In many ways, the Ottawa Senators are starting over.
As Monday’s NHL trade deadline looms, they’re in the midst of massive changes in player personnel, with a move toward a younger team, built around high draft choices this summer and beyond. It marks the end of an era born in the late 1990s when Ottawa felt it had a legitimate chance to contend for the Stanley Cup, year after year.
How will fans in the nation’s capital respond? The hockey club’s surveys show support for a new approach, on and off the ice. But will they ever be as grateful just to have the NHL in town as fans were the first time around?
Not likely. Twelve playoff appearances since 1997 and a trip to the Cup finals in 2007 have created a marketplace spoiled by success, taking playoff berths for granted, and ripping, sourly, on playoff failure. Perhaps this second playoff absence in three seasons will be the pause that refreshes.
If nothing else, it is time to take stock of what the team is, what it wants to be and what it has been.
In a challenging phase of transition, it’s useful to remember a time when fans were so excited about their expansion Senators they showered them with standing ovations -even after defeats, on nights when they played above themselves; a time when Brad Marsh, a workingman’s veteran, was their hero and champion, a time when newspaper headlines routinely referred to the Senators as “Road Kill” and a daily Ottawa Citizen chart termed the Yelnats Puc (Stanley Cup spelled backwards) compared the 1992-93 Senators with the worst team on record at the time, the 1974-75 Washington Capitals.
The team’s goal, in 1993, was to finish last in order to draft Alexandre Daigle first overall that summer, a goal spoken of so openly by Ottawa management that Senators chairman Bruce Firestone was fined $100,000 “for certain intemperate and inappropriate comments.”
The NHL later altered the draft format to create a lottery for bottom dwellers and to escape the perception a team could lose on purpose to assure a first overall pick. Not that anyone was actually accused of losing on purpose.
As the 1992-93 expansion season wound down, the NHL sent investigators to interview Ottawa management, coaching staff and several key players to determine if the team was “throwing games” to secure the top selection. Brad Shaw was one of the players the league interviewed.
“I said to them in the inquisition,” Shaw recalls, ” ‘You know, we have Shaw recalls, ” ‘You know, we have 60-plus losses.’ We knew how to lose (without trying to). We needed so many things to fall into place just to have a chance to win that it was kind of humorous they were investigating in the first place.”
Losing on purpose? Not a chance, not for a determined group of castoffs playing for pride and future NHL paycheques -players who bristled at the commonly heard suggestion their team was a laughingstock.
Poor Mel Bridgman, the Senators’ first general manager, selected three ineligible players at the slim-pickings expansion draft, and a newspaper employee named Larry Skinner, who had played a few NHL games, attended the tryout to write first-person stories and wound up being the top scorer in camp. Skinner returned to his newspaper gig and left the losing to the professionals.
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