SPORTS

RESPECT AT LONG LAST

The Ottawa Senators rise from bankruptcy to the Stanley Cup finals

CHARLIE GILLIS June 4 2007
SPORTS

RESPECT AT LONG LAST

The Ottawa Senators rise from bankruptcy to the Stanley Cup finals

CHARLIE GILLIS June 4 2007

RESPECT AT LONG LAST

SPORTS

The Ottawa Senators rise from bankruptcy to the Stanley Cup finals

CHARLIE GILLIS

In addition to housing a marvelous assemblage of hockey talent, the Ottawa Senators dressing room has the distinction of being home to history’s cleanest centurion. His 10-foot face glares up from a pristine expanse of carpet where no one— player, trainer nor hapless media type—is permitted to tread. On game days, a team functionary stands guard over the logo, steering out-of-town reporters to the margins of the room. Nobody has tested the rule to its limits, says Steve Keough, the team’s director of communications—with a 177-penaltyminute man like Chris Neil in the vicinity, who would? But repeat offenders do get a dirty look, he says, and a “quick word.”

In hockey, there are superstitions, ridiculous superstitions, and then there are traditions meant to send a message. The Immaculate Centurion falls into the latter category, and if you were blind to history in this neck of the hockey woods, you might consider this Roman’s protected status a wee bit contrived. But for a team that’s been mocked, written off as soft, or plain forgotten as often as the Sens, respect has been a commodity to be conjured from nothing. Having failed to reach the Stanley Cup final in nine consecutive playoff runs, they get less of it than politicians who drop ceremonial pucks. In the absence of respect from opponents, or fans around the league, carving it from a piece of rug in the basement of Scotiabank Place probably seemed a reasonable alternative.

No more. This season, the Senators have not only secured a berth in the greatest show in hockey, they’ve done so in a manner a legionary would admire. Led by the most formidable group of young players in the sport, the club lost only three games as it sailed through the first three rounds of the playoffs, winning 12 and racking up a league-leading 48 goals. The team’s top offensive troika-Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson— ranked one-two-three in playoff scoring early this week, even as Detroit and Anaheim played on for the chance to battle the Sens for the cup. “We have more depth now on our team than we’ve ever had,” says John Muckier, Ottawa’s general manager. “We’ve got a little bit of everything you need to be a champion. Now we have to prove that on the ice.”

The journey to this point has not been easy, though. Founded 15 years ago on the gossamer dreams of entrepreneur Bruce Firestone, the club eked out an existence in the NHL cellar over its first four years, making one spectacularly unfortunate draff choice in forward Alexandre Daigle and dangling on Firestone’s increasingly frayed credit lines. By 1997, however, the on-ice stuff was looking up: the Sens had moved to a modern (if rather

LED BY THE BEST GROUP OF YOUNG PLAYERS IN THE GAME, THE TEAM HAS SAILED THROUGH THE PLAYOFFS

remote) arena in suburban Kanata, they made the playoffs for the first time, and they seemed to be reaping the rewards of high draff picks like Alfredsson, Alexei Yashin, Wade Redden and Radek Bonk. Yet somehow that promise never translated into playoff results. While they routinely finished among the elite teams in the regular season standings, the Senators wilted repeatedly during the early rounds of the playoffs, falling to hungrier, grittier sides to the dismay of their ever-hopeful fans. Most insufferable of all were losses in 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2004 to the rival Toronto Maple Leafs, whose boisterous supporters never missed a chance to rub in Ottawa’s failures.

That the franchise remained on the brink of financial crisis didn’t help, raising fear among fans that they’d disappear to the U.S. like the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques.

In 1993, businessman Rod Bryden took over the club from the near-insolvent Firestone regime, but went deeper into debt to finance the new arena and keep emerging talent from flying the coop. By January 2003, a deadly combination of escalating player salaries and a weak Canadian dollar drove the team into bankruptcy. The future looked bleak.

Today, with the Senators competing for the cup while making—by the estimate of

current owner Eugene Melnyk—more than $1 million per home game during the finals, it’s hard to identify the true turning point. But a couple of events stand out. One is the appointment of John Muckier as general manager in 2002. The seasoned executive and former coach of the Edmonton Oilers inherited what he described as “a very good team” from outgoing manager Marshall Johnston. “But you have to learn how to win,” he says from his office in Ottawa, “and it’s not as easy as just saying it. It takes years sometimes, and we had growing pains here for a few seasons.”

