On Oct. 8, 1992, the Ottawa Senators brought NHL hockey back to Canada’s capital following a roughly 60-year absence. The modern-day Sens opened their season at the Ottawa Civic Centre, playing host to a Montreal Canadiens team that went on to win the Stanley Cup nine months later.
The expansion Senators were a rag-tag bunch, stocked with veterans who’d had their day in the sun and young players hoping for a chance to prove what they could really do. That was never going to be a formula for long-term success, but for one night, everything worked beautifully. The following is the story of Ottawa’s fairytale debut — a 5-3 win over the Habs — and the struggle that followed.
The process of building an actual team began for Ottawa on June 18, 1992. Along with their expansion cousins, the Tampa Bay Lighting, the Senators drafted 21 NHLers to form the foundation of their roster.
PETER SIDORKIEWICZ, goalie I knew it would be a tough year, but it was an opportunity to keep playing and play in Canada. I remember the night of the expansion draft, I was driving from Hartford [where he played previously] up to my cottage in Haliburton, [Ont.]. I got there and it was probably 10 o’clock at night and my phone was ringing off the hook because I was doing interviews for everybody.
RICK BOWNESS, coach I had coached the Bruins the year before and we had gone to the conference finals, so I was kind of shocked and very disappointed to be fired in Boston. A couple days later I got a call from [Senators president] Randy Sexton wondering if I’d be interested in interviewing for the job. I certainly was. I had never been out of work before. With three young kids, even though I had the luxury of a one-year contract remaining with Boston, I was anxious to get back to work. What was explained to me very clearly was that there were going to be a lot of growing pains; that we were going to build through the amateur draft. We drafted a lot of other teams’ early picks — like second-, third-, fourth-round guys — that hadn’t worked out and we were hoping when we drafted them that, given a fresh start and plenty of ice time, we could develop them.
LAURIE BOSCHMAN, centre and captain I looked at the roster [and there weren’t] a lot of players I recognized just because they hadn’t been NHL players. They were drafted, but they had not played [much].
JODY HULL, right winger When you put a group together like we were — coming from different directions and feeling that you’re maybe not wanted by other teams — [the fact] there was a new team in the league that wanted you [was] a good feeling.
MARK OSIECKI, defenceman First of all, it was great for the NHL. Any expansion was outstanding. I became a Senator through a trade. I got a call. I was at home in Minneapolis. It was the first time for me getting traded. It was a shock.
BOWNESS Once we settled in Ottawa — I think that was sometime in August — every day there was something in the paper [about the team]. Wherever you went, you could just feel the excitement in the city. Whenever we did a public appearance, there was a great turnout, there was a great amount of enthusiasm as the city was completely behind the team and so excited to get the NHL back.
LIAM MAGUIRE, Ottawa-based historian and author The lead up to it was insane. It was basically the No. 1 topic; there was nothing else anybody was talking about, especially once camp opened and it was real. It was surreal, almost.
BRAD SHAW, defenceman Camp was exciting from the [perspective that] everything was so new. It was a race to get stuff done on time so we could get the facilities that were necessary to run an NHL training camp. What we put up with [in general back then] for locker room facilities, I’m not sure the CBA would [allow] today [laughs].
BOWNESS We walked into the locker room and I think some of the carpenters were walking out. It went right down to the wire getting everything ready.
SHAW There were a lot of guys [who], this was going to be their best chance to become a regular in the league and to prove they belonged. So we had a lot of guys who played with a chip on their shoulder, had some guys — like Laurie Boschman and Brad Marsh — who had already had very fulfilling [careers] and had established themselves as bona fide NHL hockey players. Like any training camp, guys are going there [a little anxious about] where they fit in on the team: Are they going to make it or not? What’s going to be their role if they make it? All those things are running through guys’ minds. The unique part was we were sort of going back to a franchise that had already won Stanley Cups. It was decades previous, but there was already a little built-in history in the city.
