The Same Cycle
On Thursday, Forbes reported that the Arizona Coyotes are for sale and in the event of a successful transaction, that the prospective buyers would move the team to Houston. The report was short on details, but the outline fit nicely with many narratives surrounding the franchise’s troubled existence. Thus, the current owners were forced to issue a forcefully worded statement refuting the claims: “This is false. Totally false. We’re not selling. We’re not moving. The Coyotes are 100 percent committed to playing in Arizona.” Maybe the Coyotes really are moving, maybe they aren’t. It sounds like, for now at least, a move isn’t imminent — the team’s roster and hockey operations were stripped to the barest of bones for unrelated reasons. Forgive my cynicism, but it feels like the situation in the desert has been circling the drain for quite some time. The optimists will point out that the existence of the Coyotes franchise has inspired a whole new generation of hockey players; if not for the pro team in Arizona, would we have Auston Matthews? As a Sens fan, would that absence be such a bad thing?
Jokes aside, I feel for the fans of the team. The on-ice play has been mostly miserable for vast swaths of the 25 years the team has been in existence and “financial realities” have loomed large for at least the last ten. I’m not naïve: I understand that a desire to make money is what drives the ultra-wealthy to buy professional sports franchises in the first place. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the whole affair disheartening. There’s nothing further from the joy of sports fandom than leveraging the specter of relocation to squeeze as much money as can be squeezed.
Same, but Different
Speaking of leveraging the specter of relocation, Patrick Johnston casually mentioned that the Ottawa franchise might be for sale in his recap of the Wednesday night Sens-Canucks match-up. There have been a lot of rumours, but precious more than that in the last few years. Some folks have chosen to take Erin Crowe’s return to the organization as EVP and CFO as a sign that the team could be prepping for a sale. I’m not quite so confident in my ability to read the tea leaves. Eugene Melnyk’s ownership of the team has been a bone of contention with the fans, to say the least, so there’s a lot of motivated reasoning going on when this kind of news floats up to the surface. It’s difficult not to feel like we’re trapped in a twisted sort of Groundhog Day: something gets the Sens rumour mill going again, we all read into it way too closely, and in the end it’s all smoke and no fire. Call me jaded, but at this point I’m going to need to see something tangible before I get too worked up about this again. Ten times burned, eleventh time shy?
Those with a sharp memory might recall that not so long ago, Melnyk was claiming that the chances of getting the team into an arena at LeBreton Flats was gone and done with. The Sens were very happy in Kanata, thank you very much, and that it was more likely they would move to Gatineau before even thinking about Lebreton. Well, after the NCC re-opened bids for Lebreton, Eugene conveniently let Bruce Garrioch know that he is in fact open to returning to the table on Lebreton: “We’re always open and interested in a new multi-purpose entertainment facility at LeBreton Flats and understand how it can benefit our fans and the Ottawa Senators hockey club generally.” I wonder what changed in the last six months?
No, really: I actually do wonder.
The 2020 Entry Draft was supposed to be the culmination of the teardown that the Sens first undertook midway through the 2017-18 season. With the 3rd and 5th overall picks, Ottawa seemed virtually guaranteed to acquire franchise-altering prospects; the type of top-shelf talents rarely fond outside of those precious first few slots. Since then, Tim Stützle has played 74 games in the NHL, and he’s recorded 13 goals and 24 assists for 37 points. For most other nineteen year-olds, that would be a resounding success. Yet it’s hard not to feel like his modest production, this season especially, is a bit of a disappointment.
Most fans would likely agree that the young German looks better in many facets of his game. Certainly he’s improved his defensive reads, and he’s definitely added some much-needed strength. Yet, contrast the vibe around him lately with the way the fanbase has practically whipped itself into a frenzy over Jake Sanderson. Perhaps the difference is that it feels as though Stützle’s ceiling is just a bit lower than we might have imagined, while Sanderson has yet to play in the NHL — we have no real sense of what he’s capable of against the best competition in the world, and the possibilities seem endless. With Stützle, we are now starting to facing the realities rather than just fantasize about those same possibilities. I haven’t lost hope by any means, I’m actually quite encouraged by his recent play at centre, but it does seem like we’ve entered a different stage of our fandom than when we first met him on that fateful night in October of 2020.
Winning Ugly is Still Wining....Sometimes
When it comes to evaluating the Sens this season, I’ve been fairly consistent in saying that wins and losses were not going to be the be-all-end-all. I was never convinced this was a play-off calibre roster, so it’s always been a question of demonstrating “progress”. If you adopt that type of mindset, it might be difficult to look at last night’s win over the Carolina Hurricanes and see the much sought after progress. One doesn’t generally win too many games while getting outshot 49-20. But at the same time, damnit, sometimes you just need to win a game. Ottawa’s been beset by so many setbacks, some of which were very much beyond their control, that it’s difficult to overstate the importance of getting a win for the team’s overall mental state. The various player and coach interviews from the last couple of weeks had been replete with quotes about how guys were upset, or various clichés about trying to move forward. These are the kind of things you say when it’s really not going well.
So, no, from a “progress” perspective there wasn’t too much to like about last night’s win: Carolina was clearly the better team. But it still felt reallllll good to get that win, and if I felt the exhilaration and relief on my sofa at home then I can only imagine what the players felt on the bench when the final horn sounded.