To instill that spirit, Muckier made a handful of personnel changes that utterly altered the complexion of the team. Faced with the challenge of signing top scorer Marian Hossa under the newly installed salary cap, he instead dealt the enigmatic Slovakian and his US$6-million contract to Atlanta in the summer of 2005In return,

Ottawa got Dany Heatley, a player whose promise was clouded by his role as the driver in a car accident that had killed his teammate, Dan Snyder, in 2003. With his missing tooth and unruly mop of hair, Heatley has proven pivotal to the Senators’ new identity. For US$2 million less per year, he tops Hossa’s regular-season numbers while showing an abrasive edge in the playoffs. To Muckier, he represents “one of the best deals I was ever associated with.”

The veteran manager was similarly deft in replacing Zdeno Chara, a six-foot-nine defenceman who last summer signed with the Boston Bruins for a whopping US$37.5 million over five years. Deprived of his No. 1 blue-

liner, Muckier filled the gap with Joe Corvo, a tough and talented free agent who had flown under the radar as a Los Angeles King, as well as Tom Preissing, a skating defenceman acquired in a three-way deal with Chicago and San Jose. The moves brought in character with a minimum sacrifice in talent. In the meantime, the manager’s faith in aggressive youngsters like Mike Fisher and Chris Neil paid big-time dividends. Together, they’ve transformed this year’s Senators into a quicker, tougher squad than the one that crumbled so many times before the Leafs.

Of the other parts that fell into place for the Senators, the most important may be their purchase by Melnyk, a pharmaceutical magnate who pulled the team out of bankruptcy in August 2003. The billionaire and former Leafs fan got Scotiabank Place as part of the $130-million deal. And he was the beneficiary of good timing, having arrived just before the introduction of the salary cap that gave small-market teams a fighting

chance. “It would have been a disaster under the old system,” he says in an interview. “All but the teams in the strongest markets would have eroded.” And he comes with his own baggage, in the form of allegations of trading irregularities related to his firm, Biovail. But no one in Ottawa disputes the salutary effects of deep-pocketed ownership. “If he has done nothing else,” noted an opinion piece in the Ottawa Citizen, “Melnyk has allowed Ottawa fans to think of the Senators as a hockey team and not a business.”

As for past regimes, well, success begets generosity. In recent days, once-ridiculed former owners have been lauded for decisions that in retrospect seem sage. Melnyk,

for one, points to Bryden’s decision in 2000 to stare down Alexei Yashin in a salary dispute as a move that helped put the Sens on a path to success, on and off the ice. The standoff saw Yashin sit out a season before the New York Islanders offered up Chara plus a first-overall draft pick for him. “Jason Spezza came to the team because of that draft pick,” notes Melnyk. “Zdeno, who helped build our fan base, came as part of that trade. So you’ve got to give Mr. Bryden credit.”

If they were entirely just, the critics would toss a few laurels to past managers and coaches, too. Flourishing youngsters like Fisher and Neil developed, after all, under former coach

Jacques Martin, who is now a GM in Florida. Draftees such as Alfredsson (sixth round, 1994); Wade Redden (first round, 1995); and Chris Phillips (first round, 1996) have become franchise anchors, while Ottawa’s scouts did a masterful job identifying overlooked prospects such as Andrej Meszaros, a talented defenceman whom 23 teams passed up in the 2004 draft, and who now logs 20 minutes a game on the Senators’ blue line.

The result is a team that looks, acts and plays like one that belongs in the final. And in the glow that followed last week’s win over the Buffalo Sabres, coach Bryan Murray allowed himself to tweak the skeptics: “I’ve said many times over the past 10 years that

this has been a very good, very competitive organization. Whether it was luck of the draw, bad luck on the ice or whatever, they haven’t gone as far as some people thought they might. I’m glad we rewrote all that.”

It’s the kind of talk you normally hear from champions. And while Ottawa’s first Stanley Cup remains four wins away, their swagger suggests they sense the respect they’ve longed for all these years. Those are poor tidings indeed for opponents—not to mention the centurion on the dressing room rug. Superstitions can only survive so long, after all, and the Sens may not need to protect this guy much longer. M