Don’t let anyone tell you that the Ottawa Senators failing to sell out Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi finals wasn’t worthy of the relentless national media coverage it received.
The Senators may be located in the least profitably populated city of Canadian NHL teams (Ottawa is fourth in population and by far last place in population density) and they may be the only team in the country to have their arena situated outside the downtown core (the Canadian Tire Centre is 23.2 kilometres from LeBreton Flats), but it is absolutely inexcusable to not fill the building during the playoffs.
On the other hand, don’t let anyone tell you that the hockey fan base in the nation’s capital has been anything but passionate and supportive during the Senators’ run.
At least within the city, the empty seats in the suburbs of Kanata have been largely overshadowed the past couple weeks by pandemonium in the streets and creativity in the food scene.
After the Senators’ Game 6 triumph over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden that gave the organization its third conference final berth in franchise history, fans piled out of pubs up and down Sens Mile on Elgin Street to celebrate. Hundreds of elated supporters waved giant red flags, honked their car horns and waited until the intersection lights turned red so they could dance in the middle of the street.
But they weren’t done there.
Just like they did during the Hamburglar run when the team miraculously clinched a playoff spot in Philadelphia on the last day of the 2014-15 regular season, a motorcade of fans fled to the airport to greet their cherished squad.
Except, this time, they lined the streets of MacDonald-Cartier International at 1:45 a.m. on a weekday.
The players and coaching staff recognize that something special is happening.
Weeks earlier when the team was returning home from their first-round series win in Boston, head coach Guy Boucher got out of his car to shake hands with nearly every person that had made their way out to the airport that evening. And on Wednesday morning, that friendly trend continued with Bobby Ryan joining in on MVP cheers for Erik Karlsson, and fan favourite Freddy Claesson blasting rap music from his car while viciously dabbing out the window as he cruised down the mini parade.
“I just did that for the fans,” said Claesson after practice on Friday morning. “It was so much fun for us that they all came out and supported us there. I just wanted to give back a little bit and make it a little funny.
“It feels like we have something that’s building up more and more with the more games we’re playing, and everyone keeps getting more involved.”
During the second round series with the Rangers, Jean-Gabriel Pageau was given Ottawa’s equivalent to the Wheaties cereal box treatment after he exploded for four goals, including the overtime winner, in Game 2.
While the Wellington Diner named an item on their menu after him, making the “Pageau 4444” the most sought-after breakfast option in the city, the Canadian Tire Centre also got in on all the fun when they created a special chicken parmesan sandwich after the Senators forward admitted he might’ve eaten one too many of the popular pre-game dish before lighting up the Rangers that night.
Nowadays, it seems like Pageau could challenge Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson for most beloved Senator of all-time. Already the chorus of one of the fan base’s dearest chants, Pageau’s inspiring performance in the 2017 postseason has given him a couple more signature secondhand creations.
The 24-year-old’s success is part of yet another unique characteristic the Senators boast. The organization employs five hometown players, and this season, it feels like each one has stepped even further into the spotlight.
Of course, there’s Pageau’s playoff resumé, but Derick Brassard is also having a postseason to remember. On the blue line, Cody Ceci played consistent top-four minutes for an entire season and continues to do so, Mark Borowiecki broke an NHL record for most hits per game, and Marc Methot’s resurgence into the lineup after suffering a gruesome finger injury in late March has been a clear boost on and off the ice for the team.
And maybe the Senators have felt the need to stack up on hometown talent for more than obvious reasons.
For years, the media has labeled the Senators organization as one of the more unappealing landing spots for free agents and a difficult trade partner for teams with no-trade clauses to work around.
And whether or not that rhetoric is true, fans certainly tend to believe it. When David Legwand is the biggest name to sign as an unrestricted free agent in Ottawa in the last three years, yet just last summer former KHL superstar Alex Radulov picks Montreal as his new North American home, it’s rather difficult for the Senators faithful to not to feel a tad small.
Ottawa doesn’t have the favourable climate of a city far south of the border and it doesn’t have the overwhelming excitement and constant buzz during hockey season of every other Canadian market. But, contrary to popular belief, it might be the one of the most favourable destinations for stars in the league.
Players don’t necessarily fly under the radar, but they also don’t have to worry about 100 think pieces being written about their trip to a hot dog stand in the middle of the day. It’s a preferable middle ground that forward Clarke MacArthur has grown to love.
The former Toronto Maple Leaf fled Canada’s biggest city in July of 2013 and signed a two-year deal with the Senators. He says there’s a lot less anxiety in Canada’s capital.
“There’s no place more where you think nonstop than Toronto,” said MacArthur before heading off to Pittsburgh for Game 1. “No one can compare (to) that.
“It’s either the top of the mountain or the bottom of the ocean there. Especially when (Phaneuf and I) were there. They hadn’t won in years; they hadn’t been good in years. We kind of both just stepped right into that. You win three or four in a row and they think you’re going to the Cup finals and then you lose three or four in a row and (they) think you couldn’t beat an East Coast (Hockey League) [sic] team. It’s a tough, tough market to play in for anyone who’s been there. It’s exciting, but it’s tough. There’s a lot of papers and people have to write things differently; they can’t all write the same thing.”
Ottawa is a different type of hockey town.
It won’t blow you away with a rink surrounded by beautiful skyscrapers in the heart of a downtown core that barely sleeps and it won’t produce a constant, ear-piercing roar throughout the stands in the playoffs during every single minute of the game. But it does have a quality, viewer-friendly arena and it will provide an enthusiastic, energetic vibe when hockey’s still around in May.
There won’t be thousands of people at the airport, waiting for their team to return from an away game, but there will be hundreds.
And playoff heroes won’t have restaurants named after them, but they’ll definitely get on the brunch menu.
The quietly content little brother of the NHL.