Puberty is often ugly. It's interesting, yes, but also painful, awkward, smelly, gangly and difficult. There are some pleasant surprises, weird urges and insatiable appetites, but at the end of the process, you would typically find yourself happy it was over. In my opinion, the Ottawa Senators have finally reached adulthood. Puberty was a little better than expected, but we can now breathe a considerably less stinky sigh of relief that we're on the other side of it.
Ottawa is a young franchise, bordered on the west by an NHL juggernaut and original 6 team in the Toronto
Terrible Spellings Maple Leaves Leafs, and to the east by the much smaller (yet faster!?) juggernaut that is the Montreal Toilet Seats Canadiens. Being delicately sandwiched between these two legendary franchises guaranteed 2 things: 1; when playing these teams in Ottawa, Senators fans would represent the minority and 2; the Senators would always be looked at as the new child that no one really wanted in the first place. To counteract this geographical dilemma, the 1992 Senators front office would firmly attach itself to a history that it had no part of aside from the name they chose. Some fans, myself included, willingly jumped ship in favor of a local team. Other generational fans opted not to, and instead decided this was a golden opportunity to get less expensive tickets to see their team play 8 times a year.
The first few years were pretty rough, by any account (Like a pubescent growth spurt, all gangly and awkward). The team played in an arena built for an OHL team (wearing hand me downs that don't fit), and often times looked like said OHL team would beat them handily (little brother winning a fight by kicking you in the narbles). As a fan, it was difficult to watch night in and night out. Things improved slowly but steadily, first with a berth in the playoffs (hey, look, the baby fat is gone...), followed soon thereafter by winning a few rounds (look, muscles!), acquiring a real GM, albeit as a coach (first car) and peaking with a Stanley Cup finals appearance in 2007 (first car accident). The following 6 years have been somewhat of a roller coaster, with slow climbs, rapid descents, violent turns, abrupt twists and culminating with nausea and vomiting, but the team and the fans have emerged with their heads held high, but perhaps still wiping a little drool from the corner of their mouths.
If there is one thing that Brian Murray has done - whether intentional or not - it was to bring in some hometown players. This is nothing new, really, as Mike Fisher (though from Peterborough) felt very local, and I remember a time where Randy Robitaille was our hometown hero. More recently Andre Benoit, from St. Albert made a favorable impression on Sens faithful. Murray has since brought in Marc Methot (whom I attended high school with) who was thrilled to be coming home. Murray was responsible for drafting Mark Borowiecki - a Kanata native - in the 5th round in 2008, Jean-Gabriel Pageau - born in Ottawa and raised in Hull, QC - in the 4th round in 2011 and Cody Ceci - an Orleans native - 15th overall in 2012.
Whether or not hometown players benefit a team remains to be seen. I'm too lazy and too inept to dig up those statistics, but my gut tells me that I would probably play harder for a team I cheered for in my youth. Prove me wrong, Internet.
Something special happened in 2012 when Murray drafted Cody Ceci, something most NHL franchises won't ever experience, yet something that the big, powerful hockey neighbors of ours have experienced time and again. For the first time in Ottawa Senators history, a lifelong fan of the team was drafted by the team. A fan born after the inaugural 1992 season. A fan that grew up idolizing Senators players. A fan who would likely "be" Mike Fisher during road hockey games. A fan that had now developed into a truly talented hockey player.
Over the past week, seeing Ceci play his first 3 NHL games, reading the tweets from his mother and his friends and seeing the joy and determination with which he's approached his time has been a unique and humbling experience. I really got the sense that playing for the Ottawa Senators was a dream come true for him and something he had been working towards his entire life. I couldn't help but feel pride and respect for Ceci and his family.
What Murray has done is injected a little hometown pride into the Senators lineup. The players and the team as a whole have responded well.
In less than 20 games Pageau almost single-handedly forged an identity for this fanbase. In playoffs past we've been less noisy, less aggressive and less in-you-face than rival teams, most notably against Toronto. After a pivotal Leafs goal, many Sens fans in attendance would get deathly quiet. It reeked of fear, and it was ever present in a crowd dominated by demure, quiet, respectful gov't employees. To be honest, when we drew the Habs for the first round of the 2013 playoffs, I felt 2 things; 1; growing dread at the sheer number of Montreal fans that would populate the (then) Scotiabank Place, and 2; Hearing that cursed Ole Ole Ole chant for a minimum of 4 consecutive games.
Enter Game 3, May 5th 2013. Pageau has stunned the Habs with a hat-trick. Habs fans fall back to their godawful Ole chant, only to be drowned out by Sens fans... Sens fans turning it around on them. There were so many layers to the awesome of that instant. To me, that was a franchise defining moment, as much as making the playoffs for the first time, winning a first playoff series, and making the Stanley Cup finals. We, as a fan base owned the Habs fans that had been infesting our building for cheaper prices. For the first time, I felt that we had forged an identity. Sure, it involved stealing a ridiculously stupid soccer chant, but we made it our own, elevating a French-Canadian, local player directly in the face of the only French franchise in the sport. Satisfying and electrifying cannot even begin to describe it. It was doubly rich for me as I was a Habs fan in 1991 and that chant is the dumbest thing I've ever seen come out of Montreal, period.
When Cody Ceci scored the OT winner - his first NHL goal - against a potential cup contender in the St. Louis Blues, he closed the door on what I would call the adolescence of this Senators franchise. With 20+ years under its belt, this town is now producing Sens fans instead of just stealing them from other franchises. We as a fan base are forging an identity for ourselves. Sure, we can still be quieted easily by a devastating goal, but if the last 2 years are any indication, this team can now recover from goals of that magnitude. There is now a sense of pride instead of fear and dread when playing a rival. The fan experience at the rink is improving too. Though there will always be opposing fans present (and the trolls wearing Leafs jerseys at a Colorado game), Sens fans have developed a sense of self and a backbone. With a new generation of Sens fans growing up with hometown idols like Methot, Borowiecki, Pageau and Ceci, the future as a Sens fan is bright indeed.