OTTAWA — Bravo.
Bravo Ottawa. Bravo Alfie. Yes, even bravo Eugene Melnyk.
If there is a finer way to send a franchise legend into retirement these eyes haven’t seen it. This was a day that felt right from start to finish — perfectly befitting of a man who has arguably meant as much to an organization as any NHL player of his generation.
Daniel Alfredsson’s career ended as it started Thursday, wearing the colours of the Ottawa Senators. Life as it should be.
For the past 517 days the Senators universe had not quite been right. That Alfredsson was ever put in a position where he could consider playing for another team — one Melnyk should ultimately be held responsible for — is a travesty.
Yet, what we witnessed here at Canadian Tire Centre is undeniable proof that you may not be able to change the past, but you can certainly right a wrong.
The Senators went to extreme lengths to make everything right with the greatest player in their 23-year history. There was a ceremonial one-day contract and a chance to participate in the warmup and one final moment to stand at centre ice and say goodbye.
“It’s as good an ending as anyone can hope for,” said Alfredsson. “I’m very happy that it turned out the way it did and I was able to get this opportunity. I thanked (GM) Bryan (Murray) and Mr. Melnyk earlier. They made this happen, and for that I’m very grateful.”
There will be no more anger in these parts; no more hurt feelings.
Finally an entire franchise was able to experience the final stage of grief — acceptance — on an emotional night in the nation’s capital.
“Whatever happened, happened,” said captain Erik Karlsson. “I think everybody grew from it and learned from it and got better in a way. We’re just happy to have him back.
“It always felt like the right decision to (have him) retire as a Senator.”
Had all of this happened elsewhere, with another player, it might have felt contrived. But Alfredsson became so synonymous with this relatively young organization during his NHL career that the tributes were simply … cool.
The Ottawa players began the pre-game warmup by forming a gauntlet for him to skate through. Karlsson ditched the captain’s ‘C’ for the occasion — it once again belonged to Alfredsson — and a packed house cheered all three goals No. 11 scored.
For Alfredsson it was a final chance to savour what it’s like to be a hockey player. Earlier in the day, he admitted that he’s unlikely to find another job he’ll enjoy as much.
So for 15 minutes on Thursday night he did all of the things he’d normally do before a game. After dressing in his old locker-room stall, he fired passes back and forth with Milan Michalek and rekindled an old tradition by stretching in a small circle with Karlsson and Chris Phillips.
“It honestly felt like he was going to play the game tonight,” Phillips said after a 2-1 loss to the New York Islanders. “It felt like nothing had changed.”
The thought certainly crossed Alfredsson’s mind. Even though chronic back issues forced him into retirement a week before his 42nd birthday, he started to dream of what it would be like to get in the lineup.
“Oh my God that could’ve been one of my best skates ever,” said Alfredsson. “Just basically knowing that this is the last time I get to experience this and in this atmosphere. I couldn’t have played, I’m not in good enough shape. But I skated a couple laps and you feel like, ‘Maybe a few shifts.’
“It gets the juices flowing, the energy that’s in the rink. It’s incredible.”
The emotions were raw by the time he returned for the ceremonial puck drop. First he skated a few laps while fans chanted “Alfie! Alfie! Alfie!” and later he addressed the crowd, thanking them for the years of support and saying “Merci, a bientot” — “Thank you, see you soon.”
This was clearly not a goodbye. It was a welcome back.
The Senators are an organization in transition and Alfredsson will eventually settle into some role with the front office. First he wants to devote the rest of this season to wife Bibbi and his four young sons, all of whom wore Karlsson sweaters while participating in Thursday’s pre-game ceremony.
The family is very much at home here.
Alfredsson eloquently said “you made your town our town” during his retirement press conference and sang “O Canada” along with Bibbi before skating off this ice surface for the final time.
“The way I’ve been welcomed back has been almost surreal,” he said after taking off his equipment.
Alfredsson’s place in history here is secure. He will forever be viewed as the first true pillar of this organization and will also become the first man in the Senators modern history to have his number retired.
He walks away as the franchise leader in goals, assists and memorable moments. He added one more to the final column on Thursday.
Over time, most will likely forget that he ever spent his final season as a member of the Detroit Red Wings. Just as you don’t think of Guy Lafleur in a Quebec Nordiques sweater, Alfredsson’s 71 games in the Winged Wheel already feel distant.
“He left for one year and that’s the way it was,” said Karlsson. “He had a lot of fun and we had a lot of fun. Now we’re here together again.”
Melnyk reached out to Alfredsson over the summer to make it known that the organization wanted to bring him back to play. They were even willing to take him at “80 per cent” health, but the veteran winger couldn’t even guarantee that.
Had Alfredsson’s back problems improved, he would have spent another year with the Red Wings. It was only in retirement that the fence could be completely mended here in Ottawa.
“If I would have been healthy I would have loved to play this year,” said Alfredsson. “I would have the same thing next year. Sometimes you feel it’s never going to be the end but it has to be sometime.”
This was the end as it should be: Alfredsson in a Senators sweater, standing at centre ice with tears in his eyes while the cheers rained down.