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On Miracles and Prayers Left Unanswered

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Some thoughts on the season that was, what we left behind, and what lies ahead.

Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

Sometimes you get the miracle you need.

When the Senators fell behind 3-0 in the team's best-of-seven first round series against the Montreal Canadiens it was disappointing. It's the type of deficit that's difficult to overcome and has only happened four times in NHL history. It's the type of hole that in the moment, most people around the game give you no chance of coming back from. It's a deficit that leaves players slumped on the bench, with long blank stares and fans changing long-held superstitions and just about everyone praying for a miracle.

A Game 4 victory started the comeback. After two months of elimination-esque, last gasp play, prayers turned to belief. A convincing, blowout victory in Game 5 had even the most ardent of doubters believing. That belief was quickly dashed just over a week ago when the Senators fell 1-0 in Game 6. There was controversy and missed calls. In a game with the smallest margin of error, those margins didn't work in Ottawa's favour. A different call, a helpful bounce and things might have been different. A single prayer for a Sens goal went unanswered and the miracle fell short.

If you had asked me after Game 3 what miracle I was anxiously hoping for, it would have been a Sens comeback. If you had talked to me a few days later when Ottawa had clawed back a couple victories, it would have been the only thing on my mind. But something happened in between Game 5 and 6 that shifted priorities.

Sometimes life intervenes. Late the night before Game 6, I learned a family member required emergency surgery. It was a serious procedure and the following days would be spent at the hospital, on the phone, but most frequently, waiting. My relative was in need of a miracle and I found that's where my attention lay during that deciding game.

The Sens didn't get that win, they didn't get that miracle comeback. Sometimes it works like that. Most of the time it does. Sport's most frequent reminder is not the celebratory ecstasy of victory and championships, but the all too familiar disappointment of defeat. Sports fans everywhere pray for victories, most of those pleas go unanswered. I'm reminded of a classic Rolling Stones song: You can't always get what you want.

But like the song says, if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

My prayers for Ottawa went unanswered, but my family got the miracle it needed.

***

That's not to say that we shouldn't pray for sports miracles.

Hockey is structured by the clock. Its seconds are always ticking down. As every game proceeds periods, intermissions, minutes, penalties tick away until we are left counting the seconds until victory or defeat. Time is the normalized framework for the game.

The miracle I prayed for after game three was not to beat the Canadiens in seven; rather I prayed for the streak not to end.

It's been a long road back. We lost our heart, our soul, our identity - however you want to phrase it - we lost it when Daniel Alfredsson left. Things got worse that first season without him. We traded Jason Spezza last summer and fretted about trading captains and the toxicity of the organization. The summer re-singings of Clarke MacArthur and Craig Anderson calmed things temporarily; Bobby Ryan's new deal on the eve of the season certainly helped. A hot streak in October had the Senators flirting with first place, but six dismal weeks from late October to early December sealed the fate of former coach Paul MacLean.

His replacement, Dave Cameron, stood behind the bench with MacLean since the start of the 2011-12 season. Replacing a friend was difficult for Cameron but losing a friend, as he did when assistant coach Mark Reeds died the day before the playoffs started, went beyond hockey. Hockey is not life or death.

Slowly things turned around under Cameron. Some of his lineup changes were aided by injury, such as Chris Neil's December knee injury which kept the long-time Senator out until late January. Perhaps his most significant decision was to make veteran Chris Phillips a healthy scratch in his second game as coach. Phillips would be scratched often before a back injury prematurely ended his season, but that first time was significant. Not because Phillips struggled in the first few months of the season and was no longer playing at the level expected of a depth NHL defenseman but because Cameron finally ended an era of Senators hockey that had been lingering and withering for years.

For the first time since Daniel Alfredsson was awarded the captaincy, none of the three players who wore letters for the bulk of Cameron's tenure has worn letters the season before. It's fitting in a season of upheaval the catalyst for change would be an unknown AHL goalie with just 35 minutes of NHL experience.

For two months the Senators organization was led on an unprecedented and historic streak by Andrew Hammond. The streak got us thinking about winning again, the streak got us excited. The streak gave us some memorable moving forward. If scratching Phillips firmly closed the door on the early years of this franchise and their contending descendants, if scratching Phillips moved the organization's glory years from living memory to history, then the streak ushered in something new. New leaders, new stars, new aims.

I wanted to live in it. I wanted to stay in that newness, feel that sense of possibility in the face of the improbable, forever. It was the kind of streak that took over your daily life, made you eat burgers before every game, and let you focus on nothing else. That kind of experience is rare in sports and life.

But all things end.

The most memorable streak in Senators history ended with memorable controversy. But it ended. That defeat is still raw. The knowledge that it won't be like that next year is lodged firmly in my head. The newness will be replaced with expectation. No team is the same from season to season. Major changes, like the ones we've seen in the past two off-seasons happen from time to time. Even without such significant restructuring minor differences, a David Legwand added, an Ales Hemsky gone, change the make-up of the team. There comes a time for goodbyes.

No team is the same from season to season. Major changes, like the ones we've seen in the past two off-seasons happen from time to time. There comes a time for goodbyes.


Here, hockey and life converge again. "Goodbye" usually refers to that final media availability, when players clear out their lockers, and meet with management and media before shaking hands and going their separate ways for the summer, and possibly their careers. This season was different. A team noted for its youth played this season with the knowledge that its most respected elder statesmen, Bryan Murray and Mark Reeds, fought the hardest battle - how to approach the everyday when facing the end. The organization and fans said goodbye to Mark Reeds during the first round. What was said about him during those emotional days revealed the measure of the man we lost.

Murray faces a terminal diagnosis, an uphill struggle. What lies ahead for him can't be compared to any sporting obstacle. Hockey is not life or death. But what the streak did for me, what the streak did for many of us, what the streak did for the organization, maybe it did some of that for Murray too. Murray fidgeted and cursed with every play during the first round, he was right there with us.

His Senators prayers went unanswered, but Ottawa, the team, its fans, the city, hopes like hell we get the miracle Murray needs.

Because we don't want to say goodbye yet.