The discourse in sports fandom can sometimes fall in to the tendency to reduce everything to the “championship or bust” mentality. Witnessing your favourite team win the title is perhaps the single greatest feeling as a sports fan, but if all we ever focus on in is the outcome of any given season then we miss most of the best stories.
The Ottawa Senators’ 2012-13 season ended with a second round defeat at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Truthfully they were over-matched in that series, and despite being one of the eight last teams standing they never seemed very likely to bring home the Stanley Cup. In July of that year, Daniel Alfredsson signed a contract with the Detroit Red Wings and from then on most Sens fans would probably like to forget the 2012-13 season altogether.
I understand the desire, but to do so would also be to ignore one of the great moments in recent Sens history: game three of Ottawa’s first round series against the Montreal Canadiens.
There are two distinctly great moments that came from this game: the first is the birth of the legend of Jean-Gabriel Pageau. I won’t re-visit that part here because Ross already did an admirable job with his piece on the Pageau chant. Instead, I want to touch on what it meant to win a game against a bitter rival in a way that the Sens hadn’t ever really done before. Sure there have been better iterations of the team before and since, but no other squad can claim the type of victory that the 2012-13 team accomplished.
For a bit of context, 2013 against the Habs was the Sens’ first playoff series against another Canadian team since the 2004 first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That 2004 defeat capped off a run of four straight playoff series defeats for Ottawa at the hands of their provincial rivals. Nine years later, I wouldn’t say that time had healed all wounds but the prospect of a more intense rivalry with our geographically nearest competitors was appealing. Sens fans have not always had the coziest of relationships with Habs fans, but before the 2013 playoff series there wasn’t much by the way of sustained animosity.
After the teams split the first two games in Montreal, the atmosphere was a bit tense heading into game three in Ottawa. I was living in Toronto with my then-girlfriend, and we decided to get tickets at the last minute and make the trek up to the nation’s capital. I never attended any of the playoff games back in the early 2000s Battle of Ontario, and this seemed like an opportunity to witness the beginning of a new rivalry. It felt important to be there to help ensure the rink wasn’t overrun with Habs fans; some of my most painful memories from those Leafs’ series are only made worse by the seas of blue and white jerseys cheering on the Leafs in Ottawa. My memory is that it was about seventy-five percent Sens fans, but I welcome any other recollections in the comments, so a decided majority. Nonetheless, when René Bourque scored to tie the game in the first, the contingent of Habs were loud. It was exactly the kind of atmosphere I’d expected when we took the ride up.
Things started to decisively turn Ottawa’s way at the start of the third period when Pageau netted his second of the game to put up the Sens up 3-1. I remember that in addition to the usual exhilaration of a playoff goal, I also felt a sensation resembling relief. I had so much practice at getting tense in big playoff games — what was this newfound experience?
Less than six minutes later, Kyle Turris scored to give Ottawa a 4-1 lead and the arena was really rocking. No lead is ever safe in the playoffs, but up 4-1 with just over thirteen minutes to play felt about as good as you could imagine. Michel Therrien must have felt that his team’s chances of coming back were close to zero as well because he sent his fourth line over the boards; a fourth line that featured Ryan White, a grinder who’d already gotten his nose dirty on a couple of occasions in the first two match-ups. You all know what happened next, but it’s worth sharing again:
Generally speaking, I don’t advocate for fighting in hockey but that’s a discussion for another day. In that moment, the Sens players comprehensively winning every single fight on the ice was the culmination of everything that game had been building up to. Ottawa was going to win the game, we were getting to celebrate in our building, in front of our rivals, and then the brawl broke out. Jared Cowen absolutely putting the boots to White might be the most memorable thing he did as a Senator. It was that kind of night.
When the fisticuffs drew to a close, a steady stream of Habs fans began heading for the door. What was there left to stay for? The game wasn’t going to be won, and any attempts at physical retribution had just been completely snuffed out. All that was left was an extended party for Sens fans.
As the Montreal fans made their way up the aisles, Sens fans began chanting “This is our house!” It’s a moment that has always stuck with me, maybe the absolute peak of chest-beating pride for me as a fan. THIS. IS. OUR. HOUSE. gets the blood going even to this day. I’ll always believe that part of the reason the Pageau chant came into existence later that same evening was because of this first chant that came before. Sens fans were feeling confident in a way that we almost never do. At last, it was our turn.
We drove back to Kingston that night, stopping in at my girlfriend’s parents’ place for the night. I normally hate sports talk radio, but we listened the whole way that night. Every caller was beaming with pride. They talked about the miracle that was Pageau’s hat-trick, but so many also spoke about how great it felt to win a game like that against a team that was quickly becoming a hated rival. How wonderful to win in our rink when the Habs fans were there to witness it, to remind them that this was our house.