by: Geoff Cheek
I woke up last Thursday morning with a bitter taste in my mouth. I went forward with my day in a terribly foul mood. And why not – another season of promise was just a game away from being added to the ever-growing list of franchise shortcomings. Sure, it might not happen in tonight’s Game Four or possibly Saturday’s Game Five, but I could rest knowing that the Sens wouldn’t be playing by the same time next week.
When I arrive at work, I usually like to take a look through the Sun and Citizen online to see if there are any cool stories that me, an ordinary fan, might not have known about. But this past Thursday, I didn’t click onto the Internet at all. At 3pm, I typically tune into the afternoon show on the Team1200 to check the pulse of the city about their team and any new lineup notes. But this past Thursday, my media ban continued.
Instead of over-analyzing ways that my beloved brothers could stage their miraculous comeback, I instead chose to begin on my recovery process. This process is meticulously thought out after all these years and has had quite a bit of practice. In the immediate moments after the defining game, I begin throwing furniture around the room and swearing at the top of my lungs. Once I’ve taken a look around the room to gauge the damage and press an ear to the door to listen for oncoming sirens, I take an ice-cold shower to recharge the batteries. After drying off, I then begin trying to determine which players in the NHL would have been useful to have on our team and what players on our team would have been more useful to have somewhere else in the NHL.
In years past, the final leg of my process was easy: our most recent roadkill have included Arvedson, Hnidy, Rachunek, Bonk, Bondra, Lalime, some guy named Yashin – all noticeably poor playoff performers that hardly even made their living during the regular season. It was easy to throw Lalime under the bus after those softies to Nieuwendyk, right? But this season was different for me. For the first time in franchise history (we’ve said that phrase a lot this year, eh?), I was 100% satisfied with our roster. Over the past four years, John Muckler had built me a dream team. So I will leave the “rebuild/retool/restock/re-sign” decisions to the thousands of bizzaro-Mucklers around Hockey Country, a task that they will no doubt take to the airwaves and barstools and water coolers for the next few months until our next version hits the pre-season ice.
Instead of following my well-planned recovery process and joining the throngs of irate fans calling for the head of (insert player/coach/GM/mascot here), I wanted to consider what it really meant to be a fan of the best regular season team of the past 10 years. I also wanted to consider what my summer hobbies would be this time around (I just purchased an acoustic guitar on eBay) and consider when I’d take summer holidays since my original plan of coming to Ottawa in June had abruptly lost its original purpose. So as these new items opened up for consideration, I pulled up one of those great sports tunes that I had heard as a kid and thought about how it related to our situation. Has anyone ever heard Steve Goodman’s ‘A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request’. If you’ve never heard the song, google it and see if a wry grin comes across your face while you think of how many more years have to pass by before a similar song can be written for one of us.
The life of an Ottawa Senators fan in the 21st Century has been bittersweet. Our expectations have soared along with our regular season point totals. Our demands are reaching the level of reason of a Martin Havlat contract demand. And our list of disappointments of hit the length of a Zdeno Chara missing flip flop. So is this year’s playoff exit another gross injustice from the Hockey Gods, or are we just spoiled hockey fans that don’t know a good thing when it scores 50 goals in front of our face? Are we whining winners? Are we lovable losers? What, not who, is the face of this franchise?
Ten years ago, we removed Rick Bowness from coaching duties and turned it over to some bloke named Dave Allison. Those 30-odd games were just awful, weren’t they? But then all of a sudden, something changed in the nation’s capital. All of a sudden, our history of basement boomers was drawing to a close and we started to climb the proverbial staircase up towards the upper echelon of the NHL. We started to win Division titles and then we won the Conference title and a President’s Trophy and people were mentioning our franchise in the same sentence as the Stanley Cup. We tried tweaks in personnel and tweaks in players, but we continued to hang up our skates in late April or early May. Our latest sweep of moves involved a new coaching staff, a new on-ice philosophy, a new scorer, a new goalie, a new crop of rookies, and a new lingo around the media. Then why was this “new” group of attitudes sitting around on Sunday and Monday muttering the “old” clichés?
There are two ways to look at this question and the answer will no doubt direct you in how you think Muckler (or his replacement, if that is your belief) should handle the next 3-4 months until we try it again.
Take a closer look at the Buffalo series and you’ll see that we lost four one-goal games. The first one was in the bag on at least a half a dozen occasions before Buffalo took us to OT. The second game could have been ours had two simply defensive blunders just not happened, an expectation that was somewhat reasonable considering the skill level of our defencemen. The third game could have been ours when Alfie drilled it off the inside post with two seconds remaining. And the fourth loss (Game Five) could have been ours if we had just been more adept on our OT powerplay before Buffalo’s favourite son, Jason Pominville put us out of our misery. I’m not making excuses for our heroes here, we definitely didn’t deserve to win this series. But those that want to argue that we are oh so close to getting this done can definitely score some points in a debate. A couple of bounces and a few smarter players here and there, and it would be us setting up our lines with the Huricanes.
On the other hand, there are those that have grown frustrated with the constant disappointment and ridicule of being hockey’s Indianapolis Colts. They say that 113 regular season points holds very little weight on the tee boxes at the Kanata Lakes Golf and Country Club in mid-May. Each time we hang up the skates while a handful of teams play on, these people want to take the time to perform a spring cleaning. If someone didn’t score enough goals, they need to be traded. If someone let in a couple of softies, they need to be taken out back and shot. It doesn’t matter that this team may have had some close playoff games, the fact that they didn’t come back to Ottawa in the back of a convertible hoisting the Holy Grail means it is time to try again with a different group.
