Daniel Alfredsson Returns

USA TODAY Sports

Some perspective on a fresh wound.

On Sunday morning, I’ll do something I’ve done many times before: get in the car and drive to a hockey game with my dad.

When I was a kid he drove me to early morning hockey practices and late night games. We’ve long since stopped taking those rides. Those rituals were replaced with other signposts of growing up, the annual Labour Day drop-off at school every September, the annual move out in the spring. One of the unfortunate aspects of growing up and gaining independence is we lose many of those rituals which defined our childhood and our relationships with our parents. Many of us develop new modes of communicating and interacting with loved ones as adults. But a select few manage to continue some of those childhood traditions into adulthood.

For me, a hint of those early morning trips to hockey practice remains.

When I lived in Ottawa my dad would drive on Highway 7 once or twice a year specifically to go to hockey games with me. My dad’s a Red Wings fan and every other year when the Wings were playing the Sens in Ottawa, we would make sure to be in attendance. When I moved to London, half-way between Toronto and Detroit, we started making trips down the 401 to go to the Joe. We would always go down for a weekend a year and when the Sens were visiting the Joe, so were we.

Tomorrow morning we’ll be driving to another game together. We’ll take the familiar route along Highway 7 and the company will be more familiar still. We’ll drive for five hours to see two teams we know well.

We’ll drive to see Alfie – at once familiar and unfamiliar – in his return to Ottawa.

It’s been a difficult five months for Senators fans. Alfie’s unexpected departure kicked off a summer of discontent, contradiction, and negativity. Ottawa’s poor start to the season has maintained that mood.

What Alfredsson’s departure robbed Sens fans of was Alfie the myth, Alfie the legend.

For many Sens fans, when Alfie left, he didn’t just change his jersey, he changed the ending to his story, perhaps his entire narrative. Alfie the myth developed over the course of the past half dozen years. Alfie the myth was chanted at the 11 minute mark of each period the past two years. Alfie the myth was universally loved in the city and by the team. Alfredsson the man was never comfortable with the idea of the Alfie legend.

Alfie’s departure robbed us of that myth. But what remains is Daniel Alfredsson the man. What remains is the reality of his two decades in Ottawa.

***

He was never the first choice.

During the dismal, early years of the franchise, Ottawa drafted a succession of highly-touted players (Alexei Yashin, Alexandre Daigle, Radek Bonk, Bryan Berard, and Chris Phillips) early in the first round.

Daniel Alfredsson was drafted 133rd overall in 1994.

A relative-unknown entering his first training camp, Alfredsson notched 61 points in 82 games (the only time he would play a full season for the Sens in his 17-year Ottawa career). He went to the All-Star game and won the Calder Trophy. He followed up that performance by recording 10 more points in 6 fewer games in his sophomore season.

But the budget-conscious Senators had tied themselves to Yashin and Daigle. Alfredsson made $635,000 in his first two seasons. Daigle and Yashin earned $11.6 million during the same span. When it came time to negotiate Alfredsson’s second NHL contract, Sens GM Pierre Gauthier offered the two-year pro $1+ million less per season than Yashin (who had already refused to honour his contract once).1 The offer was disappointing to the budding star and Alfredsson asked Gauthier for a trade. He missed the start of the season, but the two sides eventually came to an agreement; the 25-year-old signed a 4-year deal which paid him slightly more than $2.5 million per season.

Alfredsson was named captain in 1999. But he wasn’t Jacques Martin’s first choice. Martin was hired midway through former Senator Randy Cunneyworth’s first season as captain. When Cunneyworth’s tenure as captain concluded in 1998, Martin gambled and the honor went to controversial star Alexei Yashin. When Yashin refused to honour the final year of his contract, he was stripped of his letter and suspended by the team. Alfredsson, a more team-orientated player who had positive relationships with his teammates, stepped into the leadership vacuum.

Yashin returned for his court-mandated final season in Ottawa in 2000-2001, but his return raised questions about Alfredsson’s role as captain. Alfredsson retained the captaincy, but the season was a critical juncture for his time in Ottawa. His three previous seasons were hampered by injury and at times his offensive production stagnated. With Yashin back in the fold for one final season, Alfredsson recorded 70 points for the second time in his career but was criticized by fans for managing just 1 point in Toronto’s 4-game sweep of Ottawa in the playoffs. Alfredsson, acting like he thought a captain should, blasted Yashin for showing up late for a season-ending meeting. The remarks did not go over well with Senators management.

