For those of us who have been watching the Ottawa Senators play for years, you can sense something different in the air. There’s a greater sense of pride over this team, and it’s not just the unexpected playoff appearances, the emergence of a superstar defenseman, or the affable identity Paul MacLean has brought to the team. It’s the fact that for maybe the first time ever, we don’t give a damn what other markets think of us.
Go back to the early to mid-2000s: Ottawa had a veritable All-Star team, replete with two Norris-worthy defencemen, scoring leaders all over the lineup, and solid if unspectacular goaltending. Jacques Martin coached what had been a league-wide joke to regular season credibility. And every year in the playoffs Ottawa ran headlong into a team that was, supposedly, less skilled, and were manhandled. There was a sense back then that this wasn’t just bad puck luck–Ottawa’s stars were off their game.
How did that happen? Well, playing what amounts to all road games thanks to your barn being filled with Toronto fans and media with Leaf-colored glasses might contribute some small bit. But more to the point, it was that Ottawa was trying to win at a large market game. We could beat up on lesser teams when the games didn’t matter, but when the eyes of the country turned to us we were shrinking violets. We didn’t just want to beat the Leafs–we wanted to be loved by Leafs fans.
What we didn’t realize back then, and seem to realize now, is that even if Ottawa won back-to-back-to-back-to-back Cups, we’ll never have the respect or the credibility enjoyed by large markets. You didn’t think they could hate you now, did you? But they hate you.
The larger numbers in those markets feed revenue; that revenue feeds media. That media feeds the perception of credibility. The desire to be liked leads to everyone and their brother following the cool kids’ team. That’s how you end up with newspaper stories like this one: the gutsy, hard-working, underdog Senators, the sole remaining Canadian team in the playoffs after big budget busts like Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver choke hard, don’t even get a little bit of love. They get a reminder that they will never, ever be seen as credible in the eyes of the large markets. (Never mind that the article simultaneously acknowledges that Toronto is seen as smug while smugly deriding it’s smaller cousin by saying the city–that’s right, not the team, but the city itself–is a city envied by nobody.)
That’s why the #pesky moniker means so much. The subtext here isn’t that we’re annoying (though we are, thanks). It’s that we acknowledge that Ottawa isn’t the romantic choice for generations of people whose fathers grew up following one of the original six franchises. I’d wager there are more people in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver rooting for the Pens in this series. And you know what? It’s time we embrace that. We shouldn’t want it any other way.
It’s time for Ottawa to fully embrace, and feed off of, its status as a hated franchise. It’s not just the sort of team Leafs fans, and possible Sabres fans, can hate–we want all of the league’s hate. We can take it. We’ll feed off of it. It’ll make the victories that much sweeter.
As these Sens have shown, it doesn’t matter if we’re down a goal and down a man with less than a minute to go–they’ll eat your hate.