By all accounts, the Ottawa Senators have had a pretty nondescript off-season. After making it within a double-overtime goal of the Stanley Cup Final, General Manager Pierre Dorion has occupied himself with the relatively routine tasks of bringing back restricted free agents and replacing depth players. He re-signed his backup goaltender, Mike Condon, to a three-year, $2.4 million AV deal. Nate Thompson, an unheralded depth centerman with a history playing for coach Guy Boucher, received two years and $1.65 million AV. Tom Pyatt, another Boucher favorite, is back for two years and $1.1 million AV. Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the homegrown talent and playoff hero, received a big raise, going from $900,000 AV to $3.1 million. [Edit: this originally read $600,000, which was the contract beforehand. Thanks for the correction, readers.] Dorion stayed away from the unrestricted free agent market, as small budget teams often do, knowing that they’d have to overpay. His big splash came last season in the run-up to the trade deadline, when Dorion traded prospect Jonathan Dahlen for a veteran in Alex Burrows, then promptly extended Burrows for two years and $2.5 million AV in a move that was roundly roasted as not just short-sighted, but emblematic of all of the ways the Ottawa Senators cannot get past their short-sightedness.
If you’re not an Ottawa Senators fan, these moves barely warrant clicking on a link: a team that was competitive in the context of one season and having received favorable match-ups did what it could to ensure that next year it will head into the season with the same lineup. Some marginal players were allowed to walk. Other marginal players came in. The most contentious of these moves – the Burrows deal – is a textbook example of what teams usually do heading into the playoffs, which is to mortgage some of the future to shore-up their chances in the present. Some players were given a little bit too much money, but not nearly the sort of overpayment we see with premier free agents. The Ottawa Senators’ recent management philosophy has been, in other words, the definition of a non-story.
And yet, to see the reaction among some of the team’s more engaged fans is to see in these routine moves confirmation of long-held beliefs that the team’s decision-making is fatally flawed. To be sure, each move is worthy of examination, and one can and should wonder how players who don’t seem to be in demand anywhere else, like Nate Thompson, can command a second year and $1.65 million instead of $1 million, or $1.25 million or even $1.6 million. These numbers tell none of their story, leaving the minutia of negotiation obscured, and so lead fans to fill in the blanks themselves. The only reason this player should command so much must be that the General Manager doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing.
Maybe he doesn’t! I don’t claim to have any more access to these discussions than anyone else. It’s entirely possible that Dorion and Boucher identified somebody they badly wanted and that player, not really caring if he ended up in Ottawa one way or another, turned Ottawa’s preference into leverage and an extra year on his deal. Far from this being portrayed as the most routine of occurrences in a league where the average salary in 2016 was $2.9 million, it was, instead, another nail in the coffin.
What I’m interested in here is how the routine becomes narrative, and how narrative bends negative. Because, on the surface of it, the despair seems disproportionate to the moves in question.
I want to distinguish here between ‘negative’ and ‘critical.’ Critical means assessing a situation to describe its causes and significance. There’s undeniable value (and fun) in trying to understand the motivations of managers and players in a system that remains largely closed to fans. Being negative, on the other hand, is to emphasize those less-than-ideal occurrences, be it through volume or frequency, and to amplify the significance of mistakes. And so it is that Nate Thomspon, depth forward who probably should have signed for one year and $1 million but who signed for two and $1.65 million, becomes emblematic of the Ottawa Senator’s inability to assess talent.
I think that what I’ve come to realize is that there’s a certain romanticism in being doomed. Baseball does this better than anyone – think about the Mets or the Cubs, with their decades-long struggles, or the Curse of the Bambino, which offered with each passing season the tantalizing possibility of an end. There’s a currency to being “most cursed.” Think of being number one on this list and then Lebron bringing home a Championship. Surely that’s more meaningful than being, say, Golden State.
To think of oneself as uniquely cursed is to make a win not just the outcome of smart asset management, but kismet, serendipity, divine intervention. It’s to single oneself out as somehow, mysteriously chosen – if I’m chosen to suffer uniquely, so too will I be chosen to win uniquely, to win in a bigger, stronger, more authentic way. Being cursed breeds an us-against-the-world mentality; to like a team that is cursed is to exempt oneself from the need to prove one’s bona fides. Being a fan of a systematically inept team makes one a truer fan than fans whose favorite player might be three-time-Stanley-Cup-and-every-other-award-winner Sidney Crosby and his perennial competitor Penguins. What would be more meaningful: if the Penguins three-peat next season – a truly momentous achievement in the modern era – or the Sabres bringing a Championship to Buffalo through sheer chance. It’s debatable.
There is a certain charm to being the underdog. Ottawa, with its pretty bad uniforms and historically awful early years and inability to get past the big-city rival in the playoffs, somehow feels doomed to irrelevance even when you consider that Ottawa is the only Canadian franchise to have made the Conference Finals three times in the last 20 years. (A somewhat arbitrary measuring stick for success, but still impressive when you consider how much money the Torontos and Montreals of the world throw around.) An integral part of Ottawa’s identity is that it is a second choice to better-funded original six franchises, just as the sleepy town itself is located roughly between each of those cities.
At times I’ve struggled to understand why the thinking of some fans will skew so immediately to the negative. Pageau is one of the most beloved roster players on the team, and his re-signing for three years could not prevent some from tweeting, as their first reaction, that his salary was higher than expected. I think what I’m coming around to is that to find the negative first is to make claim on a thing as one’s own: if I declare this thing bad, I declare my fandom of this thing real and true. I must be a real fan; only a real fan would love a team who can’t do a single thing right. So I’m going to make sure that every single thing they do is portrayed as wrong.
I can often be found on Twitter myself, lamenting the seeming inability of a small facet of the fan base to get past the fact that Ottawa, despite adhering to a strict internal budget, has made the occasional mistake of overpaying a player. But it occurs to me that in beating that horse again and again, I’m missing something essential about being a sports fan. Even if Ottawa made fewer mistakes, there would be those who would find in what mistakes remained as much evidence as they needed of the team being idiosyncratically dysfunctional. The idea of the “long-suffering” fan base is in many ways a fiction, but a foundational one when we consider how arbitrary this hobby happens to be. “We suck” is as close as many sports fans get to letting their freak flag fly.
In the future, I’ll try to apply that lens more often when I encounter negativity. Maybe what’s being said is not, “You’re wrong to enjoy this thing,” but “This thing is ours.” I can dig it.