CHRIS LUONGO, defenceman It was my first experience as a pro playing in Canada. Being from the Detroit area, we always fancied ourselves as being a strong hockey area, then you go to Canada and it’s like, ‘Wow.’
When the big night finally came, the Senators kicked things off with a costume-heavy pre-game ceremony that introduced the players and featured Canadian Olympic figure skater Brian Orser, the unfurling of Stanley Cup banners to honour past championships and a hometown pop sensation singing the national anthem.
HULL The most vivid memory is the ceremony prior to the game, with people dressed up like Roman goddesses and in their costumes. I knew there was gonna be figure skaters, but I didn’t know who the skaters were. You don’t think much about it until you get out there and you see it.
KEN HAMMOND, defenceman They had the lion mascot there, they dropped him from the ceiling on one of those ATVs. We were all betting on whether the bugger was going to make it down alive.
HULL I don’t think a lot of people at the time realized the history of the Senators, in the early days when they won the Cups. When they did the banner raising I think there was a lot of people that didn’t know that history of the game.
DOUG SMAIL, right winger We could’ve been anybody and the fans would have cheered because they were so happy to have the sport back in Ottawa [laughs]. We were all understanding of that. And it was nice to be involved.
OSIECKI I remember Alanis Morissette singing the national anthem. Mike Peluso was making sure everyone knew that. If you hadn’t heard of her, you knew after Mike Peluso was talking about it.
SIDORKIEWICZ I remember meeting her a few times. They brought her in at different times when they had different functions because she was from Ottawa.
HAMMOND It was kind of a big deal that the Britney Spears of Canada was singing the national anthem.
OSIECKI The national anthem — it took forever.
SMAIL As a player, there are a lot of times where you look back on things and you almost wish you were sitting in the stands as a fan to enjoy some of the pageantry.
BOWNESS It was long. [But] you expect that.
HAMMOND We just wanted to get to the game.
HULL Montreal had a lot of really good players. They were the franchise that everyone wanted to emulate. You just wanted to go out and perform well and not get embarrassed.
SMAIL My era of hockey, there were basically two teams that most Canadians cheered for, and it was Toronto and Montreal. To have that famed franchise come into Ottawa for the first game, the excitement of the city, the press, it was a great night.
Once the puck dropped, a new chapter of Ottawa Senators hockey officially began. The excitement was tempered, however, when Hammond was whistled for a holding-the-stick penalty 31 seconds into the game. After a first period with zero goals, Neil Brady etched his name in the history books by opening the scoring with the new-era Sens’ first goal 26 seconds into the second frame. Smail and Hammond also scored middle-period markers for Ottawa, which led 3-1 against Patrick Roy and the Habs after 40 minutes.
HAMMOND That was back in the day when we used to cut the palms out of our gloves. So you’d stand in front of the net as a defenceman and grab a big wad of [the opponent’s] jersey and then hang onto your stick. I remember [referee Kerry Fraser] giving me the gate [for holding-the-stick] and I said, “I wasn’t holding his stick, I had his jersey.” He said, “You’re really going to argue this?”
SMAIL The thing that stuck out in my mind most is the crowd went absolutely bananas. I’ve been in one Stanley Cup Final series in my life and it was almost like that atmosphere. That night, I don’t know if the martinis were flowing extra in places — I’m sure they were — but it was a pretty loose crowd, let’s put it that way.
MARC FORTIER, centre Everybody wanted to be the guy who scored the first goal. Neil Brady scored the first goal in the pre-season. And when we started the year, it was Neil Brady who scored that goal.
BOWNESS It was a 5-on-3, it was a great play and a great goal. It just took a little pressure off. Once that puck went it, it was just kind of, “OK, we got the first one behind us now, let’s keep moving forward and try to get the next one.”
HAMMOND That just set a chain reaction where we were like, “Holy shit, I think we can actually beat these guys.”
FORTIER on Smail’s goal It was kind of a broken play. We went down on a 3-on-2 and I gave it to Smail in the neutral zone and he came into the [Montreal] zone. He went in and scored with a wrist shot.
