This Isn’t Normal

Reflections on an awful year, and a franchise-altering trade.

One year ago, if you had asked me what it would take for me to fall out of love with the Ottawa Senators, I would have laughed in your face.

For as long as I have been a hockey fan, the mere idea of abandoning this team has been absolutely ludicrous to me. I could handle endless losing streaks, favourite players leaving town, an owner who refused to spend to the cap. Even if members of the organization turned out to be reprehensible human beings, I could condemn them while still cheering for the team. The Sens could finish dead last in the league every year and I would still wear that jersey with pride. They could refuse to speak up about the most basic issues of social justice and align themselves with political ideals that I found indefensible, and I would be mad, but like a sheep I would still blindly follow them wherever they went.

In other words, the bar was low. Extremely low.

And somehow, in the last year, the Ottawa Senators have managed to dig a huge tunnel under that bar and, incredibly, crawl right under it.

It wasn’t one particular incident that did it for me. After the outdoor game and all the drama that came along with it, I realized that, with an owner whose main motivation was always money and one of the thinnest front offices in the league, this team would never be legitimately good - no amount of high draft picks or smart trades would be enough until they got an owner who was willing to spend enough money to make the team competitive. And yet, still, I did not for one second consider abandoning the Sens. I figured it would still be fun to watch for the occasional Cinderella run, and I liked these players enough to want to keep cheering them on, and besides, if the only reason you’re watching sports is because you want to see your team win a championship, you’re probably going to be miserable for a long time. Yes, I was actually willing to watch 82 games a year with absolutely no hope that this team would ever be any good.

Like I said, the bar was low.

But the Melnyk stuff was only the start.

The trade deadline was the beginning of the end. Suddenly, I was not just facing the prospect of watching a bad team, but a team without any of the players who made its games watchable. And for what reason? None, apparently, except perhaps that the owner didn’t feel like paying for good players.

To give you perspective, a year ago, my favourite NHL players were Erik Karlsson, Mark Stone, Kyle Turris, Mike Hoffman, and Fredrik Claesson. Today, only one of them is still on this team, and even he is rumoured to be leaving. That’s not easy to move on from.

And even if I do manage to move on and find new favourite players, how long will it take for them to leave? Is it even worth getting attached? Every superstar this team has ever had has left under awful circumstances, and I cannot comprehend why any player would want to stay here given the current state of the team.

I reached a point last year where this team was making me so sad so often that I had no choice but to shut down. For almost as long as I could remember, I had allowed the Ottawa Senators to define my mood - when they were doing well, I was ecstatic, and when they were doing poorly, I was in the depths of despair -  and it reached a point where I simply could not do that anymore. It wasn’t just unhealthy: it was impossible. I was burnt out. After the trade deadline, I tried so hard to find that joy I had once felt during Sens games, knowing that this team and this fandom was too big a part of my life and of my identity for me to let go of it, but my relationship with the Sens had been so thoroughly damaged that all I could feel was numb.

It wasn’t that I cared too little. It was that I cared too much.

I was glad when the offseason started. I thought some time without games to watch might allow me to reflect on whether or not I wanted to keep following the Sens after everything they had done.

I didn’t reach the conclusion I thought I would.

I was tempted to give it all up when things got even worse. The Randy Lee accusations were hard to overlook, the dispute between Monika Caryk and the Karlssons left a bad taste in my mouth, and the organization’s handling of both situations should have been the push I needed to walk away from this team completely. Instead, time away dulled the pain, and time spent with my Sens Twitter friends made me realize that I was in too far deep with Sens fandom to have any idea how to leave.

Training camp rolled around, and I found something to get slightly excited about. I thought it wouldn’t be the worst thing ever if I watched these prospects every night, and besides, there were a few good players and Melnyk wouldn’t be around forever and at the very least I really liked making jokes about the Sens so maybe I could watch just for that.

If I’m being honest, the Sens were never just a hockey team to me. They were a major part of my identity, a constant in my life, a refuge during difficult times and - most recently - my strongest connection to my hometown. A bad season wasn’t going to change that.

On September 13th, 2018, I went outside wearing a Sens logo. I wasn’t sure why I did it, exactly. I hadn’t done that very often in the last year. Maybe it was because I had seen the trade rumours circulating that morning and thought I’d wear it to prove just how confident I was in this not happening. Maybe it was because it was a bRian5or6 Hotsam Batcho shirt and I wanted to see how many people would recognize it in Halifax. Or maybe it was because, with training camp going well and with so many of my close friends being people I met on Sens Twitter, my relationship with the Ottawa Senators was starting, ever so slightly, to heal.

When I got the news, I probably spent at least five minutes staring at my phone as the notifications poured in. I didn’t even open any of them. I just stood there.

I tried to continue running errands after that, but ended up wandering around looking lost and sad until I finally gave up and decided I might as well go home. By midnight, I was sat at my desk going through the dozens of 2016-17 highlight reels I had bookmarked so many months ago but never been able to bring myself to watch, finally allowing myself to remember just how much I had loved that team, and to feel sad about just how much had changed since then.

In those first awful hours following the trade, I kept thinking that I would have stood by this team through almost anything. I would have gladly stayed through long rebuilds and through endless mediocrity; through cost-per-point; through heartbreaking playoff losses; through star players leaving town. Under normal circumstances, I would have stayed through a Karlsson trade. But these were not normal circumstances.

I don’t want to treat this like a normal hockey trade. I don’t want to go through the motions of writing tribute pieces, being angry about the return and dismayed about the team’s future, and being sad for awhile but still watching every game, as if it’s possible for things to go back to normal after a franchise-altering move like this one.

Eugene Melnyk has stolen something that has meant the world to me for almost as long as I can remember. He has ruined one of the most important things in my life. He has done what I previously would have thought was impossible: he has made me so sad about the Ottawa Senators that I have become apathetic.

I truly, honestly, do not know what comes next. I don’t see how I can keep caring about this team the way I always have, but I also don’t see how I can possibly walk away. I want more than almost anything to love this team again, but after a betrayal of this scale I just don’t know if I can do it.

So for now, I’m still here, if a little less invested than before.

Eventually, I’m sure I will start to feel things about this team again.

But it’s going to take a while.

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