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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You Didn’t Have to Invite Detroit

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.

The Atlantic Division is Trash and That’s Probably a Good Thing

I remember whenever it was (it was 2013) that the NHL underwent a minor realignment and created the scary Atlantic Division which included such Eastern seaboard cities as Detroit. I recall some slight dread about this. Not only was Ottawa still in a division with all the teams I hated from the Northeast (I’m talking about you, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal, and Toronto) but Detroit joined and the Florida teams. So an 8 team division with three very three recent conference/cup finalists/winners and the Wings? Cool. Thank god for Buffalo, I guess.

Fast forward three years and we’re in the same division with a team that traded Tyler Seguin and lost to the Sens 6-1 in an elimination game to end the 15-16 season, a team that traded P.K. Subban for a dog lover with a very terrible contract (how many seasons will it take for Weber to be bought out?), and the worst team in the league in 2015-16 that somehow also has cap trouble. Sure, Tampa is good and re-signed Stamkos and co. to decent deals, but they still have a “Rotten in the State of Denmark” vibe (hint: Stevie Y is the head of lettuce liquefying in the bottom of Tampa’s fridge). Hats off to the Panthers who seem poised to contend for the division title for a while after re-signing their RFAs to decent deals and adding James Reimer and Keith Yandle to offset the inevitable decline of the great Roberto Luongo (sadly this might be as soon as this season with Lu’s age and offseason hip surgery). But as much as we like to denigrate Ottawa’s commitment to the Department of Statistical and Mathematical Dominance In Sport, Boston, Montreal, and even The Team Who Has Done Everything Right The Last 2 Years have made some questionable decisions this summer. This isn’t exactly a division filled with the best and brightest in management (with possible exceptions in Florida). And while the Florida teams are good, they haven’t hit the great standard of teams like Pittsburgh etc.

So sure, Carey Price can be great, and probably will be, but for the Habs to be good two years ago, Carey Price needed to win significant individual hardware and have a career year (Fearless Leader Max Pacioretty probably had his career year then too). They are worse now than they were two seasons ago, Carey and Max probably won’t be quite as good, Subban is gone, and Andrei Markov is now two years older (so am I). Boston has a defense worse than the Senators (hey! Anything’s possible). Detroit has been running on fumes since Lidstrom retired and now that franchise’s most pressing question is, which contract is worse: Justin Abdelkader’s or Danny Dekeyser’s (it’s Abdelkader’s, but wow, Ken Holland is making some questionable decisions)? Don’t worry, the Detroit Method of wasting players’ prime years in Grand Rapids will most definitely keep the Wings irrelevant for years to come.

So where are the Sens going to finish? Look, Ottawa is hardly a model franchise, but there is some talent here. I see Ottawa competing for third in the division if this is an average year. If it’s a year with injuries to key players like last season then it’s fighting for a wild card spot/slightly missing the playoffs. Is it possible Ottawa players have had their career years and the team will mimic the downward spiral Montreal is destined to act out in front of our ravenous eyes? Sure.

I’m not expecting much from Craig Anderson this season and at 35 he’s probably played his best hockey (even if he was lightly used in his 20s). Regardless, I think Andrew Hammond might just be a decent goalie? I think it’s likely he’s Ottawa’s starter by season’s end and that’s not a bad thing? This Andrew is on Team Andrew not Team Andy.

Bobby Ryan probably won’t duplicate his Anaheim numbers (I’d be ok with it if he did though) but that’s fine? Yeah, Ryan makes too much, but dudes in their UFA years always make too much. His production is fine even if it leaves you wanting more (I worry more about his health). Maybe Brassard is the left-handed playmaker with the keys to the Bobby Ryan 30 Goal Season.

What if Marc Methot isn’t good? Well, he wasn’t last year, so we’ll be prepared. That’s where I’m at with the defense. Yes, they were bad. Yes, they haven’t made any changes. Yes, it’s possible they’re that bad again. But they haven’t had a good defense for several years now? Turris and MacArthur healthy this year should help and if Ottawa’s goaltending can be slightly above average (not great, just a tad better) I think they probably make the playoffs in the third spot. I mean, an improved defense would be preferable, but the only real change that might come would be Thomas Chabot (I don’t care about the “don’t rush prospects method,” I still kinda want to see this kid work in the NHL).

Is it possible EK already had his career year?

No.

Here’s the thing, I think Karlsson is getting 30 goals this season and pushing 100 points. Why? Because he’s low key pissed about the Great Omission of 2015-2016, because holy hell did that dude pass up a zillion opportunities to get a shot on goal last season (opting for passes and tips down low, plus he had more trouble getting his shot through bodies, but I expect him to improve on this in 16-17 because it really is one of his strengths). I also think EK improves on his goal and point totals because the Sens re-signed Mike Hoffman and because Guy Boucher seems much more determined to use the power play as an actual advantage for his team. Plus, I choose to be optimistic about EK. I also think Karlsson is going to have one of those long primes like Lidstrom, so mostly I’m just enjoying watching the majesty unfold in Sens colours.

Mike Hoffman and Mark Stone will be better too. I don’t really think Hoffman has another gear, I think he’s already the player we can realistically expect him to be, and he’ll just be used better by a new coaching regime. Mark Stone had a sophomore slump and still managed 20+ goals and 60+ points and I think he has like four more gears? Good things are happening on the wings.

Ultimately, I’m not worried about the other bubble teams in the division. Detroit, Boston, and Montreal either don’t have a superstar (Boston, Detroit until Larkin fully matures) or have a weaker supporting cast (Detroit, Boston, and Montreal). Ottawa lacks bottom six depth and depth on the blueline but so do those other teams. I’d take Ottawa’s top six over the top six forward group from any of those teams and I’d take EK over any defender in the league.

