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.