I have no interest in listing here the most recent iterations of our daily hell, the various, sordid events and utterances of the Ottawa Senators brain trust that comprise what we can now confidently call the most disastrous year in the history of the Ottawa Senators. It’s been bad, but this isn’t some run-of-the-mill bad experience like your best player getting hurt for a season, or missing the playoffs by a point after losing the last game of the season in a shootout. No, we’re not so lucky as to be a Florida Panthers or Carolina Hurricanes, perpetual also-rans who aspire to scary goodness. The 2017-2018 Ottawa Senators were the kind of bad that should have any sane person questioning if they can go on being a fan of this team at all.
Suffice it to say that there are tiers of awfulness, each with corresponding degrees of despair that impact one’s enthusiasm and ability to interact with a team. They are, as far as I can tell, roughly as follows:
- Code Yellow: Your team has a bad year: This definitely sucks, when it happens – a whole year, down the tubes! – but it happens to all of us sooner or later, and it’s not so bad in the long run. Most leagues are built on some kind of progressive redistribution apparatus that eventually gives a leg-up to poorly performing teams in small markets. In fact, being occasionally bad is thought to be strategically indispensable in the long-run. You have cash-cow, large market teams going out of their way to be bad for a year or two because they know they’ll be better off for it. If your team is bad for a bit, you might not watch quite as many games, but you’ll still read about their better prospects, watch the World Juniors and think they mean something, dream about the future and occasionally buy an overpriced beer at a game. Circle of life.
- Code Orange: Your team’s identity is that of a Bad Team: This one is harder, but still not impossible for one’s fandom to survive. It can be difficult to weather, say, more than a decade without playoffs. But fans are resourceful, and some fans will even assume the identity of the losing team for themselves: The Damned, whose experience is at least unique to them, to be shared in small circles, like a warped, inverse exclusivity. Cubs fans wallowed in their mediocrity for so long they made it a point of pride. They appropriated the badness and embraced their fully ironic, post-modern existence by acknowledging that the real destination is the friends we made along the way and the non-friends we imagined fucking up in the parking lot. And as an added bonus: So much the suffering, so too the sweetness. Cold plums. Ice box.
- Code Red: The team’s behavior reveals the ugly underside of all things commercial in our nihilistic system of perpetual exploitation: Show me a team whose owner’s primary source of income is running an altruistic non-profit and I’ll root for it until the day I die. Absent that impossible calculus, a Code Red is one of the only ways a sports team can truly fuck up with its fan base. By reminding us that we’re in bed with some of the worst people on earth and that we’re essentially bankrolling some asshole’s second private plane, we’re forced, in a horrible moment of clarity, to confront our essential position in this soulless machine. It’s why every once in a while somebody will run a Worst Owners Ever listicle that will do some numbers – this shit resonates. Monday through Saturday, we can pretend that our little ol’ team distills the ephemeral yet unique pluckiness of what it means to live in the City X of Year Y, that aw shucks isn’t it true that sports bring us together and inspire, yadda, yadda, yadda. But every once in a while the owner comes along and accidentally reminds us that our Favorite Thing is just one of many Faberge Eggs subsidized by his workday routine of selling often terrible things to people who don’t deserve to suffer. Sometimes he’ll even go so far as to remind you that he only bought the team because he wants the real estate attached to the arena. Sometimes he’ll threaten to relocate during your team’s motherfucking outdoor heritage game celebrating its 25th anniversary. A Code Red is hard to come back from but, like most tragedies, fans dig deep and find a way to keep giving these blacksmiths of utter shit their money. If anything, hating the owner is as time-honored a tradition as booing the Commissioner. A Code Red might lose a fan or two for a few years, but it’s possible to come back.
- Code Whuh Oh: The team has some genuinely, morally bad people running it: Something racist, something sexually exploitative, something involving children. A Code Whuh Oh occurs when there are no more illusions we can effectively drape over the fact that there are some odious people at the core of what we love and they do awful things to people. This isn’t a game anymore. It’s time to move on, as a matter of obligation, because we want to be able to look in the mirror again someday.