Predictably, summer 2001 was time to negotiate another contract. Alfredsson bristled at the fact that his leadership was questioned and that he was chastised for calling out Yashin’s commitment issues. Again, negotiations between Alfredsson and the Senators were difficult.2 The 28-year old wanted a two-year, $7 million deal; Sens GM Marshall Johnston drove a hard bargain. Rumours circulated that the Swede had again asked for a trade out of Ottawa and that Johnston was working hard to get the winger to agree to a contract as part of a sign and trade move – Vancouver and the New York Rangers were rumoured destinations. After missing the bulk of training camp, #11 signed a one-year deal for $3 million on September 21, a slight raise on the $2.8 million he made during the 2000-2001 season.

With Alfredsson signed, Johnston tried to defuse the persistent rumours that the Swede was on the block.3 Less than a week after signing, a storm again erupted over his captaincy. Alfredsson, still irritated, told reporters he didn’t think he could remain captain because of a lack of support from Jacques Martin at the end-of-season meetings and from management during his contract negotiations. The following day he walked-back his comments, but reiterated the choice of captain was ultimately Martin’s. Alfredsson stated, "I might still be the captain…if I have their support". Martin’s policy of annually naming his leader during training camp undermined Alfredsson’s captaincy for its first three seasons. Alfredsson responded to the controversy by leading the Senators with 37 goals and recording 71 points in 78 games. Healthy for the first time since his sophomore campaign, his play had his teammates talking Hart Trophy and he was more than a point-per-game player (7G, 6A, 13P, in 12G) during Ottawa’s 2002 playoff run. When it came time to negotiate another contract in 2002, new Senators GM John Muckler stated retaining Alfredsson was "the No. 1 priority". Finally. The captain inked the richest deal in team history, a two-year deal worth $10 million. Alfredsson had demanded the full support of the organization and finally had it.

***

When Alfredsson signed with the Red Wings on July 5, 2013 he stated it was because he thought Detroit had a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup. Many Sens fans took it as a slap to the face; others doubted his sincerity when details about the fractured negotiations leaked throughout the summer.

But he’s said it before.

"Obviously, my first choice is to win the Cup with Ottawa….If I feel Ottawa has put a good team together and the young players are developing, I’d love to stay here. But the main thing is to win the Cup. It’d be a matter of picking what you think is the team with the best chance to win." -Daniel Alfredsson, 2002

"Obviously, my first choice is to win the Cup with Ottawa….If I feel Ottawa has put a good team together and the young players are developing, I’d love to stay here. But the main thing is to win the Cup. It’d be a matter of picking what you think is the team with the best chance to win." Daniel Alfredsson, 20024

Perhaps it was simply the comments of a captain of a budget team, who had already gone a few rounds with management on the business side of things. Perhaps they were the comments of a leader whose Swedish passport was held against him, an attempt to undo the stigma that Europeans don't care about winning the Stanley Cup. Perhaps Alfredsson’s comments reflected the diplomatic response of a player who would finally be an UFA when his current deal was up. The Senators filed for bankruptcy midway through that season and required emergency funding to continue to play; maybe it looked like the last, best chance to win in Ottawa for some time.

But there has always been a pragmatic side to Alfredsson.

Like all players he understood hockey is a business. Playing for the cash-strapped Senators early in his career drove this point home more clearly for Alfredsson. He asked for a trade when he felt Gauthier wasn’t offering what he deserved. When he reached another contract impasse, this time with Johnston, he sensibly signed a one-year deal in hopes a strong season would net him a better offer the following summer. When he felt he wasn’t supported by the organization, he demanded their support. At the same time, his name was floated in trade rumours until the 2007 Cup Finals run. Alfredsson’s response to trade questions, "you can’t worry about that," and "if it happens, it happens" illustrates a captain who realized organizational loyalty only goes so far.

***

When Alfredsson joined the Wings, Sens fans were told by sports writers and TV panelists to shed their collective naivety. If Gretzky can be traded, so the thinking goes, no one in the sport is untouchable. More recent examples were tossed about, including the former Flames captain Jarome Iginla’s messy divorce from Calgary a few months before.

