You can’t explain the psychology of the Ottawa Senators fanbase simply by referencing “new team in a small market” factors. The Ottawa Senators are not unique in this respect. They are a relatively new expansion franchise as one of eight teams who joined the NHL in 1992 or later. Two of those teams, Tampa Bay and Anaheim, have already won a Stanley Cup. Like the Florida Panthers, Ottawa made a Stanley Cup final which they lost to a much, much better team. As long as a team exists in Arizona, a shared history of the looming threat of relocation will also exist between the Senators and Coyotes. The Senators and the Predators have both employed David Legwand and Mike Fisher. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever met a fan of Minnesota or Columbus, but I’m sure both fanbases are perfectly well-adjusted. Could Ottawa have traded Rick Nash and taken it in stride the way Columbus did? I doubt it. I admire the sanguinity of Blue Jackets fans. It doesn’t matter how many dynamic forwards they trade, they’ll keep firing that cannon at home games. Making visiting beat writers piss themselves after goals is its own reward.
Other expansion fanbases have organically developed their own tics, complexes, and anxieties, but Sens have not been allowed to organically develop much of anything. Our curse is one of geography, a curse that Tampa Bay, Florida, Anaheim, Nashville, Atlanta (God bless the dead), Columbus, and Minnesota have been fortunate to avoid. Like that planet in Interstellar that consists only of shallow oceans and kilometer-high tsunamis, Ottawa is caught in the orbit of the twin black holes of Montreal and Toronto. Their inexorable pull has choked out our ability to sustain anything other than grey hopelessness.
As is befitting the more hysterical tendencies of the Habs fanbase, the prevailing sentiment from Sens fans for the past year and a half has been one of overwhelming dissatisfaction. Fan unrest is ritualistically performed and has been perfected to the point of an almost religious experience. Daily we gather in the Sanctuary of Twitter and sing the same old hymns, the lyrics familiar to all. “We have only won one playoff series since 2007”, “The Sens do not have have enough prospects with upside”, “The Sens should have tanked harder instead of doing a quick rebuild”, “Bobby Ryan and Dion Phaneuf are declining players on contracts they cannot possibly justify”, and of course, our Benediction: “The Sens are wasting Erik Karlsson’s prime”. If one performs a Twitter search for “Therrien Subban“, you’ll recognize this Sens liturgy as a pale imitation of the original. No one does guilt, imagined persecution, and eternal suffering quite like the Roman-Catholics.
The Sens have good players who are either not good enough and they have good players who are surrounded by other players who are not good enough, and they also have Good Hard Working Boys. Mark Boroweicki and Chris Neil are fine professionals, but there’s something oddly familiar about the cadence of each caller on TSN1200 who waxes romantic about about their heart and soul and blocked shots. I have found that if one mentally inserts a name like “Darcy Tucker” or “Tie Domi” into your typical post-game show call, the origin of this mentality is be laid bare: a hundred drunk uncles at a hundred Ottawa Valley Thanksgiving dinners. (“Marian Hossa just doesn’t have THE HEART OF A CHAMPION like Gary Roberts!”, pontificates some cartoon avatar of a Leafs fan in May of 2002 after his seventh Labatt 50.) A holdover from the early 2000s when Ottawa Senators teams were routinely defeated in the playoffs by ostensibly harder working Leafs squads (instead of, more accurately, Leafs teams with better goaltending), it is the conviction of a number of Senators fans that any ills with the team can be solved by trading the players who don’t try enough. No doubt that the fans who don’t believe this believe that the ills of the team can be solved by trading the players who don’t Corsi enough, which is the most recent manifestation of Toronto’s group psychology. Can there really be any doubt that any inferiority complex that Ottawa possesses is a learned behaviour from Toronto?
Essentially Sens fans have adopted the worst qualities of the fanbases that surround us, and thus there is no one better at hating the Sens than Sens fans. It’s possible mindset would be different if Daniel Alfredsson hadn’t left us. When Alfie left for Detroit, Sens fans turned into the worst type of cynics. If Alfie wasn’t special, no one was. Sens fans can’t even appreciate Erik Karlsson these days without noting that he’ll probably leave for Detroit at the conclusion of his current contract. I’d expect that sort of thing from Habs fans three seconds before I blocked them on Twitter. It’s distressing that this fanbase insists on telling it to themselves instead.
