My Favourite Season

Bruce Bennett

Identity is the insecurity of the expansion team.

When the Sens joined the National Hockey League, they were ushered into an established landscape. The Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets were championship WHA teams before joining the NHL; the Edmonton Oilers quickly established themselves as an NHL dynasty; and the Calgary Flames spent the 80s engaged in memorable playoff battles before finally securing a Stanley Cup title in 1989. The Vancouver Canucks had already been in the NHL for more than two decades when the Sens arrived on the scene, and the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens were the venerable old guard of Canadian teams.

With borders already drawn and much of the country spoken for, the Senators began playing in 1992. Trying to carve a place in the nation's capital between the country's most historic and successful franchises was a daunting task. As a relatively new club, many Sens fans have felt insecure about the club's lack of success, as if the newness and lack of championships meant the team had no history to speak of.

From the beginning, Ottawa's leadership looked to the past to provide inspiration. Raising the original Senators Stanley Cup banners to the rafters of the Civic Centre and retiring Frank Finnigan's number 8, to the borrowed name "Senators", the Sens attempted to create a seamless hockey history in Ottawa which spanned the century without interruption. It was as if the 58-year absence of NHL hockey never existed.

What the Senators brass was engaged in was what Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm termed "invented tradition". The Sens turned to a forgotten past, of successes only remembered in engravings on the Stanley Cup, to confirm their place in the Canadian hockey landscape. And while the connection to the original Senators continued throughout the club's 20 year modern history - in arena photos and shoulder patches and the recent heritage jersey - those banners collected dust, first in the rafters of the Civic Centre and for the last seventeen years at Scotiabank Place.

When I was eight the Senators played their first game in modern history. I remember watching the pre-game ceremonies. I remember hearing the now-familiar trumpet call, I remember the fake columns on the ice, and I can never forget the synchro-figure skating centurions chanting "let's go Senators!" at centre ice in unison - the undisputed genius of the ceremony. As much as that first HNIC broadcast made the connections between the original team and the modern incarnation clear - Ron MacLean's intro seamlessly connected the glory days of the Silver Seven with the team playing their inaugural game under 11 Stanley Cup championship banners - the Sens also introduced an alternate visual history: the centurion. The 2D crest and Roman numeral shoulder patches ushered in a new aesthetic tradition in the capital but in choosing the symbols of an ancient empire, Ottawa's leadership was suggesting a historical legitimacy older than mere months. It was another "invented tradition" but it was a necessary fiction; what the logo lacked in relevancy (Roman senators weren't centurions and Canadian senators occasionally sit in a chamber with red upholstery) it made up for in adaptable imagery.

And while old and new histories competed for attention, the early Senators had one clear identity: they were horrible. I remember when that identity changed. The Sens made the playoffs for the first time just before my 13th birthday. I wasn't a fan of the team yet, but I watched those first furtive playoffs steps and wondered when the Sens had stopped being a joke and when they became so defensively responsible. Under Jacques Martin, success came quickly: the playoffs, division titles and the Presidents' Trophy. But failure to capture the league's ultimate prize meant yet another identity was emerging: underachievers.

***

Yes, the influence of the original Senators is undeniable; in name and in colours, the modern Sens owe an historic and aesthetic debt to the franchise done-in by the Great Depression. But the history is vague, the names unfamiliar, and the stories all but lost.

In many ways, the history didn't take.

In two decades of play there has not been a championship. In two decades of games there have been many lost seasons, both of the lockout and horrendous play variety. In two decades there has been heartbreak, too much heartbreak and too little success.

There have been good moments: the first time the Sens qualified for the playoffs in 1997, the first playoff series win in 1998, the Conference Finals appearance in 2003, and the Stanley Cup Finals run in 2007. If you had asked me a year ago, my favourite season would have been one of those moments.

Every so often there are those seasons that lodge in your memory, highs and lows that you forever associate with your team. The lucky among us remember our teams' successes - the awards, the honours, and if we're lucky, the championships - for the rest of our lives. We can always go back to those seasons, those magical runs, as we seek to understand our continued passion and commitment to our organizations.