HAMMOND on his goal [Jamie Baker] usually [shot] over the crossbar; I could [picture it] going around the glass and going out of the zone. [But] he let a nice, low shot go, Roy butterflied and it came right off his pad onto my tape.
Ottawa’s two-goal advantage was halved just over five minutes into the third thanks to a goal from Vincent Damphousse that came after Ottawa lost a key blue-liner. A back-and-forth period saw Sylvain Turgeon restore the two-goal lead with 2:09 to play, only to have Brian Bellows answer back for Montreal. It wasn’t until Smail sealed the deal with an empty-netter that the Civic Centre could erupt.
SHAW I got knocked out the first shift of the third period. We won a faceoff, I went back, Kirk Muller hit me. It was a clean hit, I should have seen him coming, I didn’t. I hit the stanchion and I broke my helmet when my head hit the ice. I’ve since worked with Kirk [as assistant coaches in St. Louis]. We’ve talked about it, it’s kinda funny. My son was two or three days old at the time, so [my wife] was dealing with him and the neighbour came over and knocked on the door and she said, “How you doing?” and [my wife said] “OK. What do you mean?” She said, “Brad’s been laying on the ice for the last five minutes motionless. Have you not been watching the game?” She said, “No, I’ve been dealing with Brady.” That was back in the day where I missed one game.
HAMMOND I remember trying to get Muller back in the neutral zone, throwing a knee at him. I got called for kneeing. J.J. Daigneault came up and I was like, “Shit, I gotta take somebody to the box [with me] or I’m going to be in deep trouble here.” So I tried to get Daigneault to fight me and he wouldn’t fight and I ended up head-butting him as he was leaning in. I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got potentially the winning goal, a head-butting penalty and now we’re going to lose it [on my penalty].” [The game] had a little bit of everything. Between lions being dropped from the ceiling, head-butting and scoring a goal on Patrick Roy, it was a full night.
BOWNESS The players were feeding off the enthusiasm of the crowd. That’s what you remember, the noise in the rink and the excitement. Every play, every pass, every shot, every faceoff — the crowd was reacting.
HAMMOND Being the first game of the year, I think Montreal actually had trouble dealing with the speed — not necessarily our skill level, but our speed because we were thinking we’d have to win games through our conditioning and through some speed.
SMAIL Your emotions are at a place where you’re trying to hold the thing together. You’re excited, it’s an emotional time, the fans, everything that goes with it, it’s like a Stanley Cup-type of game. You’re really just trying to get your job done.
HAMMOND I remember standing by the Zamboni because I got kicked out of the game, chomping on fingernails because I didn’t want my penalty to be why we lost. It was a pretty tense last [eight or nine] minutes. But then when Dougie Smail scored in the open net, that’s when we knew we had it done. There was probably shock in the building, because although the fans were rooting for us, you can’t tell me there wasn’t 10,900 people going, “Holy crap, they’re actually going to win this game!” That’s when it just exploded.
LUONGO It was exciting to witness the surprise of the Montreal fans. I think there were a lot of people who thought, “OK that’s it, I’m not a fan of the [Habs] anymore because now we have our own team.”
SMAIL The way the city, [the league] and the hockey club itself had set the stage, it was almost like a win was part of the script. It was an earned win and it was a credible win and it was very, very fun that night.
The Sens were justifiably fired up about their victory, but the good times didn’t last. Two nights after beating Montreal, Ottawa travelled to Quebec City and lost 9-2 to the Nordiques, kicking off a stretch that saw the Senators go 21 games without a ‘W’. Ottawa didn’t get its first road win until defeating the New York Islanders on April 4 in the 81st outing of an 84-game season. And while the 10-70-4 campaign featured no shortage of lows, the players and coaches did all they could to persevere.