You might worry about how Ottawa’s new GM and coaching staff are going to perform but it’s not like those other bubble teams have front offices that are the envy of the league. Claude Julien has almost been fired two years in a row and Don Sweeney probably won’t get another job as a GM in the NHL once he’s inevitably fired from his current gig. Michel Therrien is fairly conclusively a terrible coach but won’t be fired until Former Genius Marc Bergevin feels the rising water around his own neck, then he’ll fire his friend and use him as a floatation device (yes, Marc is Rose in this scenario and Michel is Jack). Jeff Blashill is not Mike Babcock (overrated in his own right) and will therefore be more fallible in Detroit but hey, Ken Holland managed to trade Pavel Datsyuk’s bloated remains of a cap hit to the Arizona Coyotes who are always willing to do everyone else’s dirty work. There’s nothing to be envious of here.

But what if one of these teams gets off to a hot start? Here’s the thing about Montreal starting the season 10-0 last year: it made me really happy. You know why, because if you start a season 10-0 you’re likely playing your best hockey of the year when people are eating turkey and watching football and playoff baseball. A bad start would be rough for any of Boston, Detroit, Montreal, or Ottawa, but it would be worst for Montreal. There’s a scenario in which Montreal loses its season opener, and then puts up a few more losses. Montreal sports media would gleefully continue to talk about P.K. Subban and the pressure would mount on Bergevin and Therrien. One can only hope.

It’s extremely difficult to win the Stanley Cup. It’s still hard to make the playoffs. But this is the Atlantic division and the bar isn’t set high. Sens finish third in the Atlantic.

In Praise of Rooftop Patios: Or How I Learned to Stop Caring and Turn off TSN on July 1st

Free agency is awful and should be avoided at all costs.

To clarify, I don’t begrudge players who exercise their rights as free agents, nor do I mind that the age and accumulated experience at which a player can opt for free agency has been getting progressively younger and shorter. I have, and always will be, on the side of workers getting paid.

But from a franchise perspective, free agency is bad news.

There is no day on the NHL calendar more hazardous for a team than July 1. Organizations might hit or miss at the draft, but picks are marketable and have currency, they can be traded. Even prospects once selected have a shelf life (some longer than others) in which they can be moved. The trade deadline at times leads to grievous error, but it is often a swap of expiring deals, worth a third of their original value, and obligatory throws-ins, like second round picks. In one form or another, it’s an exchange of money and at a reduced rate.

But free agency differs from other ill-advised NHL traditions in that it more often leads to damaging deals that hamper a team’s ability to compete for years. July 1 gives GMs the opportunity to throw escalating dollar and term figures at players who will either start their new deals on the wrong side of 30 or will soon count themselves among hockey’s elder statesmen. The desire to improve their team, a somewhat free market, and an incrementally increasing salary cap, all push prices higher. Because the only assets teams give up are money, cap space, and flexibility, free agency is a steal for GMs who only think short term, not long term.

In this context, the winning team almost certainly overpays to get their man. But that’s part of why it should be avoided. In any bidding war, you have to know when to step aside. Free agency should be avoided because GMs can’t be trusted to make smart decisions.

Why not hire a smarter GM and save your billionaire owner more money than a municipality bent on securing a pro sports team?

The list of GMs who were once considered smart but recent hirings, bloated re-signings, terrible trades, and general misguided July activity, have caused that status to be revoked, is a long one. Smart GMs don’t trade P.K. Subban or Taylor Hall for bad returns. Smart GMs don’t re-sign Ryan Kesler. Smart GMs don’t lose decent defensemen to free agency because they insist on trying another year with the same expensive, underwhelming tandem in net. Smart GMs don’t regret trading for Kris Russell because they avoided the move in the first place. Smart GMs who have created their own roster problems don’t get celebrated when they signed a new deal with their captain on the eve of free agency because they operate in a state without income tax. Smart GMs don’t watch Roman Polak get walked on every other goal against San Jose in the playoffs and then think “he should play more hockey. He should play more hockey for our team”. Smart GMs don’t hire Michel Therrien.

There are no smart GMs. There are only Jim Bennings and those on their way to becoming Jim Bennings.[1]

There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is possessing excellent sporting ability in your 20s is in no way preparation for the job of running a modern professional hockey team in your 40s and 50s. I’m recalling Brett Hull and Joe Nieuwendyk in Dallas but Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy (who seemed poised to do something regrettable with their own young stars this offseason), are a comparable current example. However, these limitations can be overcome with time, training, and occupying various hockey ops positions at the junior, minor, NHL level, a sort of apprenticeship program.

Unfortunately, none of that can save them from one of the primary reasons they make mistakes. These are emotional men who make rash decisions in the moment to shake things up, trade for players they like on a personal level, and ostracize athletes who are skilled players, but different in some way. This is why Pete Chiarelli moved on from 24-year-old Taylor Hall and seemingly replaced him with the less-good Milan Lucic (a player he’s known for years). Lucic might do great things in Edmonton, especially if he gets to play with Connor McDavid, but that doesn’t change the fact that Chiarelli made an ill-advised trade for the sake of trading and brought in a player he has a personal relationship with to mitigate the damage. He’s not the only GM to make this mistake.

Most of the year I am in favour of spending money. I want the Sens to be able to secure RFA talent like Mike Hoffman. I want Ottawa to be able to sign players like Hoffman for the prices that kind of talent commands and for a long time. I want Pierre Dorion to flash the cash when it’s needed to develop and re-sign homegrown talent, to invest in hockey ops, and to pay the coaching staff more than bargain bin prices. But no GM can be trusted with the kind of money that’s needed to sign marquee free agents, and that’s why, for one holiday weekend a year, I’m glad my team lacks the kind of money required to land big name free agents.