We all have bad years - seasons where our favourite team fails to register double-digit wins, when veteran leaders are off-loaded to accelerate a rebuild, when leads are few and far between. Sometimes winning is so faint a memory, it's charted by life's milestones - birthdays, graduations, weddings - rather than weekly calendars.

When your franchise has been around long enough, you become familiar with both of these experiences.

We look for the quick narratives in sports; the long, culminating action is often obscured. We write about the heroes from last night, we find the villain of the piece and we revel in the previous game's victory before it is quickly forgotten.

But sometimes we look with a wide angle lens.

For me, 2011-12 was an appropriate culmination of the team's history. After so many years of trying to "invent tradition", of manufacturing identity and confused branding, the organization has matured into adulthood. The team resolved the tension between the original Ottawa Senators and the modern centurion image with the introduction of heritage jersey. The shoulder patches and crest were a nod to the champions of old, the heritage that was in some odd way now ours - having shadowed the modern team for the entirety of its 20 year history. But the predominately black colour of the jersey recalls the modern team's original away colours. Consequently, the jerseys are "heritage" in a dual sense.

An anniversary season is necessarily reflective. But what emerges differs for each fan. For me, the 20th season clarified the past and provided a glimpse of the future. It illustrated a secure history from which fans can draw inspiration from.

***

We said our farewells.

Yes, there will be codas for both Chris Phillips and Daniel Alfredsson this season and perhaps the next, but the goodbyes started in 2011-12.

To the delight of fans, Chris Phillips rebounded in 2011-12, playing solid, if unspectacular minutes. Phillips' season was defined by one night: his 1000th NHL game on February 9, 2012. Honouring Phillips at the next home game provided an opportunity for fans to show their appreciation for the long-time Senator but also forced them to realize there are far fewer games in his future than there have been in his past. Big Rig put in a memorable performance that night, scoring two goals, including the game winner as he helped the Sens snap a seven game slide.

It was an achievement for Phillips celebrated by the organization and fans alike but we are left with his personal dénouement. While much of the action of his career is over, Phillips' 1000th game meant something to fans because his career parallels so closely the history of the franchise. While he missed out on a championship and felt the heartbreak of each playoff series lost, his losses have been Ottawa's losses, his achievements the team's.

2011-12 was a long goodbye for both the fans and for Captain Daniel Alfredsson. With uncertainty over his future, Ottawa fans took every opportunity to express their appreciation to their captain. The culmination of this wave of emotion was the 2012 All-Star Game held in Ottawa. For years Daniel Alfredsson has meant everything to this franchise, but at the All-Star Game the relationship between the captain and the fans garnered league-wide attention. Not only was Alfredsson shown the true feelings of Ottawa fans but the league was shown the appreciation Senators fans have for their loyal representatives such as Alfredsson.

Phillips will be fondly remembered when he no longer suits up for Ottawa, Alfredsson's inevitable departure has posed a much serious problem.

For a few seasons Alfie's departure has been talked about in hushed tones, discussed briefly and then the conversation has abruptly ended realizing it can be put off for another day: life after Alfredsson. He has been a member of the Senators organization since 1994; he has been a Senator for all but two years of the team's existence. Many Ottawa fans cannot remember a time when Alfredsson wasn't the captain, fewer still can remember a time when #11 didn't skate with the Senators. But in 2011-12 that discussion could be put off no longer. As much as the season was a year-long tribute to Alfredsson, it was also a gradual acceptance of one of the more hated truths of the fan base: the end is near.

***

What's more, that's okay.

It's okay that the league's longest serving captain is near the end of his playing career. It's okay that the franchise's undisputed best player, the only true Ottawa legend from the franchise's first 20 years, will be retiring soon.

Undoubtedly some of the concern for Alfie's impending retirement among Sens fans was he is undeniably still a useful player: his resurgent season last year proved he still has much to give, even at his advancing age. Some of the emotion is undoubtedly nostalgia; none of us, from kids to adults, like to see our hockey heroes skate away for the final time.

But just as certain among the reasons Sens fans have been dreading his retirement was concern for the club as a whole, so much of the team's identity has been invested in the captain. If the Ottawa experience could be summed up by Daniel Alfredsson's career, what would it mean when that career was finally over?

