DETROIT – There are still stalls here carrying nameplates for Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Terry Sawchuk. So when Daniel Alfredsson walks into the quaint home dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, he may be the greatest Ottawa Senator of all-time, but he’s also just another member of the Detroit Red Wings, wearing the Winged Wheel and following in the footsteps of greatness.
This has been both easy and hard for a 40-year-old man who recently decided to abandon the comfort of the dock and start swimming into open water. Alfredsson has essentially been caught between conflicting emotions since making the decision to sign with Detroit on an unforgettable opening day of free agency in July.
While he is currently front and centre with his first ever game against the Senators looming Wednesday night, it has not been so during the previous 10 the Red Wings have played this season. He has so far bounced between lines and linemates, playing an average of 17:34 a night–his lowest total since 1998-99.
Naturally, he has also yet to develop into a strong public voice for the team. It wasn’t Alfredsson who came out to field questions following a 1-0 shootout loss to San Jose Monday night. While making it clear that he’s not “hiding” from the media, the Swede pointed out that captain Henrik Zetterberg and alternates Nicklas Kronwall and Pavel Datsyuk are better suited to handling those duties at this point in time.
The last thing the new guy wants to do is step on any toes.
“It’s been mixed emotions, I guess,” Alfredsson explained Tuesday after practice. “I miss a lot about Ottawa, there’s no question – at the rink and being the guy. But I also enjoy not being the guy and worrying about myself a little bit more.”
Stripped to its essence, that is the reason why Alfredsson will be sitting on the home bench for Wednesday’s game in Detroit. He made a choice for himself after giving everything he had to the Sens organization for 18 years and more than 1,200 games.
And he shouldn’t be faulted for it.
By last summer Alfredsson’s career was already on borrowed time, with the veteran winger acknowledging Tuesday that the arrival of energetic defenceman Erik Karlsson to Ottawa four years ago helped him feel young again and is “one of the reasons I’m still playing.”
Remember, too, that there was also an expectation from the Sens that the captain would retire prior to last season.
Instead he ended up playing out the final year of a contract at the bargain price $1 million that was originally included in his 2009 extension just to lower its overall salary cap hit. After running into some unexpectedly tough negotiations with Ottawa early in the summer, Alfredsson began casting his eyes elsewhere and it’s understandable why they ended up here.
Three months after the decision, it’s clear that the move has been more difficult than expected.
Part of that is purely down to logistics; he, wife Bibbi, their four kids and a dog spent a month in a hotel before recently moving into their new home in the suburb of Birmingham, which is about a 30-minute drive northwest of downtown. However, Alfredsson is also not entirely pleased with his “so-so” performance over the first 10 games of the season, even though that stretch included nine points.
“It’s a huge challenge,” said Alfredsson. “I think I will look back at this down the road as something that was a stepping stone for me in my life.”
At least he has some perspective on what is happening. The move he made from Gothenburg, Sweden to Ottawa as a 22-year-old in 1995 was even more challenging than this one. Alfredsson was much less comfortable with North American culture at that time and didn’t know any of his new teammates — or even if he could hack it in the NHL.
Clearly that original leap of faith paid off. So, Alfredsson reasons, why would he ever think that this one won’t?
The Red Wings certainly seem happy with what they’ve received from him to this point. Even though the team is off to a 6-3-1 start, coach Mike Babcock described his group as one that is in “flux” and indicated that Alfredsson was among a number of players in his room that are still searching for their place.
“He’d been the captain of that team for a long time,” said Babcock. “When you come in here it’s different. You’ve got to get used to people and who you’re playing with. His line’s been different just about every day.”
At least there are familiar faces and an inherent respect that comes with the 1,117 regular-season points and the Olympic gold on his resumé, especially on a team like this one. As strange as it is for fans in Ottawa to see Alfredsson in a Red Wings sweater, it is a warm, familiar sight for his current teammates. “He’s one of the best Swedish players of all-time,” says Kronwall glowingly. “He’s up there with (Nicklas) Lidstrom and (Mats) Sundin and (Peter) Forsberg.”
Put in that perspective, he is right at home among the stars currently occupying the Red Wings dressing room. He’s been welcomed by Zetterberg and Datsyuk and is a Swede on a roster full of Swedes and a veteran on the NHL’s second-oldest team.
Most importantly, Alfredsson is one of the men trying to bring a 12th Stanley Cup to Hockeytown, USA – a pursuit that has taken him far from the life he once cherished so much.