Believe me when I say that I’ve spent time and felt at home on both buses. On one night, I want to fire the roster and return back to the expansion days of Norm McIver and Laurie Boschman. But on the very next night, I’m convinced that all we need is one more 3rd liner and we’ll be ready to finish what Jacques started. As I write this, I really have no idea who I’m going to ride with this summer. But there is something that needs to be considered here before we start making contract offers to our restricted and unrestricted free agents, and before we start putting our duds on the trading block, and before we try and make a splash in the UFA pool. We need to really consider what kind of culture has been laid as a foundation in the depths of Scotiabank Place. What kind of culture will be engrained in the heart and soul of our leaders, both on and off the ice, as we head into this summer and beyond? I am trying not to overreact after this latest playoff loss, but the only change I want made to my Senators this summer is to completely eliminate the ever-growing Culture of Losing in Ottawa.
For the first time since our streak of making the playoffs for a few weeks, our players and management have finally admitted that the pressure may be getting to them. They have been tagged as favourites and then they have been tagged as underachievers and failures. Each time we finish with some form of home-ice advantage, the media hones in on our captain and our goalie and our coach and our GM and drills them with questions right through until their packed bags are carried out to their cars for the last time. My sincere hope is that this feeling is enough on its own to drive our players to a more successful campaign in the following year. I don’t want any of our players to become accustomed to answering these questions. If Alfie and Redden and Muckler and Murray and Fisher and Chara get used to handling the reporters jabs, then we will have already begun down the path towards this losing culture. In all honesty, I don’t think we have reached that point. I believe there is a fire that burns inside our Swedish captain that will one day take his team to an NHL championship. I believe that John Muckler still has some of his winning ways that have filled up all the fingers of his hand with Stanley Cup rings (and one thumb, if you are trying to be a smartass). I believe that Bryan Murray fits in well with this new NHL and has the passion to push a group of talented players to the top of their league. But I’m merely a fan. At some point, a leather-clad billionaire will take a closer look and will hopefully have a similar criteria as I do. I want him to say, “If you want to help us build a winning culture in this city, then I want you to stay.” Obviously, it will get a little more in-depth than that, but you get my point, right?
But what of the fans? Are we fair to ask our team to win approximately one Stanley Cup per season? Absolutely. I’m sure that fans in Minnesota and fans in Florida and fans in Chicago and fans in Phoenix would say to us, “You greedy bastards; isn’t a consistent 100-point regular season team enough? At least you get exciting hockey for 82 games and beyond.” But do you know what? That isn’t enough for us. We have a lot to do with brewing the culture that defines our franchise. If we were satisfied with a fun season and maybe a couple of close playoff games before bowing out, then we would be Leafs fans. That isn’t a knock on the blue aresholes down the 401, it’s a fact. Back in Hockey Country, we continue to have sky high expectations of our boys and should keep on our path until we’re rewarded. Our players know that the job isn’t complete until we dedicate a national holiday in recognition of their championship. Sure, this adds pressure to our rookies and our leaders alike, but I’m sure if they had to choose between having pressure to win a Cup and pressure to merely making the playoffs, well, they’d sign in Ottawa. So my message to Hockey Country is to remain passionate about your team and remain focused on our goal of winning the Cup and let’s continue to remind ourselves and each other of the pressure of accomplishing this task.
Let’s talk for a minute about pressure. It has been said by most that Daniel Alfredsson and his colleagues simply cannot handle the pressure of playing under the microscope of a Cup-hopeful city. Now I’m not here to rub Alfie’s hair and talk about how great he is. I agree that our top players have consistently become our worst players in many postseason games. So what is a boy to do? As Dean Brown said one day last week, all we ask of these guys is to play to their level of skill. If the Ottawa Senators Hockey Club is an orchestra, we are not asking people to show up and play a different instrument. A similar perspective was that we don’t need these guys to raise their game to another level, we just need them to not succumb to the pressure that we place on them. All of these thoughts seem simple enough on their own, yet our talented professionals can’t seem to follow their simple fundamentals. So if we are going to continue to pour on the pressure – and you can be sure that we will – then someone needs to step up in the dressing room and, well, bring them all back down. Look throughout the NHL – there isn’t a single team in the NHL that is more talented than the Senators. Teams like Edmonton and Carolina have to overachieve in the playoffs. Teams like us just need to play our game and we’d trump their lack of talent. It just hasn’t happened yet.
It is time to spend this summer putting together a lineup and front office that has a solid and committed culture of WINNING that can block out any kinds of pressure. When the dust settles, I can’t tell you which players should appear in our locker room and which ones should be finding a new winter home. What I can tell you is that this coming summer in Ottawa will be like one that we have never seen before. It will be a summer of tough decisions. We may be trading away players that we don’t want to trade. We may lose players to free agency that we don’t want to lose. We may be firing people that we don’t want to fire. These are all new steps for our organization, but they are steps that are occasionally necessary in building a winner. So while some of you think that all we need is a miniature Mike Fisher and some of you are counting the number of first round draft picks we can acquire by trading away anyone over 25, let’s just hope that Mr. Melnyk and his chosen management staff begin on building the one missing ingredient that has eluded some of hockey’s most talented and brilliant personalities – A WINNING CULTURE.