SIDORKIEWICZ Leading up to the season, all the reporters were picking us to win eight, maybe 10 games all year. We’re sitting there [thinking], “Christ, we can’t be that bad, can we?” After the [opening-night win], we’re shaving and there’s Ken Hammond and Brad Shaw on either side of me and we’re [saying], “Those reporters are crazy. We’ll win 10, 12 games by the time Christmas rolls around.”
SHAW I still remember the headline the next day, “Maybe Rome was Built in a Day.” And then we go on to win nine more [the rest of the year]. We probably didn’t celebrate enough when we did win that one.
OSIECKI We probably gave [the Canadiens] motivation to do the things they did that year.
BOWNESS I think reality hit very hard and cold in game No. 2. I don’t know if we touched the puck all night. It just exposed so many weaknesses in our lineup. The reality hit us in Game No. 2 — not a month later. That game in Quebec, that was just, wow.
SHAW Nobody is sympathetic toward you. [When we come to town,] they’re licking their chops. It’s point night. It’s, “We’ve got the Senators, let’s load up. I’m in a contract year, I need to have a big night offensively. Oh, wonderful, the Senators are coming to town.” It wasn’t like that initially, but it didn’t take long for that to be the feeling if you read the newspaper at all. I ran into people that would see me on the street and they’d go “You play for the Senators? I won 12 grand on Proline! I took you guys to win and you won a game. You know what the odds were? I won 12 grand on a two-dollar bet. Thanks, man!’
HAMMOND Poor Peter Sidorkiewicz. He was kind of like the goalie in Slap Shot after a couple nights there.
SIDORKIEWICZ For the first few months, it wasn’t bad. I think we played a lot of close games, but we couldn’t find a way to win a hockey game. As the season wears on, the league gets a lot better every week and we weren’t able to get better like all the other teams. It wears on your mind. The first few months [we thought] we could keep it close, maybe get lucky, win a game here or there. Then all of a sudden you know you just don’t have a chance.
HULL I don’t think there was any quit from any of the players or the coaches.
SIDORKIEWICZ We did a lot of stuff together off the ice — the wives got along. In a strange way, it was really close team. Because you had to be.
BOWNESS We beat ourselves up. Everyone wants to win. We went into games and we’d be sitting there [the coaches], and we’re kind of looking at the other team’s roster [thinking] “I hope they don’t bring their ‘A’ game tonight.” That was our only chance. If the other team brought their ‘A’ game, we were in big trouble. That was our motto: Hope they don’t bring their ‘A’ game.
SHAW We had the neutral-site games back then and we’re playing [Winnipeg] and it’s in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. We’re horrible [with a 7-52-4 record at the time]. We’re going out for warm-up and Doug Smail, who’s hardly said anything in the locker room to this point, stands up and says, “You know guys, we’re not that bad of a hockey team; we just play in a really good league.” The room breaks up and everybody’s laughing, I’m thinking this might be all we need, we’re going to be unbelievable tonight, we just need a little sense of humour. I think it was 3-0 10 minutes into the game. But that timing and the delivery couldn’t have been better. It was great comic relief [even if] it didn’t really help in the win/loss column.
SMAIL I do remember that [laughs]. You know what, in those stretches you’re trying to find some light in the situation.
BOWNESS I remember the first road win in New York. Somewhere along the line, we announced the wrong starting lineup. So one guy was on the ice that shouldn’t have been. Al Arbour is the head coach of the Islanders and he notices it, obviously, [and alerts the referee to penalize Ottawa]. But then we take a penalty on [the first] shift. So now we’re down 5-on-3. Laurie Boschman ends up scoring a hat trick that night and we end up winning the game. Running into Al after, he was almost apologetic. They were fighting for the playoffs and he said, “I had to call it.” I said, “Al, I would have done the exact same thing.”
BOSCHMAN Guys came rushing over [after the clinching goal into an empty-net] and I’ll I could think of saying is, “Boys, we’re going to Disneyland!”
BOWNESS That was like winning the Stanley Cup to the guys. It was as much excitement as opening night.
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