At one point or another this year, the Senators have existed in one or more of these tiers. Pending the outcome of the Randy Lee trial, the Senators are even getting into solid No Fucking Around, We All Need to Move On territory. It begs the question: what are the limits of loyalty in a universe of entertainments offered by questionable people? How could a person possibly justify continued allegiance to something as ultimately arbitrary as a good game of puck-n’-stick amid all of this ugliness? At this point, it’s not only a matter of frustration or of not wanting to be accused of being a fair-weather fan. We are faced with a situation where if somebody accuses you of not being a real fan you might be able to credibly say, “The Assistant GM tried to coerce a 19-year-old into fucking him.” We’re a few short months away from being asked by various hockey writers to carefully consider the Senators development camp and pre-game schedule, as if we don’t live exclusively inside the sucking sound of an airplane toilet. What are we possibly expected to do when confronted with that absurdity, that clarion-clear declaration of moral stupidity as the waves of content wash over our borders? Oh, no! Is Patrick Sieloff getting too much ice time? The Assistant GM tried to coerce a 19-year-old into fucking him. Is the coach playing a talented forward with Tom Pyatt? The Assistant GM tried to coerce a 19-year-old into fucking him. Should we have taken Zadina over Tkachuk? THE ASSISTANT GM TRIED TO COERCE A 19-YEAR-OLD INTO FUCKING HIM. How can we possibly get up for reading a team-by-team Off Season Winners and Losers post that is destined to replace Ottawa’s letter grade with an ancient incantation that you die when you read?
Here are four strategies that I have, at various times over the past few months, contemplated employing in some desperate attempt to stay a fan of this thing I used to love.
- Strategy One: Let Your Eyes Go Lazy and Enjoy the Abstract Notion of Athletic Achievement
This is the equivalent of Chief Bromden smothering Randle McMurphy with a pillow, except in this scenario the Senators fan is both the euthanizer and euthanized. It involves the willful negation of one’s critical faculty, which shouldn’t be too hard because we decided to be sports fans in the first place (hey-oh!). To employ this strategy is to remove even that basest of discerning qualities: the ostensible selection of a favorite team based on its questionable affiliation with the city one lives in or used to live in. This strategy is tantamount to attending a conference about dairy farming and hearing a former Olympian give a speech about the nature of excellence: it means anything to anyone which means it means nothing to anybody.
This is the way my dad enjoys sports. He stands up and cheers when either team scores. He seems pretty happy. You could take him to a 6-2 game between the last place and second-last place teams and he’d exclaim as he left, “that was close one!” He’s not stupid. He built an electric scooter out of spare parts and designs telecom networks for a living. He just has his priorities straight.
- Strategy Two: Double Down on the Team and Insist that There’s Plenty of Positives Among All the Negativity
I’ve seen a few people here and there declare (mostly on Twitter, which seems designed to facilitate doubling-down on the morally dubious) that they will remain Ottawa Senators fans no matter what. Obviously, it’s possible to admire this, but I’m not sure what they mean, really, when they say they’ll stay a fan. Is it possible to be a fan of a team that is equal parts bad, not entertaining, and evil all at the same time? What does being a fan look like? Is it attending games and having fun despite all of these things, or refusing to emphasize these things at all? Would the feelings of joy or pain at wins and losses be genuine feelings with some semblance of your brain containing information about what’s happened this year? Can people turn it off and on like that? One could, I suppose, find some meaning in the stubbornness of the act, the resolute, unapologetic, politically incorrect loyalty to a compromised thing because it’s Our Thing. One might wear a SNES jersey, insisting it an underappreciated design, down Bank Street and past the Redblacks game, with all of its happy fans, and hold up that “number one” finger and say, full of sincerity, “we’re the best!” and it would elicit at least sympathy from others.
- Strategy Three: Spend Time With Your Family, You Lout, then Go Back to Ignoring Them
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is something that you might be tempted to say about this situation but it wouldn’t be appropriate because we’re talking about a fucking hockey team and not civil rights. Put another way: people’s memories are short and you should know that this suckiness, too, shall pass in time. The intervening year(s) tuning out from this team and tuning into something else will reveal themselves to be all of the time you’re always talking about not having enough of. You don’t have to snuff out your fandom like a puppy you drown in the basement sink. Just freeze that puppy in the basement freezer to be taken out some years later when the team has been sold and Chabot is being traded for futures and it looks like we’re about to embark on a fool-proof rebuild where every second-round pick hatches like a Yoshi egg to reveal a perfectly serviceable third-line winger. Someday this team will be owned by somebody just evil enough to ignore, and it will be okay to be a fan again.
