OTTAWA – You won’t be able to tell on Saturday night, with the flood of enemy sweaters snatching up affordable tickets and driving five hours east, but the Ottawa Senators’ seven-year tumble in attendance has now hit rock bottom.
The Canadian Tire Centre has drawn an average of just 12,050 fans per home game this season, as supporters file in for games that reach just 62.7 per cent capacity, a far cry from even the 30th-ranked attended club, the New York Islanders at a 79.8 per cent fill rate.
They’re driving away from Kanata in droves.
Spezza feels a mixture of disappointment and shock at what has happened since 2012, as the Sens have steadily, clumsily tumbled from the sixth-best home draw in hockey to 31st.
“I look at this as a strong hockey community with great fans, and we filled the building every night when the teams were good,” Spezza said Saturday, sitting in a CTC visitors stall he’s getting more used to with each passing season.
“It’s a little bit upsetting to see it like this. You’re not sure what the reasons are or what’s behind it. Hopefully, people can just put everything aside and just come enjoy games.
“This is too good of a hockey city. You don’t want to put it in jeopardy, where people think it’s a bad market. You need full buildings for things to go well, so I’d like to see the buildings full here again because it’s just such a strong hockey community.”
Thankfully, that won’t be an issue Saturday, for a prime-time matchup brimming with individual side stories, role reversals, and — for the visitors — playoff implications.
Sheldon Keefe, whose second hockey life as a coach sprung from the CJHL championship he brought to nearby Pembroke, will have a small army of friends and family cheering him on at Canadian Tire Centre.
“He has strong ties to this community here, and this is important game for him. So, knowing how it felt when you came back, you want to win because you want to have good feelings leaving the rink where you have had good feelings in the past,” said Spezza, who spent time talking with Keefe about their mutual connection to the area.
“We’d like to get him a win, because I know he’s going to have a lot of people here tonight. It kind of culminates him becoming an NHL coach, coming through here now.”
Only months ago, Ottawa head coach D.J. Smith was in charge of deploying Toronto’s defence corps; Senators top-line winger Connor Brown was fighting for ice time in the Leafs’ bottom six; and the Sens’ new top shutdown defenceman, Nikita Zaitsev, was patrolling the ride side of the Leafs’ back end.
“I don’t think a game like today needs a ton of guys to get their emotion up,” Smith said. “When you have a sold-out crowd and you’re playing Toronto, guys will be fired up and ready.”
So, too, will the fans. The majority will be decked out in blue and white — for better or worse.
In Spezza’s days as a Senator, he figures the split in this barn for the Battle of Ontario was 50/50.
Now, the Leafs’ trips east have resulted in an urgency for the home side to score early in an effort to take the crowd of it.
“Here, when we were the home team and Leafs fans came in, we expected it just because of the Ontario proximity,” said Spezza, who’s been blown away by how well Leafs fans travel.
Toronto ranks third-overall in road attendance (behind Nashville and Calgary) this season, averaging a vocal 17,904.
“Like, it’s really impressive. It’s everywhere we go. We hear cheers when we score goals and the ‘Go! Leafs! Go!’ It’s a real effect, and it helps us on the road. And it’s pretty cool as a player to be on the road and have fans cheering for you,” said Spezza.
Ol’ Vintage then allowed himself to think back to early 2000s, when the interprovincial rivalry had bite and the CTC was rocking on the regular.
“It’s an electric building,” Spezza said, fondly.
“Our playoff runs here, the whole city gets behind you. Really loud. It seems like with most Canadian cities, sometimes the regular-season crowds can be a little subdued. And then as playoffs hit, everybody kind of gets the fever of playoff hockey, and I think Ottawa was probably similar to that.
“There were some electric times here. Sitting in the dressing room and you’re sitting under the stands, so you can kind of hear the rumble of the crowd and it definitely gets you excited.”
Saturday could be one of those rare nights in 2019-20 when vehicles choke the drive to Kanata and the barn comes back to life.