Senators have earned right to be called Canada's team

Former ragtag team might lose but the Sens won't choke

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 23, 2007

In the fall of 1992, an expansion team called the Ottawa Senators came to the Canadian embassy in Washington for a reception in their honour on the occasion of their first game against the Washington Capitals.

As they got off their bus in the embassy's elegant courtyard, they were a pretty scruffy looking lot. They looked more like a Junior B team that got lost on the way to the rink.

As the head of the embassy's public-affairs division, it was my representational duty to greet them at the front door, on behalf of Ambassador Derek Burney, a big hockey fan who was giving them a reception on our sixth-floor terrace overlooking the United States Capitol. Roy MacGregor, who has more than one good hockey book in him, was then with the Ottawa Citizen, and was travelling with the Senators.

"Hey, Roy," I said, "are you sure this is an NHL team?"

It really wasn't during the four seasons they played in the Ottawa Civic Centre, a great venue for political conventions (Trudeau, 1968; Mulroney, 1983; Turner, 1984), but a lousy place for major league hockey. In their first season, they might have been the worst team of all time, winning 10 games, losing 70 and tying four. In their second season, they improved to 14-61-9.

But then the Senators moved from their bandbox at Lansdowne Park to suburban Kanata, a very different place. One is in the heart of a government town, in the leafy Glebe off the Rideau Canal. The other is off the 417, where high-tech Ottawa, Silicon Valley North, begins. It has been said that when people go to Kanata, they are never seen downtown again.

Not that they are missing much, although Andrew Cohen has stirred up dormant civic pride in his new book, The Unfinished Canadian, in which he was so unkind to say Bank St. is a dump and Rideau St. hardly any better. You've never seen such a firestorm in the Citizen, which published an indignant editorial that ran from top to bottom of the page, and recruited a host of local luminaries to write puff pieces about what a great town it is.

It just isn't sure what it is, other than being the national capital, and admittedly a great place to raise kids. Ottawans are always talking about inviting you over to dinner, but never do. Visitors from real cities, like Montreal, end up spending their evenings at Hy's, the preferred hangout of the political class.

And now, watching the Senators in their march to the Stanley Cup. Almost as interesting as the team's remarkable playoff run has been the effect on the psyche of Ottawa, a town that badly wants to believe, but still has a primordial fear that something bad is about to happen.

This comes mostly from several seasons of anguishing defeats in the playoffs, when the Senators would find new ways of losing, usually to the Toronto Maple Leafs, themselves losers since 1967. Once, after the Sens were shamefully ousted by Toronto a couple of years back, the Citizen's banner headline the next day was a derisory "Not even close."

And you thought Montreal was a tough hockey town. But Ottawa, too, has a proud hockey history. Stephen Harper, who is writing a book on the history of our game, can tell you the original Senators were founded in 1893, the year the Stanley Cup was contested for the first time, and won by the Winged Wheelers of the MAAA, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. In 1909, the year the Montreal Canadiens were founded, the Senators won their fifth of 10 Stanley Cups. Only the Canadiens and the Leafs, in the modern era, have won more.

And then there is the team on the ice. The Senators haven't just claimed the role of Canada's team in this playoff run, they have earned it, all the way to the finals. They might still lose, but they won't choke.

Not a team on which Daniel Alfredsson is not only the leading scorer, but the leading back checker. Not a team whose goalie Ray Emery misses a team flight because of a fender-bender on the 417 and then, no worries, beats New Jersey on the road.

When you live and die for the Canadiens, it's not easy to say, but it must be said: Go Sens, Go.

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