Tale of Two Teams: On Alfie, My Dad, and Rivalry

I'm still struggling with my post-Alfie vocabulary. His surprise departure a few weeks ago ripped pages from the Sens dictionary. He's altered the meaning of nouns like captain; he's changed the definition of adjectives like favourite. What was once a linear narrative of player's bond with a single city has been tragically interrupted in the final act. In many ways, it was a betrayal of the familiar; the comfortable presence of Alfie was a constant in our experience as Sens fans.

What was once familiar has become so achingly foreign.

This was supposed to be a post about something else. It was supposed to be a post about me and my dad and watching hockey and becoming rivals. But Alfie's departure has changed that too. I talk to my dad everyday, but when Alfie signed with the Red Wings I refused to talk to him. I didn't talk to him for four days. I wasn't worried about his reaction, I just couldn't talk to someone who would benefit from Alfie's play.

My dad and I found our path to our favourite hockey teams separately. After time with Boston and Toronto, my dad became a Red Wings fan over twenty years ago. My favourite teams in childhood were dictated by the colours worn by my favourite players. I didn't choose my team based on who my dad cheered for. I didn't choose to cheer for his rivals. I didn't choose my team to define myself against him and forge an independent identity. We were never fans of the same team at the same time. We never found ourselves cheering for each other's opposition. I became a fully-committed Senators fan when I moved to Ottawa for university 10 years ago in 2003.

We settled into a sporting equilibrium.

Fully committed to our colours, we watched the other's team. I was happy for my dad in 2002 and 2008, just as I had been in 1997 and 1998. As I slowly began to accept the devastating 2007 Stanley Cup Final, I remembered being in Detroit in 1995 with my dad as the city experienced its first Cup Final in 29 years. I remember the excitement, the energy, and the guys selling octopi on street corners. I remember how gutting that surprising sweep by the New Jersey Devils was for my dad.

We go to games together. My dad drives to Ottawa and supportive father that he is, cheers for the Sens - unless they're playing the Red Wings. We first went to Detroit almost 20 years ago and have come to really enjoy the city. We're going again in a couple weeks. When I moved to London, Ontario in 2008, we began going to Detroit with greater frequency. Just as my dad enjoys his trips to Scotiabank Place/Canadian Tire Centre, I love going to the Joe. It has history. It has character. It has statues and art. Ted Lindsay is usually there.

Two years ago we went to the season opener between the Sens and Wings in Detroit. All that we love about the Joe was on full display that night. I remember encouraging my dad to go over to Mr. Lindsay and introduce himself. They shook hands and chatted briefly while I took a picture.

I watched a lot of Alfie during that game. Fellow Swede Mika Zibanejad was making his NHL debut that night and every TV timeout or stoppage in play, there was Alfie, talking to the teenager, pointing things out and calming his nerves.

In the aftermath of Alfie's departure, it's once again been suggested that fans need to stop idolizing athletes. Alfie may have been called "God" but he was a false idol, so the thinking goes.

There's merit there. Athletes repeatedly fail to live up to the lofty heights we set for them. We should realize that having a great wrist shot or triple-digit fastball or explosive first step in no way suggests that an athlete is elite at anything else in life. But Alfie didn't fail in the ways so common among professional athletes.

He left.

In characteristic blunt fashion, he left. The explanation of Alfie's departure still leaves fans frustrated a month later. So we fill up that chasm with a 1,000 different theories to fit the day, the mood, and the men involved. But it's not enough.

And so that constant refrain from those who have been hurt by athletes so many times rattles around my head: stop idolizing athletes; they'll only let you down.

But what they're really suggesting is that we as fans should stop caring so much. About our teams and about our players.

The response to this kind of sports heartbreak isn't to become harder, colder. It isn't to care less about the team or your favourite players. While such methods will prevent you from the shock and hurt of seeing the only captain you have ever known leave the team, the detachment will also prevent you from being that invested in his fate. By not investing in Alfie when he was here you protected yourself from the variety of emotions Sens fans felt on July 5. But you also aren't as connected for the emotional highs brought by successes and career milestones. For kids who were too young to remember the greater betrayal of Dany Heatley and have never heard of Alexei Yashin, July 5 was a cruel introduction to the pain of being a fan. But it's unlikely any of them are reading this piece. If you're reading this you're probably an adult, or at least on your way there. You know that sports are part glory and pain. You know that those scales are not weighted equally.

Our connections to the teams we cheer for are based in part, on those emotional relationships we forge with players. Relationships with captains and stars, grinders and heart and soul guys connect us to the colours we proudly wear. Many fans believe that ultimately it's not the name on the back but the crest on the front that matters. However, many of us can't separate the two. Those names are the characters, those names are the story.

Every new Sens from here on in won't have seen Alfie play for Ottawa as a fan of this team. The reality of that statement is somewhat staggering but it reveals how entwined the name and the crest are. Surely, many Sens fans, still fuming, still hurt, still in shock, will slowly work Alfie back into their experience of the team. Recounting to younger siblings or children, not yet old enough to remember or not yet born, the joy at Alfie's OT winner for his 400th goal, his last-gasp goal to tie the game and send it to overtime against Pittsburgh this spring or his OT winner to send the Sens to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, is a cherished part of fan experience.

Sharing our stories of players we loved and still love with friends and family is one of the best parts of sports fandom.

The need to tell the stories of our teams doesn't go away with age. Watching my dad meet Ted Lindsay was the culmination of my dad's childhood spent watching the Original Six and adulthood spent as a student of the game, reading about Lindsay's attempts to form a players' association. While I watched my dad talk to Mr. Lindsay, I watched the next chapter of a narrative which included my dad, Lindsay, and the Red Wings unfold.

Perhaps most importantly, while Lindsay's life is the history of the Wings, it's also a story between me and my dad.

Because our two teams rarely played against each other and because the Sens and Wings have yet to play any game of consequence we've had the opportunity to share our teams. That's all changed. It changed when the Wings moved east and with divisional playoffs. In three weeks I move back in with my dad. In the spring we were preparing to become rivals for the first time in a sports fan lives. We thought that with increased exposure, slowly a rivalry would develop between these two unlikely teams. But Daniel Alfredsson changed all that too. Now when these two teams play the stakes have been raised and the origins of the NHL's newest rivalry can be traced to an exact moment - noon on July 5, 2013. It's not just that Alfie left, it's that we have to see him play for another team. See him wear another jersey. Watch him celebrate with different Swedish teammates. Even if we collectively accept Alfie's depature, seeing him compete against the Sens will immediately stoke the fires of rivalry.

I don't need the status-quo to maintain my relationship with my dad. I don't need hockey to be able to talk to my dad. I don't need to share in some small way his passion for the Red Wings to relate to him. We can talk about history, or politics, or art. We can discuss left-handed quarterbacks in the CFL. We can go for walks and bird watch. We don't need to mutually respect each other's teams. But it's nice. I've never liked the end of season handshake ritual. It's one of the more celebrated hockey traditions, yet it's always felt insincere to me. Much of playoff hockey cannot be characterized as respectful and yet, when the series ends and players shake hands, hug, and exchange brief messages, we talk of the inherent sportsmanship of hockey. And yet I wonder if after the conclusion of the first Wings-Sens playoff series it will be like that for me and my dad. A hard-watched series between our two favourite teams and at the end, a handshake, a hug and respect.

My dad doesn't know any Red Wings fans. He doesn't have an online Wings community he turns to.

What he has is a Sens fan.

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