It’s not that I don’t believe in Pierre Dorion. At this point, there isn’t enough info available on what kind of a GM Pierre Dorion will be. He may be great, he may be awful, he may be some muddy middle ground but it’s too soon to tell (I do like that he seems to conduct his business behind closed doors and not through the media). It’s that GMs across the league have shown a willingness to make bad signings every year.

Things as they are have basically insured the Sens don’t drop $42 million paying Kyle Okposo to not play with John Tavares until he is 35 or Loui Eriksson $6 million to play when he is 36. Can you imagine if Bryan Murray was still Ottawa’s GM and the trio of David Backes, Milan Lucic, and Andrew Ladd hit free agency? He would have refinanced the Canadian Tire Centre, sold off the largest parking lot in Eastern Ontario, and leased Spartacat to the Nepean Junior Wildcats so he could make an offer to at least one of those guys.

Many were glad that new GM Dorion seems to have moved on from the top-6 forward crushes of old GM Murray to focus on improving Ottawa’s defense. But would landing the best available defenseman be worth it? Jason Demers, whose $5.5 million annual salary has been declared a Good Deal by hockey twitter, is one of the marquee signings of a successful offseason for the Florida Panthers. However, I absolutely believe if Ottawa had the money to make that same deal, Sens fans would still find a way to complain about the money or the term or both. We both refuse to acknowledge the economic limitations placed on management by ownership when making our free agent wish list and then moan about current market rates. Sens fans are nothing if not predictable.

Further, with Methot and Phaneuf already taking up space in the “Over 30 and more than $5 Million Lounge” the Sens really can’t afford to add another member. Instead, we should take Dorion at his word when he said he was interested in adding a depth defenseman to shore up the blue line. That the team hasn’t yet signed someone for the role, and given Development Camp comments designed to push prospect Thomas Chabot in training camp, it seems likely there will be no new faces on Ottawa’s blueline. That seems a reasonable place to start evaluating Dorion, not for his failure to land one of the big names.

But what about the hidden gems? Sure, it’s possible to pull a Clarke MacArthur out of another team’s trash, but for every deal like this, there are 10 Matt Martin signings. What about those low risk signings like $800,000 for Patrick Wiercioch? It’s possible a fresh start (which I think was best for him at this point) works out, but on the other hand, he was signed by Colorado and Patrick Roy seems like the sort of coach who will absolutely destroy him for every defensive failing. Regardless, there just aren’t that many guys available who actually prove worthwhile. Last year the Leafs found some hidden gems only to find they were neither hidden, nor gems. Ditto Montreal with Alex Semin. Maybe it works out, but often it leads to trades, buyouts, and regret.

And that’s the crux of the problem with free agency: the youngest guys available are in their late 20s, many are in their 30s, all have established NHL track records that will increase their value, and the often limited talent pool creates competition and drives salaries up. On top of that, virtually every one of these guys is looking for a long term deal. While some of these deals will undoubtedly prove to be good value, too many of them will lead to diminishing returns and salary headaches. Since GMs don’t listen to the analysts teams have hired anyway, I’d rather my team be broke than flush with cash on Canada Day.

Don’t agree? Remember a team is still going to add Kris Russell in the coming days.

[1] Perhaps after the disastrous P.K. Subban trade and the ludicrous decision making that led to not only hiring Michel Therrien but choosing him over Subban (in part because he’s your friend), the term for managerial incompetence should be changed to “Marc Bergevin” to reflect this new and enjoyable reality.

Cottage Life

Cottage season is upon us.

With the May Two-Four weekend quickly approaching it’s time to prep your garden, buy some fireworks from a truck in a grocery store parking lot, and think about opening the cottage for the season.

However, if, like me, your cottage has seen better days, its small, cramped quarters in need of a makeover, summer presents an endless series of chores. Fix the leaky roof, replace a few boards on the dock, prop the barbeque up with cinder blocks. At some point you wonder if that expensive Sea-Doo that doesn’t always play a 200-foot game is still going to be tied up on the lake in the fall.

It’s times like this that I start to peruse cottage rental sites and Airbnb listings and joy of joys, it turns out former Maple Leaf gawds have prime Muskoka real estate and want you, yes you, to stay for a night or two for the low cost of a year’s tuition.

Since you’ve stipulated no parties or guests, I thought I’d give you a heads up at what I’m playing to do while I stay at your place.

What would I do if I spent a weekend at a former Leaf’s luxury cottage?

I’d pick up a stencil at Canadian Tire and rename your boat the SS Fraser.

I’d stock your fridge full of hot dogs and leave a “For Steve” note.

I’d examine your fine collection of cottage Canadiana and across every carving, painting, and print of a bear I find, I’ll scrawl “It was 4-1”.

I would carve Tyler Seguin’s initials into every tree on the property.

I’ll replace all the hand towels with Sens “Young & Hungry” playoff towels

I’d break all your fishing rods in half but only pretend to throw them into the lake.

I’d replace all your family photos with pictures of EK and Alfie riding bikes.

I’d use your fridge magnet grocery list to write a love letter to Clarke MacArthur.

I’ll tape Guy Boucher’s head to your Casino Royale poster.

I’d change your answering machine to the dulcet tones of Nick Kypreos and Doug MacLean

I’ll add a “Nonis” and a “Ferguson Jr.” profiles to your Netflix account

Finally, I’d fill your house with Webber Naturals products to remind you of the big Toronto endorsement deal that got away.

Tanks for the Memories: A Long History of the Worst Kept Secret in Hockey (Part 1)

Tanking is the process of trading veteran players who can net some return (younger players, prospects, picks, or emotional relief) in favour of dressing younger, inexperienced players still learning the game at the pro level or veterans who have earned the Not Good label in hopes of getting the first pick in the draft. Lots of fans, media folks, and organizations object to tanking. I don’t object to it on principle but there are lots of reasons to hate the process: you’re favourite players are getting shipped out, you’re not going to the playoffs any time soon, and losing sucks. However, I don’t understand those who object to the process on some sort of sportsmanship or moral grounds when we collectively, actively ignore far greater transgressions by those within the game.[1]

Tanking isn’t going anywhere, it isn’t unique to NHL nor is it particularly new.

