One of the fun things about sports fandom is that if you follow a given team for long enough, you’ll eventually witness history being made. When the league and the players agreed to the new collective bargaining agreement in July 2005 that ended the protracted labour dispute that had already cost a full season, there was a consensus to up the excitement level of the games. Besides all of the off-ice issues that led to the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, the league’s insistence on a hard salary cap chief among them, the on-ice product had been suffering for years. The trap was in vogue, and goal-scoring was bottoming out. On top of that, it was becoming clear that the officiating standards were far too liberal when it came to interference infractions. Go watch a game from the late 90s/early 2000s, and the leniency given to hooking in particular is absolutely jarring. The league resolved to call the games more tightly (and they did!) but the competition committee also came back with another major recommendation: no more ties. Thus, there would be shootouts at some point in the NHL season — it was just a question of which teams would go first.
On October 5th, 2005, all 30 NHL teams were in action. After more than a year without NHL hockey, the league wanted to start it off with a bang. There was some legitimate fear that fans would stay away after the acrimony of the prior year, but on this night most were in a celebratory mood. Certainly the atmosphere was raucous in Toronto for the Sens and the Leafs to kick off the regular season. Ottawa was very much at the peak of its powers, and had aspirations of finally breaking out of the Eastern Conference after so much recent play-off heartbreak. Dominik Hasek was making his Sens debut, as was Dany Heatley. Though the Maple Leafs would eventually go on to miss the play-offs for the first of six straight seasons, they were returning a big chunk of the roster that had seen success in the early 2000s and they had added native son Eric Lindros via free agency. Lindros, you may recall, had been traded the New York Rangers after a dramatic, public dispute with the Philadelphia Flyers regarding the team’s handling of his concussion problems. Toronto, not New York, was long Lindros’ destination of choice at the time and so when he finally made his debut with the Leafs in 2005 it was a long time coming. All of this to say: that season opener in 2005 was a big deal.
For myself, I was entering my second year of undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. One of my fears upon leaving Ottawa to pursue my post-secondary education was the hordes of Maple Leafs fans that I was sure would await me in the Big Smoke. In that sense the cancellation of the 2004-05 season was a bit of a blessing in disguise: no one could really remind me of Toronto’s four consecutive play-off series victories when there wasn’t any hockey being played.
So when the 2005-06 season began, I was saddled with nervous trepidation. On the one hand, I objectively recognized that this was the best Senators team up until that point in time. On the other hand, the old trauma of the Battle of Ontario seemed likely to rear its ugly head at any minute. You just never knew when Bryan McCabe might score on a one-timer to break our hearts.
I watched the game at one of U of T’s student bars, the first NHL game for which I was legally allowed to drink; the mathematically-inclined among you now have a good idea of exactly how old I am. My memory of the game itself is somewhat fuzzy, not because of the alcohol mind you, but I do have a clear recollection of Lindros scoring late in the third to put the Leafs ahead. It was that familiar sinking feeling: most of the folks in the bar were Leafs fans, including my tablemates, and I distinctly remember how loud it got for the Big E. Someone even yelled something along of the lines of “WELCOME HOME, ERIC!”
I was mentally preparing myself for the ribbing that was to come. So when Daniel Alfredsson tied the game with just over a minute to play and sent the game to extra time, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Were the Sens really going to have a big triumph over the Leafs while I was in Toronto to see the game?
As overtime ended without any goals being scored, there was a brief moment of confusion in the bar and then TSN announced the shoot-out would begin. Ah yes, the shoot-out. As it so happened, none of the other games that evening had gone to the shoot-out. Alfredsson would be taking the first shoot-out attempt in NHL history against Ed Belfour. Then I thought about Dominik Hasek manning the net for the Sens and a strange calm came over me: Ottawa was going to win.
The rest is history: Alfredsson scored on his attempt, Jason Allison hilariously flubbed his at about 10 km/h, Lindros missed as well for the Leafs and Heatley secured the win after Martin Havlat failed on the Sens’ second attempt. The Sens’ players mostly said they were okay with resolving a game via the shoot-out while the Leafs players mostly complained that it seemed a bit unfair to reduce the game to a skills competition. The shoot-out felt a bit gimmicky for the rest of the year but it was too popular to ignore and now, 15 years later, it’s hard to imagine it not being a part of NHL hockey.
That year was a great season to be a Sens fan (until the very end, of course). There were times where they felt invincible, especially when Hasek was on his game. I’ve never been as confident in a Senators’ team as I was in that year’s edition and it all started in that shoot-out. Ironically, the team would go 1-6 the rest of the year in the tiebreaker but the feeling remained: absolute confidence.
If you want to go back and re-visit the game, Sportsnet put together a “retro” recap that I’ve shared below. Calling 2005 retro makes me feel a bit old, but walking down memory lane reminded me of what it was like to cheer for a dominant squad. Here’s to hoping those days are coming again soon.