- Strategy Four: Acknowledge That It Is Not Possible to Be an Ottawa Senators Fan After What’s Happened
This is a tough one. Even after everything I’ve written above, this feels sort of drastic and I don’t know if I’m there yet. I can’t help but feel, however, like to do anything less than swear off the Senators for good is a little bit like justifying enjoying Woody Allen movies because we’re just sooooo good at keeping the art separate from the artist. Is that what we’re good at or are we actually good at keeping our humanity separate from our nostalgia for long playoff runs, 11:11 “Alfie” chants, and Zdeno Chara rag-dolling McCabe? Why hold on in the face of utter futility and Melnyk’s omnipresent dourness? Those memories will still be there. Alfie is still out there, playing ping-pong, getting happily fatter. There are 30 other teams in the league vying for our attention, to say nothing of the other hockey leagues, other sports, and entirely different interests. I found out the other day that Ottawa 67s season’s tickets are $400. $400!!! That’s the price of a game-worn David Legwand jersey, who was a player Ottawa voluntarily signed during free agency after which he scored 27 points in 80 games in one season with the team. The 67s have the added advantage of playing in a newly-renovated arena located downtown, which is something we’re still a public feud about financing away from achieving with the Senators. And, in years to come, if asked why you don’t follow the Senators anymore, you can say, “I stopped following the team after the 2016-2017 season,” and people will absolutely know what you’re talking about without further detail. Because, odds are, you won’t be the only one they’ve encountered.
So: what are you supposed to do? Yes, you, reading this blog, risking discovery by your boss, ready to flush it all away for some clarity in these trying times. Well, I’ve designed the following handy decision-tree to help you decide which strategy will guide you back to happiness and health.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE KIND OF SENATOR?
- An ironic choice, like Dean McAmmond or *ahem* Vaclav Varada: go with Scenario One. Hockey is already not that meaningful to you. You’re clearly interacting with it because friends are into it and you like the community or it can be kind of fun and occasionally funny to be into something so silly and, yes, athletic achievement can sometimes make you sit up and say “cool!” out loud to the dog. So, you can probably coast, a little, on your emotional detachment from life. Watch a game with the sound off. Contemplate the water dripping from the kitchen sink because you left the faucet running. Is that a butterfly? Don’t harsh the mellow that is your day-to-day life. Check for gas leaks.
- A 1000-gamer who sort of sucks, like Chris Neil and Chris Phillips: Scenario Two. You’ve clearly been through too much shit to quit now. You’re the living embodiment of sunk cost fallacy, and you’re probably fretting over the return Dorion got for Mike Hoffman even though the building is on fire. I’m not judging you, man. I accept that I’m not gonna change you. Godspeed to you and the team on your quest to grit your teeth through it all.
- A skilled but non-core player, like Martin Havlat or Mike Hoffman: Scenario Three. You live in the world of rules. Your love of the game and of this team in particular will survive this. Just take some time for you. Swim in the healing waters of Lake Minnetonka. Visit your grandma. Watch the Tour de France, where like 75 percent of the experience is looking at the rolling hills of the French countryside. It’ll make you wonder why you spent three hours reading about Jacob Trouba’s upcoming contract negotiations with Winnipeg while wondering if Ottawa might pry him away if it had money, or its first-round pick, or respect. The team will still be here in a year or two when you awake from your cocoon, covered in weird cocoon juice.
- Erik Karlsson or Daniel Alfredsson: Scenario Four. You are too good for this fallen world, and the team does not deserve you. In the future, there may be another player as meaningful to the team as these two but your mother and I just don’t want to see you get hurt. Let the truth set you free: it’s not possible to be an Ottawa Senators fan anymore. The bridges have been burned. Your money is gone. Let their failure be your refund.