The NBA instituted a draft lottery in 1985 after rumours the Houston Rockets, among other teams, had deliberately lost in an attempt to secure the first overall pick. The weighted lottery was added in 1990 in response to problems with the envelope system (fans wondered if it was incredibly rigged). The weighted system in the NBA gives the team with the worst record only a 25% of landing the first pick, but the best chance of any non-playoff team. Still, the weighted system didn’t stop tanking and teams have become more and more open about the process in recent years. The NBA attempted further reform to the draft system in 2014 to discourage the practice, but the changes didn’t have the required votes to pass.

It comes as no surprise to anyone that follows the NHL that the league was slower to realize what was going on. The tanking story usually starts in the mid-1980s with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Mario Lemieux but the idea of valuing elite, young, affordable talent over past their prime veterans while simultaneously cheating the system is actually older than that.

The NHL Amateur Draft was a relatively new process (it was instituted in 1963) when the league expanded for the first time in the late 1960s. Some of the new teams, California, Los Angeles, and St. Louis in particular, made egregious mistakes with the greatest draft shark in the game: Sam Pollock. Pollock, GM of the Montreal Canadiens, used a combination of scouting and guile to trade mostly established players for high picks. Picks weren’t valued as they are today and established players probably had a certain appeal in new markets. The threat of high draft picks bolting to the WHA, which began play in 1971, added extra uncertainty to drafting top prospects. Essentially, Pollock helped tank other teams, acquired their high picks, while winning four Stanley Cups from 1967-68 to 1972-73. Pollock used those high picks to draft Steve Shutt and Hall-of-Famers Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson, setting the Canadiens up for a run of four straight Stanley Cups in the late 1970s.

But that’s not really tanking because expansion teams are bad and he didn’t run his own team into the ground! Setting aside the early success of the St. Louis Blues and the Philadelphia Flyers, yes teams like the Golden Seals were bad. But Pollock was proactive and manipulated the situation to his advantage, ensuring the right team finished dead last. He knew he wanted Lafleur in advance and made a trade with the Seals a year before the 1971 draft when Lafleur was eligible. Pollock sent Ernie Hicke (who the Seals would leave unprotected in the 1972 Expansion Draft) and Montreal’s first round pick in 1971 to California for Francois Lacombe (who would go on to be a WHA journeyman), the Seals first pick in 1971, and cash. That’s right, California owner Charlie Finley, who negotiated the trade, paid for the privileged of being on the losing end of one of the worst trades in NHL history (Jerry Jones Team Building ModelTM ftw).

However, midway through the 1970-71 season, California just wasn’t bad enough. So Pollock made a deal with the worst team and likely owners of the 1971 first overall pick, the Kings, to make them slightly better. Pollock traded Ralph Backstrom, a former Calder Trophy winner and perennial All-Star in the 1960s, who was no longer in Montreal’s plans, to Los Angeles for Gord Labossiere and Ray Fortin. Backstrom was rejuvenated in Los Angeles and was just enough of an offensive threat to help push the Kings out of last place, leaving the Seals with the worst record and the Habs with the first overall pick. This is the Pollock Tank Method where other teams do the tanking for you and you win eight championships in 12 years, while only missing the playoffs once. It relied on a relatively new drafting system, an influx of inexperienced GMs and owners, and an ever-present threat from a rival league. This method will never happen again so I hope you enjoyed this story.

***

Fast forward about ten years and we get to a more familiar kind of tanking: the Pittsburgh Penguins playing like shit for the right to draft Mario Lemieux. The Penguins were bad, attendance was low, and the team was in financial trouble. There were rumours the franchise would fold. The Pens finished last in the league in 1982-83[2] and were on the way to another terrible, forgettable season the following year.

But in Pittsburgh’s terribleness, was opportunity. Unfortunately, they just weren’t bad enough. The New Jersey Devils were also dreadful and in last place. So over lunch one day, GM Eddie Johnston and head coach Lou Angotti hatched a plan to lose as many games as possible. Goaltending prospect Roberto Romano was sent down, one of the team’s good players, Rick Kehoe was hurt,[3] and Johnston traded another, team captain Randy Carlyle, for picks at the trade deadline.[4] Angotti remembers a game when the Pens took a 3-1 lead in the first period only to have his GM burst into the dressing room during the intermission to ask what he was doing. The Pens managed to lose that game 6-3. Pittsburgh lost 18 of the last 21 games of the season, include the final six by a goal margin of 36-15.

Did it work? Yes. The Penguins finished with a record of 16-58-6 and 38 points, three points back of the New Jersey Devils, securing the first overall pick. The Penguins drafted Mario Lemieux and the Devils landed Kirk Muller. Now, Muller was a good NHLer, a captain, and a future Cup-winner. But he wasn’t elite. While Mario didn’t don the Pittsburgh jersey at the draft, he did come to a contract agreement with Johnston shortly after.[5] Unlike recent tank attempts, the goal of this tank was to save the franchise from folding, and drafting Lemieux secured Pittsburgh’s future (he would save them again from bankruptcy in 1999). The Devils protested the Penguins tactics, but to no avail and draft reform was still a long time coming.

And there were casualties. Pens coach Angotti wouldn’t return for the 1984-85 season and wouldn’t coach again in the NHL. Johnston left the Penguins in 1988. Most importantly, the Penguins still weren’t any good.

What this tank didn’t do, however, was make the Penguins appreciably better.

