O Captain! My Captain! On Retiring Alfredsson’s 11 in 2016

2016 has reminded us that our childhood heroes grow old, become ill, and die. We have had consistent warnings that artists, advocates, and athletes we’ve admired and respected, who changed the way we relate to the things we love, who’ve inspired us to strive for some small fraction of that same greatness, can be gone in an instant.

The Ottawa Senators are no stranger to this type of tragedy. Gone are Sergei Zholtok, Karel Rachunek, and Pavol Demitra; all had their playing careers and lives sadly cut short. We said goodbye to Roger and Mark, the men behind the bench. The Ottawa family has suffered losses and survived near misses; cancer has been a frequent companion.

As the franchise celebrates its 25th anniversary, it confronts a certain maturity. Few players from Ottawa’s golden age still play in the league. Sens veterans Chris Neil and Chris Kelly are nearing the end of their careers and former Sens Mike Fisher and Jason Spezza are reaching career milestones wearing other colours. Friends and countrymen Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara won championships in other cities, and will be turning 38 and 40 respectively in the coming months. Soon, the last of the players who played a formative role in this franchise’s contending years, and for some of us, the formative part of our lives, will be retired. Their contributions only memories.

In this context it is vital to remember and honour those who have transcended the normal boundaries of the athlete-fan relationship. Players whose outstanding ability on the ice was matched by their leadership on and off of it. Daniel Alfredsson is eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame for the first time in 2017 and while he might have to wait a year or two to be enshrined, eventually his portrait will hang in that venerable building’s Great Hall. Just as important was his support of LGBTQ inclusion in sport and his mental health advocacy.

In many ways, the team hasn’t been the same since his final game as a Senator. There are undoubtedly those who are still upset about Alfie leaving. But as this year has reminded us, everything can change in an instant. After 17 seasons wearing red, white, and black, there are still things to say and new moments to experience. The retirement of Alfredsson’s storied number eleven, worn by Mark Freer, Jarmo Kekalainen, and Evgeny Davydov before him, but by no one again after his warm up retirement skate two years ago, is one such moment. That Sens fans should cherish this moment is a given, but after a year in which so many public figures who impacted our lives left suddenly and without warning, we should savour the opportunity. The opportunity to show the first legend this franchise had, our captain, and still the embodiment of the Senators, how much he matters, how much he is loved, how much his career is a part of our lives.

I have seen sports fans use the Walt Whitman phrase “O Captain! My Captain!” in relation to the success and achievement of athletic leaders too many times to count. In his time as the leader of the Ottawa Senators, I have seen these words applied to Alfie’s achievements frequently. This tendency always struck me as odd. While many no doubt are referencing the iconic scene in Dead Poet’s Society, Whitman’s original lines were part of a conceit about the death of Abraham Lincoln. What is exclaimed as an act of solidarity in the movie is called out with full-bodied mourning in the poem. An elegy about an assassinated political leader at the conclusion of a civil war hardly seems an appropriate way to mark sporting achievement and yet the poem has a particular resonance in 2016. The speaker’s words in this poem have been lodged in my head throughout the year; for in its lines the poem describes a relationship between us and those we idolize in which adulation is tragically belated.

O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Unfortunately, in the poem, the Captain (Lincoln) lies “fallen cold and dead”; like too many this year, cut down before their time, unable to hear their posthumous acclaim.

By recognizing those who impact us now, while they are still with us, a different relationship is struck. A continuity with the past is realized in the here and now, and those lessons, values, and priorities, are carried forward.

That is why it’s also important to acknowledge the people who have made the franchise what it is today. To honour the individuals who have shaped the character of the team; who define what it means to be a Senator. Some might feel that a team Ring of Honour is overstated. As the Senators have never won a championship it makes little sense to elevate those who have played for and worked for the team to such an exalted level. However, I think it’s an important step for the organization to take. Yes, there have been rough times for the Senators, but there has also been a considerable amount of good. There have been many who have impacted the community in positive way. Honouring Bryan Murray, recognizing a man who has been part of the team for half its existence, is a good thing. It allows for fans to show their appreciation but it also affords Murray the opportunity to see that he’s respected and loved. Waiting longer might result in another belated adulation. Players like Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher, and Chris Neil have also shaped the character of the team and community. There longevity and achievements on and off the ice more than merit ascension to the Ring of Honour. Importantly, it’s not just a tribute to those who wore Sens colours on ice. In the coming years, Senators founder Bruce Firestone should find an honoured place there. Former CFO Erin Crowe, for her longevity and skilled management during the team’s grimmest periods, should as well. Jacques Martin who coached the team to greatness deserves a place. Such a list would not be complete without Cyril Leeder.

Collectively, we are eager to bid farewell to 2016. This makes sense as for many, the memories of our formative years have been battered. Unfortunately, something far worse looms on the horizon. If we are to have any chance to counter such threats, we must remember who we’ve been. It is vital to acknowledge those who have influenced us for the good with their greatness, and to carry those links forward, holding tight to what matters.

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