what was already there. so getting off the grid was almost a foregone conclusion; i spent a couple months in western maine, small cabin, wood stove, a local guy who brought me groceries once a week but otherwise no phone, no internet, no connection to the outside world whatsoever . . . and after a couple weeks i could hear the voices of these characters, and it’s just a matter of transcription at that point, really”

Fredrik Claesson

claesson2

freddie i love you bud but this beard is one drum short of a circle my guy, this beard is one baja poncho short of 14.09.2000 at darien lake, and i’ll be honest my pal, trey didn’t really have it that night

Bobby Ryan

ryan-dzingel

this is one of those beards that lets everybody know you’re in a new phase, like “i may have a seven-album deal but i’m really just a singer-songwriter and this new one is about getting back to my roots, anyway here’s ‘getting it going’

also dzingel just a thought but maybe you’d play more if you looked less like don felder

Erik Karlsson

The-Big-Lebowski-White-Russian

Tom Pyatt

pyatt

if you missed chris evans at comic con, good news, you can catch him in this senators-themed sauna being my wife’s favorite player, although she tells me their thing is totally over and as soon as she’s back from this business trip we’re going to have some real quality time for once, anyway, A+ beard

Alex Burrows

burrows2

sometimes you gotta play to your strengths and if your strength is a strong inside game, you can’t waste time with shots outside the paint, so you clean things up. nobody likes a prickly pete

Prickly Pete

phaneuf4

no bad ideas my man but just a suggestion, in days of yore you could just be a mustache guy, no judgement, just dads with mustaches at the lion’s club welcoming you with fellowship and scotch, everybody had a good time and drove home drunk. yes times have mostly changed for the better but even those times aren’t as dusty as that cormac mccarthy-ass dry sagebrush on a moonless night you got goin on, again, just a suggestion

Derick Brassard

brassard2

here we have the opposite problem where your outside game is so strong you just turn into some kind of sweaty lincoln

Pierre Dorion

dorion

worst place

Clarke MacArthur

macarthur3

look at this perfect man with this perfect beard, look at this shel silverstein writing you a poem beard, look at this episode of mr. robot starring jose bautista beard, look at this sandalwood rain forest. look at this beard coming home after a voyage of many years and many miles for nuzzles and taquitos and a pickup game or two in the driveway before the sun sets. look at this beard you get to look at