After finishing dead last in the league two years in a row, the Pens finished sixth in the division in 1984-85, and second last in the league. In fact, during the first six seasons of Lemieux’s NHL career, the Pens finished higher than fifth in their division only once (losing in the second round of the 1989 playoffs).

The Pens needed some trades but also a lot of luck. It was Pittsburgh’s good fortune that two-time 40 goal scorer and two-time Norris Trophy winner Paul Coffey had a contract dispute with Oilers GM Glen Sather after the pair won a third Cup together in 1987. Coffey held out and Sather wouldn’t budge.[6] In November 1987, Sather surprised the hockey world when he traded Coffey, and two other players for a package from Pittsburgh in which 1985 second overall pick, forward Craig Simpson, was the centrepiece. Simpson scored 56 goals that season[7] between Pittsburgh and Edmonton, where he played with future Hall-of-Famers Glenn Anderson and Mark Messier. Simpson would never reach those heights again and was more a 30 goal, 60 point player in Edmonton. Coffey had two season of 100+ points in Pittsburgh, and another 90+ point season while always averaging well above a point-per-game.

Several key trades, in addition to the Coffey trade, pushed the Pens from atrocious to contender to champions. Midway through the 1988-89 season the Penguins acquired number one goalie Tom Barasso from the Sabres for Doug Bodger and Darrin Shannon. At the 1990 draft, Pens GM Craig Patrick shipped a second round pick to Calgary for five time 40+ goal scorer and future Hall-of-Famer Joe Mullen.[8] Injuries limited Mullen’s playing time during the 1990-91 regular season, but he was a key contributor in the playoffs. The following season he had another 40+ goal season (42 goals, 87 points) and the Penguins had another Cup. Pittsburgh acquired another, point-per-game offensive defensemen for peanuts early in the 1990-91 season. Larry Murphy was a key performer for Canada at the 1987 but was coming off two disappointing and injury-plagued years with the North Stars (a team I totally forgot he played for). The Pens acquired him for two journeymen defenders, Jim Johnson and Chris Dahlquist.[9]

The deal that put the Penguins over the top happened at the deadline in 1991. Patrick traded offensive star John Cullen, Jeff Parker, and 1986 first round pick Zarley Zalapski to the Hartford Whalers for defensemen Ulf Samuelsson, Grant Jennings, and forward Ron Francis. Cullen never produced at the same rate, battling injuries and cancer, Parker played four games with the Whalers before suffering a career-ending knee injury, and Zalapski had a productive, if unspectacular, NHL career. Samuelson was one of the dirtiest, irritating players to play against, and his nickname was Robocop.[10] But they also got a future Hall-of-Famer, one of the best two-way players (future Selke winner) and one of the top-10 offensive players in league history in Francis.[11]

With their first round picks from 1983 to 1990 the Pens drafted a selection of mediocre players, with the exception of Lemieux. The Penguins used those picks to select Bob Errey (1983), Craig Simpson (1985), Zarley Zalapski (1986), Chris Joseph (1987), Darrin Shannon (1988), Jamie Heward (1989), and Jaromir Jagr (1990). Of the group, only Jagr was a star (actually a superstar and best player in the league for a time). However, the Penguins were able to trade some of these players for veterans they could actually use.

80s politics also helped the Penguins build a contender. When Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” it would change hockey forever.[12] The Penguins were just one of the many beneficiaries of the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe. As communist regimes fell in Eastern Bloc countries and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 it changed a lot of things, and hockey was no exception. The makeup of hockey changed forever, with an influx of European players. Veterans from professional teams were now coming in greater numbers but now prospects could be drafted without the need to defect. This meant that you couldn’t just take a flyer on Dominik Hasek in the tenth round of the NHL Draft anymore like Chicago did in 1983. NHL teams needed to enhance their European scouting and be able to make proper evaluations on European players.[13]

Social upheaval came to Czechoslovakia in November 1989.[14] By the following month a new, non-Communist government had formed. What this meant for the Penguins was that 18-year-old Jaromir Jagr could be drafted the following summer without defecting. The Penguins left nothing to chance, selecting Jagr fifth overall. Jagr helped the Pens win a Cup as a rookie and set the franchise up for the next decade.

Finally, they got their hockey ops in order. After Eddie Johnston left in 1988 the Pens made another misstep at GM: hiring Tony Esposito. Esposito lasted a year and a half before he was let go. Craig Patrick replaced him and he set the franchise on the right path. The Pens went through three head coaches before Patrick took over as interim head coach in 1989. Patrick hired another soon-to-be member of the Hall of Fame, Bob Johnson in 1990. He led the Pens to their first Cup, but was diagnosed with brain cancer in the offseason, dying in November 1991. Patrick named as Johnson’s replacement the team’s Director of Player Development and winner of five Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens, Scotty Bowman. Bowman coached the Penguins to another Cup in 1992, his second Cup with the team, because that’s kind of what he does.

The Pens Cup-winning teams of 1991 and 1992 had six Hall-of-Famers[15] and only Lemieux was homegrown. The other five were acquired through trade, with the exception of Bryan Trottier who signed as a free agent. This was a team built through trades (lopsided deals) and that was only possible once they got their front office in order. So yeah, the Lemieux tank worked but in 1983-84 the Pens weren’t actually planning a rebuild because they were facing extinction. There was no plan beyond play horribly, draft Lemieux, live to see another day. Building a contender and Cup winner, however, took some luck, smart hires, and shrewd dealing.

***

Fast forward seven years. Eric Lindros was a Very Big Deal in the months leading up to the 1991 draft. That might not seem like something special to newer and younger fans who remember Malkin or Ovechkin hype, foaming at the mouth for Sidney Crosby, Tyler or Taylor, Fail for Nail, and the most recent McDavid-Eichel anticipation. As much as Lafleur and Lemieux were obviously coveted, Lindros was the most hyped draft pick ever heading into June 1991. In a way we have him (but really the media) to thank for what we do to top prospects now. I mean, he played for Canada at the 1991 Canada Cup as an 18-year-old alongside Wayne Gretzky and co.[16] He was a Very Big Deal.

