The first question is always: Why?
Daniel Alfredsson wasted little time in getting to the heart of that one. The former Senator for life didn’t bother dancing around his motivation for bolting from Ottawa to the Detroit Red Wings, the most shocking development during the first day of the NHL’s free agency period.
“It pretty much came down to a selfish decision,” he said on a conference call announcing him as the Red Wings’ newest right-winger. “I have not won a Stanley Cup. I feel with Ottawa they’re getting closer and closer and are definitely going in the right direction and have a bright future in front of them, but at this stage of my career I don’t have time to wait for that.
“I’m doing this for myself. I feel this is right for me.”
The second question is a lot tougher: What does Alfredsson or anyone else on the shortlist of franchise icons in sports owe their fans, their franchise and the community they leave behind?
What can be expected of the best players on the best teams in the best leagues in return for trucks full of money and fame and adulation and a secular version of immortality?
It’s easy to say, but hard to do: Play to win and play well. Be fit. Be committed. Be willing to come pretty damn close to dying for the sake of the jersey you’re wearing.
Do that over and over again and they name streets after you and put up statues in your honour.
It’s not a bad deal, but very, very, few ever qualify for it. Still it’s hard to imagine an athlete in any sport is further along that path than Alfredsson was with the Senators, which is why Friday’s news landed in Ottawa with all the subtlety of a plane crash. A whole city calls a guy by his nickname and in an instant he becomes another word that starts with A.
After news broke that he was going to use his last crack at free agency to leave the franchise that drafted him in the sixth round in 1994 there were a range of comparisons floated out there.
Alfredsson signing with Detroit for what will almost certainly be his last NHL season at age 40 was like Mats Sundin signing with the Vancouver Canucks for one last year; or Raymond Bourque going to the Colorado Avalanche after 20 years; or Mike Modano leaving the Dallas Stars for the Wings; or Jarome Iginla leaving Calgary.
All of those were big moves, but none were directly comparable as Alfie leaving for a division rival when he had a blank cheque waiting for him along with a respected coach, top-notch goaltending and a Norris Trophy winner to help get him the puck. Alfredsson was drafted by Ottawa in the second year of their existence. They were still playing in the Ottawa Civic Centre. In his first season they won 18 games. The next season they made the playoffs for the first time and were in the post-season for 14 of the next 16 years.
Who has a comparable legacy? Ottawa has one major league sports team and is a small-market, Canadian, hockey-mad city.
Sundin was one of a long list of Leaf greats, not the only, and the Leafs spent most of his last year in Toronto trying to trade him so they could rebuild. Similarly Bourque was leaving a Boston club that was going young and was traded for key assets; few could reasonably begrudge him making a Stanley Cup run in his last season. Modano is the quintessential Dallas Star, but he had already won a Cup there, and Dallas is not Ottawa when it comes to the place hockey plays in the local culture.
A more apt comparison for Alfredsson leaving Ottawa might be Brett Favre leaving the Green Bay Packers.
In situations like that it’s hard to make it to the other side alive. It’s hard to be so closely woven into the fabric of a city — to help coach his boys in minor hockey and be a spokesman for mental health and other charity work — and to be present for every meaningful hockey memory every Senators fan has ever had and then leave and not feel the wrath.
It’s a thin line between love and hate and Alfredsson just might find out how delicate that line is. As someone said on Twitter Friday: “Good luck selling your house when it’s covered in egg.”
“I expect there will be resentment and anger from fans,” Alredsson said. “There definitely should be. I have my favourite sports teams too and if something happens to a player and it doesn’t benefit my team, I don’t like it.
“But I know what I’ve done in Ottawa. I gave everything I had in my career (but) this is about me. This is a decision I make for myself. It’s all about trying to get the Stanley Cup.”
Alfredsson handicapped their team, the league, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, who may be having some financial troubles, and figured if he wants to win now, he better get out.
That might be news to Ottawa fans, and tough to swallow. The Red Wings and the Senators both lost in the second round of the playoffs this year, though Ottawa was flattened by Pittsburgh, 4-1, while Detroit pushed the eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to overtime of the seventh game. They each had 56 regular season points. Over the past two seasons they’ve each won eight playoff games and one playoff round. The Senators are young and rising and made another big jump by adding Bobby Ryan in a trade from the Anaheim Ducks Friday, while the Red Wings are a talented yet aging team that are close to making their last stand.
Yet Alfredsson placed his bet on Detroit, uprooting his family and jeopardizing how he’s viewed in his home NHL city, potentially forever.
Every hockey fan in Ottawa had only one image in their minds when they thought of Alfredsson. He was No. 11: the gritty, smart, caring captain who was front and centre of nearly everything that had ever happened to their team, for better or worse.
That was his legacy, something that could have been enhanced by a Stanley Cup, but never diminished by the fact Ottawa had never won one with him in the lineup.
And now, whatever it was, it won’t be anymore.
“If I retire the easiest thing for me to do would be to stay in Ottawa and just enjoy my last year there and retire an Ottawa Senator. That would have been a great ending as well,” he said. “But the ultimate prize — I’m a competitive person — it wouldn’t have been the same trying to be the mentor (in Ottawa) and playing it out. Ottawa is going to be a good team, but I felt I needed a different challenge to do this.”
A Stanley Cup ring is a shiny, mesmerizing thing. Alfredsson decided that with his time winding he had to make a drastic, bold move to take one last swipe at it.
Good luck to him. No matter what happens from here, his career will never be the same.