Just as it was vital that Alfredsson became the face of the franchise more than a decade ago, it is equally important that there are those able to take over once he hangs up his skates for good. Sports teams need stars plural, not singular legends, which transcend the everyday experience of the club. Would the New York Yankees be the franchise they are if they could look only to Babe Ruth for inspiration? Surely the Bronx Bombers have the following they do in part because they also had Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Don Mattingly and Derek Jeter - stars for new generations of fans which keep the team relevant as time goes on. How important was it for Montreal Canadiens that they had Patrick Roy to act as a bridge between the dynasty of the 1970s and the 1990s. The Pittsburgh Penguins had one of the all-time greats in Mario Lemieux, but needed new superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to once again be relevant for new generations of fans.

Ideally, as a franchise you want to continue to develop stars, grow your pool of legendary alumni. Put another way, for the Praise Alfie crowd, franchises must develop a pantheon of stars. A team's history needs to read like a hagiography - full of players who have left an undeniable mark on the franchise and remained venerated long after their departure. Daniel Alfredsson certainly fits the bill, but increasingly, so too do Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson.

It is premature to suggest that either Spezza or Karlsson have achieved what Alfie has with the club.

But they have the potential to, and that's significant.

If in the past Alfredsson's potential retirement created a leadership crisis for the Senators, Jason Spezza's maturity over the past couple of seasons has calmed that fear. Spezza has grown into a more responsible player on the ice and more and more looks like a natural successor for Alfie. Spezza provides continuity. If Alfredsson and Phillips increasingly represent Ottawa's past, than Spezza is a player who straddles the threshold between the club's past and its present. Spezza played in the 2003 playoff run and was integral in 2007 trip to the Finals, but he has a lot of playing time left. For a player who is still only 29, Spezza offers the Senators stability in the leadership role: for a team that once had three captains in one season and skated the following year without a single player donning the "C," this is important. For a franchise that has seen the problems of leadership instability (Alexei Yashin) and the profits of stability (Alfredsson), a captain with at least another six or seven seasons left in the tank is a good thing. If the second half of Jason Spezza's career can be at least as reliable as the first, the Sens will benefit greatly.

Despite already entering his fourth season with the Ottawa Senators, Erik Karlsson represents the future of the club. Under contract with the Senators until at least 2019, Karlsson will only be 29 - Spezza's current age - when his new contract runs out. But what we have seen of his play is inspiring stuff. Having already captured the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman, Karlsson has the potential to be the first Senator to transcend the Ottawa market and have league-wide appeal. Even at the height of their time in the nation's capital players like Yashin, Dany Heatley, Spezza, and Alfredsson did not achieve that kind of breakthrough.

In 2011-12 Erik Karlsson was one of the league's superstars. 2011-12 was important because we were watching something special unfold. At the start of the season Sens fans alone knew that he was a special player to watch and a mere nine months later his success was codified; his Norris Trophy brought him firmly into the establishment. Erik Karlsson is part of the NHL elite now and for the league as a whole, is the face of this franchise going forward.

Favourite seasons aren't always about witnessing championships; sometimes they are about witnessing singular greatness. Karlsson's Norris-winning season is now a part of Sens lore, a season to look back fondly on, a season future Sens fans will read about and watch highlights from and wish they had been around for, wish they could remember.

***

The nature of commemorative anniversaries is such that you necessarily reflect on past experience. It was inevitable that 2011-12 was in some ways about Ottawa's past. But for the first time that past stood on its own merits. Not perfect, but not lacking either. The highs and lows of any franchise were there. The heroes and villains too. Importantly, enough time had passed as well. There are now adults who weren't born when this team played its first game. There are stories to tell; short stories such as Phillips' clutch performance in his 1000th game, the All-Star Game tributes to Alfredsson, and Erik Karlsson's Norris Trophy. These tales have been added to an existing framework, a framework 20 years in the making. A foundation visible on the careers of lifetime Senators like Phillips and Alfredsson. Finally there is a number to retire. Like future captain Spezza, the franchise has matured. Like new favourite Karlsson, much of the story remains to be experienced, let alone become part of the club's established legend. And like Alfredsson, the club has successors, players unknown who will star in future chapters of Senators history.

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