The Quebec Nordiques were very bad. So bad that they sort of became synonymous with losing. But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, for most of the 80s they were a pretty good NHL team. Prior to the 1987-88 season, the Nordiques had missed the playoffs only once in the NHL, during their first season in the league, 1979-80. In fact, Quebec’s rivalry with Montreal wasn’t simply provincial, it was based in heated playoff battles. Over the course of six seasons in the 1980s, the two teams played each other four times in the playoffs, with the Habs eliminating the Nordiques every time except the first meeting in 1982.[17] Quebec went from first in the Adams division in 1985-86 to fifth in two seasons. Dale Hunter, the fifth-leading career scorer with the team, was traded after the 1986-87 season beginning an exodus that would see most of the team’s veteran talent move on. Anton Stastny, one of three Stastny brothers to play for Quebec,[18] returned to Europe after the 1988-89 season. Finally at the trade deadline in 1990 the Nordiques traded franchise career points leader Peter Stastny and runner-up career points leader Michel Goulet within a day of each other after a decade with the Nordiques.[19]

Quebec finished in last place in 1988-89 and again in 1989-90, winning just twelve games that season. If there was any team primed to tank for a talent like Lindros, it was Quebec, who had already jettisoned their best players. But it wouldn’t be that simple.[20] Quebec walked away with the best player in the 1987 draft when they selected Joe Sakic 15th overall.[21] Joe didn’t get the tanking memo and scored 48 goals in 1990-91 with less support than a training bra. In 1989, Quebec made Mats Sundin the first European to ever be selected first overall. Sundin had a good rookie season in 1990-91 finishing with 59 points in 80 games.[22] And that was basically it for Quebec’s offensive punch. Tony Hrkac[23] was third in scoring with 48 points.[24] The ancient Guy Lafleur (remember him?) chipped in 12 goals and 28 points.[25] The Nordiques were bad and seemed destined to secure the first overall pick for the third straight year.

The only problem was they just weren’t bad enough.

Fortunately, Floyd Smith, GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was willing to help out. It’s not that the Leafs are inherently generous by nature, it was that they managed to fuck up the 1991 draft well in advance. Despite being one of the worst teams in the 1980s, the Leafs were desperate to finish as high in the standings as they could in 1990-91. On the surface of things, that might seem odd. Toronto was bad and Lindros would have transformed the club instantly. He was also reasonably local (he grew up in Toronto) and the Leafs have a history of coveting hometown stars.[26] But the Leafs didn’t have their first round pick.

Why?

Because Floyd Smith, who’d taken over from Gord Stellick[27] in the summer of 1989, made a move early in his tenure that would negatively shape the franchise until the present day. Rather than hold on to as many upcoming draft picks as possible,[28] Smith traded the Leafs 1991 first rounder to the New Jersey Devils for Tom Kurvers (aka the Original Phil Kessel). An offensive defenseman, Kurvers was coming off what would be his best season in the NHL (16 G, 50 A, 66 P in 70 games). He produced at a similar rate in his first season with the Leafs (15 G, 37 A, 52 P) and helped the Leafs make the playoffs. If the Leafs had just traded their first rounder in 1990, this probably wouldn’t have gone down as one of the worst trades in team history.

But 1990-91 started off slow. The Leafs were bad but Kurvers couldn’t get going either. He was limited to 19 games and had just three assists. So in January 1991, Toronto shipped him to Vancouver for Brian Bradley.[29] Bradley had a decent start to the year with Vancouver (31 points in 44 games) but mustered just 11 assists in his 26 games trying to help the Leafs avoid the basement. Smith spent the season trying to avoid the dire consequences of the original Kurvers trade. He made 13 trades during the 1990-91 season[30] picking up 14 players and assorted picks.[31]

So if the Leafs weren’t actually tanking, does it follow that the Nordiques were? Well, the proof is in a deal the two teams with each other in mid-November. Quebec sent Aaron Broten, Lucien DuBlois, and Michel Petit[32] to Toronto for Scott Pearson[33] and a couple second round picks (that never amounted to much). The veterans Quebec sent to Toronto weren’t good, but it still weakened the Nordiques and the return package didn’t help their NHL team that season.

So did it work? Yep! The Nordiques were terrible and finished in last place for the third season in a row. Expansion team San Jose picked next, and New Jersey, owners of the Leafs first rounder, picked third drafting the actual best player in the draft, Scott Niedermayer. Everyone got what they wanted, especially people who like to watch the Leafs suffer, or at least made the best of a bad situation. Everyone except for Eric Lindros that is.

Before the draft, Lindros signaled he didn’t want to play for the Nordiques, believing that it’s “isolation” and the French language would limited his marketability.[34] Quebec drafted him anyway. Lindros one-upped Lemieux when he both refused to put on the Nordiques jersey and wouldn’t agree to terms with his new team. The team’s president, Marcel Aubut, insisted that Lindros would be the centrepiece of Quebec’s resurgence or he wouldn’t play in the NHL. Lindros spent the 1991-92 season in the OHL back with the Generals and also represented Canada at the Olympics. He kept busy. The Nordiques wouldn’t budge.

It wasn’t until the 1992 draft[35] that the Lindros situation was resolved. The Nordiques agreed to a trade with both the Flyers and the Rangers for Lindros.[36] The Flyers filed a complaint and the deal went to an arbitrator who sided with the Flyers 11 days later. The package Quebec did receive from Philadelphia included Steve Duchesne, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, Peter Forsberg, the Flyers first round pick in 1993 and 1994, and $15 million.

