It is interesting, operating as part of the theatre of sport, that the Ottawa Senators have become keen subscribers to realist narratives when it comes to Daniel Alfredsson.
The most recent contribution to this genre, famously begun by the former captain himself with his oft-quoted quip “probably not,” is Alfredsson’s number retirement ceremony scheduled for December 29. In a ceremony designed to mark the highest honour a sports franchise can bestow on someone who has played for that organization, the Sens have opted to invite the Detroit Red Wings, the only asterisk on Alfredsson’s career in the capital.
It is possible Alfie wants the ceremony to take place when the Sens play the Wings. And of course that’s fine for him to want. It’s his career the team is marking after all. He wouldn’t be the first athlete to be honoured by one club while a former team was in attendance. If memory serves, long-time Oiler Mark Messier had the Rangers in the building when his number was retired and long-time Ranger Mark Messier had the Oilers in attendance when his number was celebrated by New York. This sort of dual acknowledgement works for players with significant connection to multiple franchises. Your Wayne Gretzkys, your Mark Messiers, your Al MacInnises, and your Ray Bourques. But that’s not what we have in Alfredsson. Honest question: do the Detroit Red Wings even care about their 2013-14 leading scorer or remember him? Probably not.
In Alfredsson we have a player who is Ottawa’s all-time leading scorer and a player who sits tied for 220th in all-time points for Detroit. The difference is staggering.
This sort of feting is for the individual, Alfredsson, but it is also for the fan base. Hence the public announcement in August, the (likely) more-expensive-than-usual-tickets, the delayed start time. Retiring number 11 has been inevitable for the Senators franchise for some time now (I suspect since 2007?), but the ceremony is also the last event in a three-part rehabilitation of the team’s relationship with the Sens legend. Beginning with his one-day contract/final pre-game skate with the Senators to announce his retirement and continuing with his hiring as a member of Ottawa’s hockey operations, Alfie’s number will now be retired during the franchise’s 25th anniversary celebrations. This Alfie triumvirate suggests a seamless transition from suiting up as team captain, to assuming a much speculated, post-playing role with the team, to having his number raised to the rafters as a legend.
Except inviting the Red Wings to crash the party recalls not Alfie’s triumphant return to the team, but his painful return to Ottawa with Detroit in December 2013. That night, it was impossible to ignore who and what Ottawa had lost. With Detroit as the opponent, the careful fabrication unravels.
It wasn’t seamless.
It wasn’t painless.
It wasn’t what anyone wanted.
Many of us have moved on from July 5, 2013 and to a fan, I’d bet no one wants to go back to that moment.
I often write about how sport is a reflection of society, that there is a realism to the issues games like hockey face on and off the ice. Generally I think it’s a shame that when we cover sports like hockey, we resort to the mode of fantasy, obscuring controversy, issues of safety, and discrimination from view. But if there was a moment to remain in the fantasy genre, this ceremony fits. We don’t need to acknowledge Alfredsson’s departure from Ottawa, no one has forgotten it. But this is a ceremony celebrating what he meant and means to the team and city; surely we should revel in all that was good about Alfie, greatest Senator, on this night? For one night we can believe the fiction, embrace the fantasy, and ignore Alfredsson, Red Wings forward. In this moment, we should feel like he never left.
However, Alfredsson and the Senators have chosen realism and the bit part Detroit played in his career will be acknowledged if only in its presence. Perhaps that’s for the best. The myth of the player disrupted, if only slightly.
But on December 29, I wanted a little bit of fantasy and I don’t think I’m alone. I wanted that myth intact.