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What Does It Mean to be a Sens Fan?

How do you write about a team that is so far from normal?

NHL: Ottawa Senators at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: In case you missed the first installment, this is the second in our new, on-going series entitled Long-form Wednesdays. Every Wednesday, there will be a new, longer piece of writing from one of our staff or occasionally from special guest authors. We hope you enjoy this new feature, and we look forward to hearing from you in the comments. -nkb

You’ll have to forgive me, dear reader, for indulging in a bit of navel gazing in today’s piece. The off-season is nearing its inevitable conclusion, but there still isn’t much by the way of real Sens news (even NHL news for that matter) for us to dig our teeth into. Soon enough we’ll all be back to arguing over who should be the 12th forward, but for now you’re stuck wading through the morality play that is Ottawa Senators coverage and fandom.

The topic of how one goes about covering a franchise like the current day Sens has been of interest to me for some time. How do you cover a team like this? How should one be a fan of a team like this? We have the guidelines of how to cheer for a normal team, that’s easy, and as Sens fans we’ve even got a lot of experience in cheering for a weird team (see: the 2003 Senators who won the Presidents Trophy and went to the Eastern Conference finals while they went through bankruptcy).

This piece before you has been germinating for some time in the back of my mind, but the main ideas started to come into focus when I read this by friend of the blog, Varada at Welcome to Your Karlsson Years right after the trade deadline.

The introductory paragraph could not have read to me as more true at the time:

I’ve noticed a tendency to think of this round of Ottawa Senators trades as the latest chapter in a coherent, linear narrative: Ottawa trades or allows to walk some of their best players because the owner doesn’t have the money to pay them. I have to disagree, somewhat, that this is only the latest in a constant theme. I offer, instead, that what’s happening right now is much worse. What’s happening right now is the final emptying out of the idea of the Ottawa Senators as a shared experience, a local narrative, and a hub around which Ottawans build community.

Indeed, those were the very darkest days. All that was good was gone, and the hope for the future was at its faintest. Everything about the last eighteen or so months have felt different. There’s of course been a litany of on-ice issues but almost every franchise goes through droughts. I would argue that the last few years have been uniquely trying for Sens fans in terms of the on-ice product. Every team is bad eventually, but not every team so damages its own brand and its relationship with its fan-base in the process. Trading Erik Karlsson, one of the best players in the world, still in his prime, after an extremely public and acrimonious failed contract negotiation is not the kind of thing that every franchise has to go through. And even if it did, following that up by trading Mark Stone, another of the very best players in the world, still in his prime, after another failed (though less publicly acrimonious) attempt at a contract extension pushes the situation outside the realm of normal. Add in that Karlsson and Stone were the two of the most beloved players in the franchise’s history and we are beginning to understand why the Sens’ issues were somewhat unique.

The above leaves out the Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene trades because while they were a bit disheartening, in the context of the Sens needing to enter a rebuild, they were at least defensible decisions; knowing where the team was in its competitive cycle made those trades justifiable. Normal teams trade players like Duchene and Dzingel. Stone and Karlsson were different, and they marked this era of Sens’ fandom as different as well.

At the end of the day, however, no matter how atypically bad things have been on the ice it’s the off-ice issues that maybe put the biggest strain on the team’s relationship with its fans and colours how we cover them. The Randy Lee situation was a dark moment in the team’s history and remains something of a stain on the organization. Melnyk rushing to Lee’s defense will justifiably leave a sour taste in the mouths of many for years to come. And this is before we address the numerous threats to move the team, the inability to close the deal on moving the team downtown and essentially sinking a redevelopment of Lebreton Flats, the general lack of finances, and of course the organization’s antagonistic attitude towards the media.

So things seem bad, and things seem bad in a way that’s very specific to the Ottawa Senators in 2019. What, then, is our job as writers? Set aside the questions of tone, of whether or not we should be cheerleaders or harsh critics. Each publication, each site, each writer will have their own answer to that question and it’s difficult to objectively favour one approach over the other. There will be times when we are positive, and there will be times when we are negative. Such is sports media.

Sports as escapism? Should we just report the games as we see them while ignoring the bigger context? NHL hockey can play a meaningful role in our lives, but it is no less a part of the “real world” than your 9-5 job. Professional sports exist in the framework of our society — Eugene Melnyk is allowed to own and operate the Ottawa Senators because he amassed a sizable fortune in the world of pharmaceuticals. His ownership of the Sens is quite possibly the single biggest factor in everything that I just listed above. His personal and business preferences influence everything around the franchise. We also don’t want to reduce the blog to perpetually bringing up how much this situation sucks; it doesn’t get us anywhere and it’s just not that interesting.

The simple answer to a lot of these “problems” is that the Sens are likely to improve in the coming years; the sheer volume of quality prospects in the farm system and picks at their disposal in the next two drafts virtually guarantees a return to at the very least mediocrity if they don’t totally screw it up. Should we move on from everything that’s happened these last two years when the young stars of tomorrow are battling for a play-off spot in March 2021? What is our duty as writers if the team is first place in the Eastern Conference and loading up for a Stanley Cup run in 2022? Maybe more interestingly: how should we approach this as fans? How short must our memories be? Will it be harder to enjoy the rise of Thomas Chabot with an increased fear that when he asks to be fairly compensated he might be traded? Do we worry about the team’s long-term viability when the business side of the operation has been burning through employees at an absolutely alarming rate since Cyril Leeder’s departure?

When I think about my relationship with the team both as a fan and as a writer, the person I keep coming back to is Daniel Alfredsson. The beloved franchise icon first left in 2013 under acrimonious, and perhaps in retrospect ominous, circumstances — only to return a few years later as a member of the front office. Alfredsson and the team effectively buried the hatchet. As fans, and sports writers, I see us as being in nearly that same stage right now: we’re waiting for a reason to bury the hatchet. If the Sens are willing to put forward a good faith effort to build a real NHL team, I will applaud for doing so. This team is in a strange, different, bad place but it’s salvageable. After a lot of deliberation that’s where I land on how best to approach covering the team as well: cautious optimism tempered by a well-founded skepticism that things are really all that different. The Sens need to show me how things have improved.

But the real fear is what came next in Alfredsson’s saga: he left the team again in 2017 and has not returned since. What would that look like for the fans?