The deal was transformative. Hextall was moved for a pick used to draft Adam Deadmarsh. The Nordiques drafted Jocelyn Thibault with one of the picks they got from the Flyers and he was flipped to Montreal, along with Martin Ručinský and Andrei Kovalenko, for Patrick Roy and Mike Keane.[37] Roy was integral to Colorado’s two Cup wins in 1996 and 2001, when he won the Conn Smythe Trophy. Forsberg won the Calder in 1995 and both the Hart and Art Ross in 2003. However, tanking for Lindros was transformative because the Nordiques traded him, acquiring a player of similar calibre in Forsberg and players the team would use to acquire members of the Colorado core. But this wasn’t the plan and it wasn’t the move they wanted to make.[38]

Obviously, the franchise got the player they wanted so the tank worked. But drafting The Next One didn’t stabilize a financially precarious franchise in need of a new arena[39] because Lindros never dawned a Nordiques jersey.[40] Peter Forsberg may have had the better career, but he was never going to reach the mega star level that Lindros would have if he had played his prime in Canada, a player who was both best in the league and Canadian. While the Lindros trade won Colorado two Cups, the delays of Lindros not agreeing to terms with the Nordiques and for the pieces from his trade to bear fruit, hurt Quebec.

It’s also hard to ignore that the franchise’s best player was drafted four years earlier when the team was still good. Nor would any of this had happened if the Leafs weren’t actively trying to help Quebec tank to avoid further embarrassment. Tanking for Lemieux saved the Penguins franchise, but tanking for Lindros didn’t have the same success in Quebec.

That brings us to 1993, the Ottawa Senators, and the tank that would change hockey forever. More on Daigle and contemporary tanking in Part 2.

 

[1] Oh wait, yes I do. Tanking is in a roundabout way an attempt to creating a winning franchise. Condemning an athlete’s (or team’s) racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or other discrimination usually gets in the way of that. But hey, let’s lose the right way.

[2] Without even trying!

[3] Not on purpose, just a happy coincidence.

[4] Important to distinguish Carlyle the player from Carlyle the coach from Carlyle the philosopher. Carlyle the player was “probably the worst player to win the Norris ever” according to my dad.

[5] What a show that would have been. In the first televised NHL draft Lemieux refused to wear the jersey of the team that just drafted him because they couldn’t agree on a contract. For all the handwringing we get now when a player at the end of his ELC asks for a trade, we sort of forget the several instances in the past when rookies often said “nope” immediately to the team that drafted them.

[6] After the Coffey deal it would become increasingly evident that Oilers owner Peter Pocklington’s cheapness could be relied on. He kept the salary of the league’s best player, Wayne Gretzky, artificially low (and thereby keeping the salaries of Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson, and Grant Fuhr low too). Gretzky was sold traded to Los Angeles the following summer and NHL salaries would never look the same again.

[7] Who didn’t? It was the 80s.

[8] Holy hell this was a steal. Though Mullen, an American, did want to return to the States.

[9] My kingdom for a time when you could acquire two top pairing defenseman and the only player of note you gave up was Sportsnet analyst Craig Simpson.

[10] This alone makes it a Pens win.

[11] Future way too old Toronto Maple Leaf, Ron Francis.

[12] Haha just kidding. I’m pretty sure Ronald Reagan didn’t give a crap about hockey and attributing the fall of European Communism to him is incredibly disrespectful and dishonest to the thousands of Poles, Czechs, Germans, Russians, etc. on the ground risking everything for a different political system. But crediting him with this has really helped prop up Reagan’s horrible legacy and Neo Liberalism as a Good Thing in the U.S. so that’s nice. Now, David Hasselhoff on the other hand…

[13] Sounds straightforward right? Would it surprise you that the newly-minted Ottawa Senators were preparing to head into their first NHL draft in 1992 (also, coincidentally the first draft since the Soviet Union fell in December 1991), without any European scouts until John Ferguson Sr. the Sens director of player personnel, pointed out that it might be advantageous to hire a few. Probably a good idea, since the Senators drafted Russian superstar Alexei Yashin with their first ever draft pick.

[14] It’s called the Velvet Revolution, look it up. There’s a poetic justice to a player who wears 68 in honour of the Prague Spring coming of age during the Velvet Revolution.

[15] Paul Coffey was only on the 1991 team. The number will increase to seven when Jaromir Jagr retires in 37 years.

[16] Canada didn’t take an 18-year-old Sidney Crosby to Turin in 2006 for comparison.

[17] This sounds familiar. Sigh.

[18] The 1980 defection of brothers Peter and Anton brought Quebec instant respectability. When older brother Marian joined them the following year, the Nordiques had the best brother line in NHL history.

[19] Oof.

[20] It never is.

[21] The Leafs took Luke Richardson at seven. So yeah.

[22] Pretty similar to Jagr’s goal and point total from that year, also his rookie season.

[23] Who?

[24]Actually he was a journeyman NHLer who split his career between the NHL and the minors. I remember his hockey cards because he had very thick, full, blond hair. No helmet baldness here.

[25] But then he also smoked cigarettes between periods.

[26] Think of all the pointless Jason Spezza and Steven Stamkos rumours and the disappointment over missing out on Tyler Seguin and Connor McDavid. Leafs love a local so it’s not just an Ottawa thing.

[27] Yeah, the radio guy. His claim to fame as Leafs GM was being the youngest ever to hold that title. The 80s were rough for Toronto.

[28] Perhaps it’s because when the Leafs had three first round picks in 1989 (drafting Scott Thornton 3rd, Rob Pearson 12th, and Steve Bancroft 21st) they picked three players from the Belleville Bulls leaving many to joke that the Leafs scouting budget that year had been enough to cover the gas for the two hour drive on the 401. With Harold Ballard as owner, it was certainly a possibility.