In the intersection of this cynicism and betrayal sits Chris Phillips. As our own Andrew pointed out on Silver Seven, part of why Phillips’ record of 1179 career Senators games is so unremarked upon is because the number that precedes it, 1178, is the number of games Daniel Alfredsson played with the Sens. Phillips’ spot atop the Senators’ career games played list is nothing more than a reminder of a reality that should never have happened. This is a great shame when one examines 1179 in a vacuum. 1179 is more games than Bobby Clarke played with the Philadelphia Flyers, it’s more games than Trevor Linden played with the Vancouver Canucks, it’s more games than Denis Potvin played with the New York Islanders, and it’s more games than Jean Beliveau played with the Montreal Canadiens. By any other team’s standard, Chris Phillips would be appreciated as one of Ottawa’s most consummate professionals. Any other team’s fans would be less cynical.
Think I’m wrong? Ask Sens fans which Chris Phillips goal they remember better: this overtime winner, or this own goal, and see what answer you get. When Aaron Ekblad moved in with Willie Mitchell, they got a Katie Baker profile. When Curtis Lazar moved in with Chris Phillips, they got a parody twitter account1 (although to Phillips’ credit, he’s always taken his role as punchline in stride).
I think the problem is that appreciating Chris Phillips requires resisting irony. Appreciating Chris Phillips requires appreciating the good, rather than the great, which is admittedly not a sexy look. It’s hard to get a good discussion started at the bar by saying, “Boy, that Chris Phillips sure was there, wasn’t he?”. Even as a 1st overall draft pick, Phillips was never the best defenseman on the team. There was always someone else taking bigger minutes. There was always someone else putting up more points. A perpetual complimentary piece, Phillips made a career out of quiet competency in a way that would be the envy of most other hockey players. Can we, as a fanbase, not appreciate Chris Phillips at least as much as Red Wings fans appreciate Kris Draper‘s 364 career point ass? It’s like we fear that appreciating Chris Phillips is a gateway drug to something more sinister, like appreciating Jacques Martin.
Regardless of what you think of Phillips’ on-ice accomplishments, it’s his work in the Ottawa community that should be most acknowledged. This past year alone, whether it’s showing up to We Day, or combining his love of bikes, beer, and dads, or donating $50,000 to Do it For Daron, or Phillips has maintained a charity appearance schedule that would be the envy of The Royal Family. If this is to be the form of Chris Phillips in retirement, he may be remembered more for his next 18 years than his last 18 years. All told, if one was going to construct an ideal Ottawa Senator from scratch, you could not do better than Chris Phillips. He’s everything you could want and reasonably expect from a hockey player.
I’m sure when Bryan Murray signed Phillips to his final two year deal, they both imagined the career twilight that Daniel Alfredsson never got in Ottawa. Instead Phillips’ career ended so suddenly, we didn’t even realize that night had fallen. We didn’t know that when Chris Phillips played 14:54 on February 5th, 2015 that it was the last time we’d be seeing him dress for a Sens game. I doubt Phillips himself knew that. All things end badly, otherwise they wouldn’t end. Storybook endings are just that; the real world is rarely so accommodating. Though Chris Phillips didn’t get to leave hockey on his own terms, he should be still appreciated on his own terms as an overall good player and good human who will be good in the community long after he’s finished being good in the dressing room.
I’m hopeful at some point this coming season, Chris Phillips will get A Day. There will be press conferences, and a pre-game ceremony, and then the Ottawa Senators will lose 3-1 to the New Jersey Devils on a Wednesday. But on that day, there will be a brief moment as Chris Phillips steps out onto a carpet that leads to centre ice to receive some commemorative flummery from Eugene Melnyk, and in that moment I hope Phillips gets the rousing farewell he deserves. Only a cynic would disagree.
1. It’s ok, some of my best friends are parody twitter accounts.↩