**Editor’s Note: We are kicking off a new feature called Sens Re-wind where we take a look back at various moments in Ottawa Senators’ history and what they meant to us as fans. There’ll be highs and lows, the funny, and the downright dumb, but what we’re trying to capture is the feeling of the moment. Please let us know what you think of the segment in the comments below. We always welcome your feedback. -nkb ***
Being a fan of the Ottawa Senators has not always been easy, but at no time was the on-ice product worse than the first few years following their admittance into the league in 1992-93. These past two seasons have produced last and second-last place finishes, but that doesn’t even come close to the putrid hockey that led to 51 wins in the franchise’s first 298 games. Yes, 10-70-4 in the first year stands out in our memories but the 18-59-5 performance in 1995-96 would have left the Sens behind this year’s edition of the Detroit Red Wings. As the franchise entered its fifth season, some of the novelty of simply existing had worn off. Yes, it was exciting to have a team in the nation’s capital but it also would have been nice if they could have won a couple of games from time to time yanno?
To that end, a few critical upgrades were made to the line-up between the end of the ‘95-96 season and the start of the ‘96-97 campaign. Firstly, the Sens brought a promising young defenseman by the name of Wade Redden onto the roster. Redden, as you may recall, was acquired from the Islanders as part of a three-team trade in January of ‘96 after the Sens were unable to sign Bryan Berard — their first overall selection from the 1995 draft. Redden was the first legitimate first pairing defenseman the team had in its history up to that point in time (all apologies to the then 32 year-old Steve Duchesne who obviously played a key role later in this story). Pierre Gauthier also added some defensive depth in the form of Jason York, the Ottawa native who was being underutilized in Anaheim.
Secondly, the Sens made significant improvements to their forward group by first trading for Shawn McEachern and Shaun Van Allen (as part of the Jason York trade) and then by adding Andreas Dackell to the line-up. Although Dackell was a 6th round selection, he was already 23 and playing in the Swedish Elite League at the time. The three new Senators gave Ottawa some legitimate depth behind Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson, something the team had never had before.
Lastly, the team had a full season’s worth of practice to implement Jacques Martin’s sturdy defensive system. True the upgrades to the roster were not insignificant, but the Sens also cut their goals against down from 291 to 234. That’s the difference between total ineptitude and bordering on respectability. A big piece of the credit for that surely goes to Martin and the newly signed Ron Tugnutt who partnered with Damian Rhodes to provide steady if unspectacular play between the pipes.
My memories of Sens’ hockey that year are a bit fuzzy because I was just in 6th grade, but I was already a voracious reader of the Ottawa Citizen sports section and we watched games when a busy family schedule allowed. When I was very young, I was ostensibly a Montreal Canadiens fan; if 6 year-olds can really be fans of anything. There are several pictures of me adorned in the Tricolore and in the first year I played hockey I answered “Maurice Richard” when I was asked who my favourite hockey player was (this response was memorialized on a handful of trading cards that remind me to this day of my earliest hockey allegiances). Never mind that Richard was more than thirty years removed from playing, the image of the Canadiens winning the cup in ‘93 was in my mind and I’d read all the hockey history books. No team could compete with the Habs’ storied history, least of all the expansion Ottawa Senators. Richard embodied all of Montreal’s glory and it didn’t hurt that I’d read Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater on more than one occasion.
I suspect for many of our readers of a certain vintage, there was a moment of conversion; for me it was that run to the play-offs in the spring of 1997. There’s a temptation to look back and flatten the whole thing out into two moments: Duchesne’s goal in game 82 to give Ottawa a 1-0 win and clinch their play-off spot, and Derek Plante’s shot that seemingly went through Tugnutt’s glove in overtime of Game 7 to end the run. I do remember both of those events clearly but I also remember Ottawa being respectable for the first time. I remember the Sens being a team that I could be proud to be a fan of. I remember the excitement, and the novelty of it. No one really knew what to do with themselves after years of supporting a basement dweller. For a young kid, that stuff makes a difference!
Something else that tends to be forgotten a bit with time is that the Sens started off that season slowly at 7-12-6 through their first 25 games and that they only finished the year with 77 points. The Eastern Conference was top heavy, and Ottawa benefited from a particularly weak division. We also talk often about the dramatic win in the last game of the year, but the Sens won their last three games and were 7-2 in their last nine to squeak in. Sure the first round loss was crushing, I remember how quickly my father turned the TV off and instructed us it was now WELL PAST OUR BEDTIME, but the feeling of hope that the run engendered remained into the next year. It was the Hamburglar Run before the Hamburglar Run, and without it who knows: maybe I’d still be cheering for the Habs.