[29] The Leafs left Bradley unprotected in the 1992 expansion draft so essentially it was a 1991 first rounder for a guy who was picked up for free by Tampa Bay.

[30] That’s a lot.

[31] These trades actually did provide some of the depth players for the successful Leafs teams of 1992-94. Dave Ellett, a defenseman with offensive upside, Peter Zezel, a checking centre, and defenseman Bob Rouse.

[32] Broten was underwhelming in Toronto and Petit and DuBois chipped in offensively. Perhaps the greatest outcome of this trade was that Petit was part of a package including Gary Leeman, Jeff Reese, Craig Berube, and Alexander Godynyuk (who was also in Die Hard) to the Calgary Flames in January 1992, for Jamie Macoun, Kent Manderville, Rick Wamsley, Ric Nattress, and Doug Gilmour.

[33] Pearson spent the rest of the season with Quebec’s AHL team and bounced between the NHL and the minors during his career.

[34] It was definitely more complex than that. Lindros had always been a player determined to control his own destiny. When he was drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds in junior he refused to play for them and was traded to the Oshawa Generals where he did wonderful things (as my many Oshawa-based relatives remind me). Lindros’ parents, Carl and Bonnie, were active in his career and contract negotiations (Carl was his agent) and this definitely rubbed hockey people and the media the wrong way. Flyers GM Bobby Clarke called Carl abusive and claimed he meddled in team affairs. However, on multiple occasions the Flyers medical staff misdiagnosed their son’s injuries, and pressured him to play hurt, including a life-threatening collapsed lung in 1999. Lindros was expected to be on the team’s flight after suffering the lung injury, which likely would have killed him; he received medical attention only at the insistence of teammate Keith Jones (this was a well-known story in the late 90s and early 2000s which is seven layers of messed up when you consider this neglect was known and yet Lindros was still vilified for not rushing back from injuries and prioritizing his safety). Most likely, Carl Lindros and Bobby Clarke are both assholes who couldn’t get along. The French language has been a barrier for some NHLers, stopping them from playing for the Canadiens or Nordiques but Quebec in the early 90s was a different place politically. 18-year-old top prospects might not have been following the ongoing constitutional debates that had preoccupied the Mulroney government since Meech Lake, but growing fears of separation couldn’t be ignored. The province’s second referendum on separation was only four short years away in 1995 so there were concerns about the direction of the team and the province.

[35] And some insistence from the league president to resolve the situation if you believe Wikipedia – and we do!

[36] One wonders if the Rangers would have broken the franchise’s 50-year Cup drought had their trade been accepted. New York was rumoured to have offered Tony Amonte, Alexei Kovalev, John Vanbeisbrouck, Doug Weight, three first round picks (1993, 1994, and 1996) and $12 million. It’s ok, Lindros would eventually make it to the Big Apple.

[37] Hahahaha what a steal. Also, there’s a deal that never would have happened if Quebec hadn’t moved to Denver a few months before and then maybe all of this would have been for nothing.

[38] It does make you wonder why some teams that have been bad for a while (see Edmonton) don’t trade someone from the bounty to address roster holes.

[39] Think a star can’t land a new stadium? Talk to Lemieux and Crosby in Pittsburgh, or Junior in Seattle.

[40] He would of course wear Flyers, Rangers, and Leafs jerseys during the course of his career. All the teams that originally coveted him.

Hearing is Believing

There are plenty of valid theories on why the Sens have fallen flat since returning to action after the All-Star break. Not enough scoring punch, average goaltending, coaching failures, management issues, and of course, the generously porous defense. The Sens blockbuster trade with the Leafs for defenseman Dion Phaneuf has not yet brought a win.

But the true culprit of this slump has been ignored: Julia Robillard has forsaken us.[1]

Since February 2 (the date of the first Sens game post-ASG break), when a new Robillard Hearing Centres commercial that did not feature Julia aired, the Sens are 2-4. Ottawa surrendered 6 goals against Pittsburgh, was blown out by the hapless Oilers, mustered nothing against the Red Wings Petr Mrazek, and fell behind Colorado 3-0 before attempting a failed comeback last night. Yes, the Sens blew out Tampa and the Leafs since the ad aired, but even in these trying times, there are rules and Julia wouldn’t let us lose to teams wearing blue and white.

It seems like only yesterday[2] that we were celebrating the opening of the new Perth showroom with the Robillard clan. It marked the pinnacle achievement of Robillard ads. As the commercial explores the benefits of the new location, Julia, a mainstay in these ads is nowhere to be scene, until she triumphantly returns to close the commercial while confirming the worst-kept secret in capital region advertising: Julia is a diehard Sens fan. Resplendent in a Sens heritage jersey dress, she rightfully ascended to Sens celebrity royalty along with Anne Murray, Rihanna, and Zayn Malik (sorry not sorry Matt Perry).

Think how far we’d come: it was only a few short years ago we were being asked during play stoppages and intermission breaks the non-rhetorical question “do you like pizza?” as if the answer could possibly be anything other than “I like pizza”. Now, we had Julia proudly declaring her Sens fandom. Hearing truly was believing.

And yet there were signs of trouble. That glorious heritage dress ad featured the least screen time for Julia in an ad to that point. It was as if she was preparing us for the new, terrible reality we now find ourselves in. It’s not that the new ad is bad. On the contrary, the new ad features a Robillard customer telling viewers how Robillard products have changed his life. Hearing definitely is believing in this ad. It’s just without an appearance from their spokesperson, it’s nowhere near the same experience. Collectively, Sens fans are waiting for Julia’s return. We know in our hearts things won’t turn around for the team until she does.

Help us, Julia Robillard, you’re our only hope.

 

[1] If there’s a reason she’s no longer appearing in ads, we’re sorry Julia and the WTYKY gang is thinking of you.

[2] It was last month