On the Ottawa Senators, ‘heritage,' and whether anyone is listening

The Ottawa Senators just launched a campaign to mark their 20th anniversary, and the synergistic watch-word of its many tie-ins is ‘heritage.' The campaign seeks to leverage the city's history of hockey, from the catch-phrase "Hockey Makes Us" to its centerpiece, a heritage-themed third jersey. One assumes that this tide of historical kitsch will crescendo when Ottawa hosts the 2012 All-Star Game, which will serve as an ideal opportunity for the city to highlight its long, storied relationship with the sport in a forum where other cities and their fans are forced to watch and confer their begrudging respect upon franchise and city alike.

Of course the jersey itself is not historical: no variation of the Ottawa Senators has ever worn that jersey, though elements like the ‘barber-pole' striping were incorporated from historical uniforms. Not to be mistaken for the Montreal Canadiens' recent centennial jerseys, in which historical jerseys were replicated rather than evoked, the new Ottawa Senators uniform possesses no actual heritage - it is, in keeping with a league-wide retro trend, heritage-"styled." It is designed to bestow upon the Ottawa Senators the kind of depth and character enjoyed by original six teams, and in particular Ottawa's division rivals in Montreal and Toronto.

As a Senators fan and long-time Ottawa resident, I think this is all a little bit embarrassing.

The campaign hardly seems aimed at fans so much as at the baggage it is assumed that Senators fans still carry around (most of us are probably more excited about David Rundblad and the commitment to an honest-to-god rebuild than anything else.) by dredging up what ghostly insecurities were thought exorcised by the 2007 Cup run. What this campaign seems to suggest is that Ottawa is still insecure about being situated between two hockey hotbeds and cultural nodes on the Canadian grid. It doesn't just suggest that Ottawa wants to be like those cities; it says it already is like them, and in fact predates them, in a way - ‘Birthplace of the Stanley Cup,' ‘11 Cups won,' and so on. And so we will experience, in sepia tones, the richness of an undeniable, nigh-genetic affiliation with the sport.

What this campaign forgets or ignores -- as, to be fair, so much advertising does -- is that there are no shortcuts to legitimacy.

It's not unusual for pro-sports marketing to tie superficial characteristics of a city to their brand aesthetic -- Nashville's got guitar strings, Columbus their Civil War cannon, and Atlanta had the state bird before moving to Winnipeg and evoking that city's ties to the Royal Canadian Air Force. But Ottawa's marketers are not talking about the city's role as the center of federal governance, or beaver tails and tulip festivals. This is an attempt to evoke history as a force and a style unto itself. To strategically mine from the better parts of a largely romanticized hockey history while conveniently ignoring this franchise's numerous and truly defining cock-ups. That the schedule for the new jersey includes games against original six division rivals only serves to amplify this static. They are attempting to place the team on the same level, culturally, as original six teams. What we're seeing is a remarkable self-delusion, a catering to a distinctly Ottawa-bred insecurity about its newness and lack of success.

(For the record, I like how the new uniforms look, though that may just be that it would be difficult to do worse than this team's history of uniforms -- from standard sparkly gold to the haunted-looking goth Senator with swoopy lines, and of course the black SNES which came out of absolutely nowhere to become one of the worst uniforms in league history. I was just as prepared for more cartoon Senators, perhaps the terrible barbarian the Binghamton AHL affiliate wear on their sweater.)

Of course this effort to make the team what it's not is doomed to failure, on par, one thinks, with any theme night or promotion. The cultural impact of Toronto and Montreal exists in not only the historical sense, but a contemporary one. Leaf fans are Leaf fans usually because their fathers and grandfathers are. Montreal's team has the added benefit of helping to further distinguish a proudly Francophone market. Their allegiences are built over generations, and solidified with each new season. Attempting to beat historical powerhouses at their own branding game makes Ottawa look petty and weak.

To contrast, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who entered the league the same year as this modern version of the Ottawa Senators, also recently underwent a dramatic rebranding, brought about by changes in the team's ownership. They wisely chose not to focus on the team's two-decades in existence as, like the Senators and myriad expansion teams before them, they were exceptionally bad for many of those years. Like any poorly run organization, sordid rumors abounded (yakuza!), and the team flirted with bankruptcy. They have rightfully foregone any attempt to look back, and are instead focusing on building their brand with new fans. Notable, given that at least Tampa has a Stanley Cup to celebrate as a part of its history. That they came within one game of the Stanley Cup Finals this past season did more good for (re-)establishing their legitimacy than any campaign focusing on hockey history could.

So it's strange that the Ottawa Senators, with an even more checkered two decades of recent history, would choose to shine a light on that past. The early expansion years were marked by some of the worst performances in league history, séances to confer with Senators of old, Yashin's holdout, Daigle's ridiculous entry-level contract and subsequent bust, bankruptcy, the embarrassing Civic Center; then the playoff deflations and losses to the Leafs, letting Zdeno Chara walk, getting stomped in the Finals, a gladiator with a malfunctioning mic on national television, and Dany Heatley's trade demand. This team has had more lows in its history than highs.

And here's the thing: That's okay. Becoming the best of the very best is, and should be, difficult. No experiment in socio-historical engineering will undo the fact that this team has learned so many valuable lessons the hard way. The irony here is that a club with such a bright future is choosing to spend time looking at its past. It is attempting to sell the youth of this club to its fans while simultaneously selling its history to... who, exactly? The rest of the league? Itself? If that history was as important as we are told, then why only begin to refer to it now, after 20 years? Ottawa is a rebuilding club, and it should be unapologetic about its newness. It should be exploiting weaknesses rather than trying to beat opponents at their own game.

History doesn't confer legitimacy. Only winning does.

Varada also writes for the Cory Clouston Fashion Review

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