“Dad, your team, your level of suckage is high.” — Pierre Dorion’s son
OTTAWA – It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and on Saturday night, in the shadows of frigid Lansdowne Park, we won’t blame Ottawa’s faithful for making it Suntory time.
For people tend to turn to libation when they’re in the throes of celebration or despair. Ottawa’s storied hockey team, and the loyal fans who sit in traffic to watch their Senators play, find themselves in both.
A grand outdoor jamboree to toast the game and the league Ottawa and Montreal birthed a century ago arrives amidst a blizzard of trade and ownership rumours.
Prodigal sons from eras past have flown home to reunite, make merry, and play some pickup.
Daniel Alfredsson, who has endured two divorces from the club, one as the greatest player in franchise history entering his twilight and a second, this past summer, as an executive.
Alexei Yashin, who left amidst an unrequited raise request, multiple trade demands, a stripped captaincy, and waves of boos on home ice.
Alexandre Daigle, who was once coveted and later discarded away as a draft bust.
Chris Neil, who poked around elsewhere in free agency this season, only to admit that, yes, he was always and only a Sen and retired this week as such.
The gang’s all here, and on Friday afternoon you could spot many of them walking from the picturesque, publicly funded outdoor rink at Parliament Hill to their hotel rooms in full equipment and Sens garb, swapping only skates for boots like kids, squeezing in a pre-game nap prior to some all-Sens alumni shinny en plein air.
Too bad these frosty smiles and nostalgic selfies are getting flashed during a winter that has seen those once-pesky Sens tumble from a goal away from a winnable Stanley Cup Final to NHL punchline.
Hosting the NHL 100 Classic amidst your franchise’s worst start in 20 years is like throwing a birthday party on the same day your dog died.
“I don’t think anyone’s having a lot of fun right now, but I don’t feel this team has quit,” Pierre Dorion said Wednesday. The Senators GM cast a vote of confidence in second-year head coach Guy Boucher and pledged faith in his underachieving roster, the key components of which will come knocking for raises in 18 months or less.
“But at the same time, things aren’t going well, so we’re looking at everything.”
You could tell by Boucher’s smile and fist-pump after the Sens hung on to defeat the New York Rangers Wednesday, at Canadian Tire Centre, in front of swaths of fans who paid less than face value, that every victory counts.
“This makes it exciting, this makes it different, but we needed big-time to come back home,” Boucher said Friday. “Just being home was gigantic for us.”
Smearing on eye-black to skate with children and wives and girlfriends on Parliament Hill Friday afternoon was a healthy distraction from a 14-game stretch in which Ottawa has just two wins and has been outscored 50-23.
Boucher’s group ranks in the bottom third NHL-wide in offence, defence, goaltending, and both special teams. When they pull on their balaclavas and take to the ice in –13°C (sans wind chill) Saturday, the Sens will have a 6.3 per cent shot of returning to the playoffs, according to SportsClubStats.com.
Seven teams stand between Ottawa and the post-season, two between the city and the best odds of drafting Rasmus Dahlin, a high-flying impact Swedish defenceman who won’t cost the club $11 million per year to sign (at least not for a while).
“Every minute of your day is a moment to change things you want to change,” Boucher said.
The circus is in town, but some argue that it’s never left.
On Nov. 5, Dorion, a self-described “fairly aggressive GM,” landed the biggest fish on the trade market in Duchene, but it required the surrender of impending free agent centre and community crush Kyle Turris to Nashville.
In the 16 games since that three-way blockbuster, Turris has 16 points, is a plus-6, and Preds are 12-2-2. Duchene has five points, is a minus-9, and his bid to join a contender has thus far backfired harder than Uncle Buck’s Mercury Marquis.
Turris, who got six years times $6 million from Nashville, said this week that it was Sens owner Eugene Melnyk who didn’t want to sign him. Dorion said he makes all hockey decisions, not his boss.
In response to Dorion’s statement, Turris’s wife, Julie, tweeted, “lol.”
Friday night, Melnyk spoke publicly about the organization’s revenue woes and game-night parking issues and how he’s reluctant to increase spending on star players. Oh, and by the way, it’s his franchise and sometimes franchises move.
Reminding readers that the Sens are a budget team is like reminding travellers there’s no smoking on the flight: it should be understood at this point, but it’s a critical bit of info if you somehow missed the memo.
Captain Erik Karlsson, whom Dorion referred to “the elephant in the room” when he wasn’t fielding trade calls, is on record saying he wants top dollar when goes unrestricted in the summer of 2019. But even the franchise face looks anguished. The two-time Norris champ is still recovering from ankle surgery and missed time. He has mustered just two assists and zero goals and a minus-18 rating in the past 14 games.
Dorion will listen if you have a deal that blows his socks off. That’s his job. If Wayne Gretzky can be traded and all that.
“He’s the best defenceman in the world, but he doesn’t have a red cape on his back,” Boucher said. “I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t think he’d be himself until Christmas.”
Where will the Senators be on Dec. 25? A step closer to swallowing a rebuild? Or will they rally, as they have in their pesky past, and start to climb up a weak division and take advantage of an easier travel schedule?
“Are we out of it? No. Are we just gonna trade everyone? No,” Dorion said.
“When your team isn’t performing, you have to face the music.”
We just didn’t expect the tune to be so melancholy on a weekend of festivity.