And they’re right, of course. Any romanticism towards professional sport was surely shattered years ago. We watch and cheer in the most cynical sporting age ever. Achievement in baseball is now qualified by the ever-present asterisk of failed drug tests. Olympic medals are awarded retroactively for 9th place finishes. Soccer players are sold back and forth between clubs with global recognition for tens of millions of euros. Colleges make millions off athletes who aren't paid. The NFL has undertaken aggressive PR campaigns to deflect attention from its players’ legal issues. Cycling is well, cycling. All the while class action lawsuits by former players against their former employers simmer and we, the fans, facilitate violent sporting culture that destroys lives.

But this isn’t new.

What’s more, most of us have experienced it time and time again. But the alternative is not to commit. Not to care too much about your team and your players. And that too, lessons the experience of sport just as surely as disappointment and betrayal do.

The Alfie legend is certainly part of the mythologizing tendency fans still exhibit when talking about their favourite games and favourite players. I’m guilty of it myself. Collectively, Sens fans were guilty of it the past several years. We talked about Alfie as if he had always been universally loved by Sens fans and as if he would march unquestioning ever forth for the organization. In reality, neither belief was true. For much of his first decade with the team, Alfredsson was a favourite scape-goat. This only increased after the departure of super-villain Yashin. Rather than draw support to Alfredsson, the captain’s C initially proved to be a lightning rod for criticism. He was injured too often, he was too soft, and he was too European. His strong performance in 2006-2007 changed that in the minds of many.

Many Sens fans now feel that cynicism towards Alfredsson that we were supposed to possess on July 4. I understand that too, it mitigates future fallout. In some ways, cynicism marks the true maturation of a sports fan.

I wrote a piece a while ago, right after the lockout, about why 2011-2012 was my favourite season. Knowing what I know now, I stand by that assessment. The All-Star game in Ottawa allowed Sens fans to show their appreciation and love to Alfie for a long career in the capital. One of the primary reasons for such an outpouring of emotion was because of the uncertainty surrounding his future. It was a moment where Alfie the legend was juxtaposed with Alfredsson the man and it was collectively important to convey to the man just how much he was appreciated and how much he truly deserved such appreciation.

Sentiment and sincerity have no place in the hearts of sports fans who view the game and players through layers of irony. But something is lost in that exchange.

The truly fortunate among us find a middle ground.

The road we choose to take as fans will be on full display tomorrow. Daniel Alfredsson returns to Ottawa, in what is surely the twilight of his career. He played for Rick Bowness, the organization’s first coach, during his rookie season. A Senator for so long, he was part of the fabric of the organization. To paraphrase another favourite captain, there are loose threads to Alfredsson’s time in Ottawa, untidy parts that as fans, we’d like to remove. But when we pull on one of those threads it unravels the story of his time in the capital. Those untidy threads make Alfredsson the man and shouldn't be pulled to preserve Alfie the legend.

This is how the narrative ends.

The Senators are an organization that has always been desperate for history. The team has consistently forced connections with empires of old; to the Romans of classical antiquity and to the original Ottawa Senators, the NHL’s first dynasty. Daniel Alfredsson is now firmly part of that history. Tomorrow the epilogue will play out. It will be one of the most important regular season games in franchise history. It will be emotional. Alfredsson the man will once again contrasted with Alfie the legend. I’ll be there, celebrating and honouring the past, all the while cheering the present. Alfredsson the man certainly deserves it.

Many of us were kids when Alfredsson joined the Senators. To reconcile his place in Senators history with the abrupt nature of his departure, we'll need to find a space between the myth of childhood and the cynicism of adulthood.

I've found my middle ground.

Additional sources:

1Canadian Press. "Senator demands a trade: Alfredsson unhappy with Ottawa's latest contract offer." Calgary Herald 25 August 1997: E10.

2Warren, Ken. "Captain issue in Senators hands." The Ottawa Citizen 28 September 2001: F1/Front.

3Gallagher, Tony "Alfredsson signing close: Canucks and Ottawa working on one-year, $3m deal." The Province 21 September 2001: A65.

4Panzeri, Allen. "Captain wants Cup run, with or without Senators." Ottawa Citizen 11 September 2002: E1/Front.

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