The name ‘Mark Borowiecki’ is tossed around with familiar regularity inside the walls of Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre these days.
After nearly 400 games as a Senator — complete with his fair share of hard-fought bouts and, more recently, an offensive awakening — the 30-year-old defenceman’s earned his place among the pantheon of Ottawa fan favourites.
A decade and a half ago, he’d have probably taken a shine to the type of player he’s become. Either way, he’d be in the building to make the assessment with his own two eyes, no doubt. Because long before Borowiecki was a respected veteran manning the Senators’ blue line, the Ottawa native was simply one among the crowd of locals stuffed into their replica jerseys, cheering on from the stands.
“I was a die-hard fan,” says Borowiecki, who grew up in Kanata, the same Ottawan suburb in which the team’s rink currently sits. “My dad had season tickets for quite a while. We’ve been going to games since ’92, the inaugural year — back in the Civic Centre at Landsdowne there, my dad would take me to games. So I remember watching games in the old building back at the inception of the team. And we followed them all the way through.”
It was more than just the games, though. The Borowieckis would also make the trek over to catch practices. They’d mosey up to the equipment staff to score sticks and chances to mingle with players. And it was the weight of that relationship with the team that made Borowiecki’s supremely unique draft day a memorable one for the family.
The 2008 event was held in a familiar locale, with the Senators hosting the draft in Ottawa — the site of this weekend’s Rogers Hometown Hockey festivities. Despite the short commute, and the hefty pile of hours he’d spent in the rink leading up to that day, Borowiecki wasn’t in the house to hear his name called on the draft floor.
“My parents, I think looking out for my well-being, didn’t want me to go to the draft,” he says. “There’s always that kind of thinking that I might not get picked. And looking back on it, I’m very thankful for them looking out for me — the last thing that they wanted is me sitting in the stands all day and not getting picked. I can’t imagine how that feels for a young man.”
Though he didn’t interview with the Senators before the draft — speaking instead to the Blue Jackets, Panthers and Stars — it was his hometown team that stirred up his weekend plans.
“I was at home,” Borowiecki recalls. “We were kind of following along on the computer, watching the rounds go by. I was getting ready to go out fishing with my buddies. I was in the garage and I heard my parents screaming and yelling and I came running in. They were in tears, and I saw that Ottawa had picked me.”
The euphoria of getting drafted to the club he’d grown up worshipping was, of course, quickly replaced by the chaos of getting over to the rink to meet his new general manager on the draft floor. But the tight-knit nature of Ottawa’s hockey community granted him a bit of luck to speed up the process.
“There was actually a lot of ‘six degrees of separation’ going on. They called me and told me to throw on some nice clothes. We raced down to the rink, and the security guard working the door was actually my babysitter growing up,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Went down to the floor and Bryan Murray was there. I remember kind of a fond memory of him — I put my hat on and he looked at me and he took my hat and slammed it down on my head a little lower. And he said, ‘You’re going to wear your hat properly here.’ So that was kind of a ‘Welcome to the NHL’ moment for me.
“You know, it was a bit of a whirlwind day.”
While the Borowieckis might be more well-known in the community now, they’ve always been a big part of it. It’s just the nature of the city — while Ottawa has capital status and an image as one of the country’s marquee spots, its character conveys precisely the opposite.
“We do really have that kind of small-town vibe, that small-town community-focused feel,” the Senators blue-liner says. Same goes for the hockey crowd in town. “The minor hockey programs here are very close-knit. It’s on a much smaller scale than something like the GTA and I think you’re able to form relationships with kids who are in a lot of different associations. I have a lot of close friends that are guys who I grew up playing against.”
It’s no surprise, then, that his earliest memories of the game come with a quintessential small-town tinge — a backyard rink built by his dad each winter, with four-year-old Mark taking his first spins around the outdoor sheet. His foray into the sport got off the ground right around the same time the nearby Sens were doing the same, in fact.
When the team and player crossed paths a decade and a half later, Borowiecki became the first Ottawa-born player ever drafted by the club, the serendipity of that reunion meaning more for Mark and his wife, Tara, as his career reaches its twilight.
“I think back then, it didn’t really resonate as much as it does now that I’m getting older. It’s something cool that Tara and I and our families will hang on to forever,” he says. “This organization has meant a lot to me and I’d like to think I’ve done my best to help this organization in any way I can. Wherever my career ends up taking me, whether it’s this year, next year, whenever it may be, Ottawa’s always going to have a special place in our hearts. It’s our home. It’s where we grew up.”
Few can say they grew up on as wild a ride as No. 74 in red and white. Those first few games in the big leagues exemplified the strangeness of it all, with Borowiecki suddenly thrust onto the ice with the very Senators mainstays he’d idolized as a fan.
“Early in my career I had some issues, just being kind of star-struck,” he says. “Those players out on the ice — you know, Alfie (Daniel Alfredsson), Neiler (Chris Neil), (Chris) Phillips, (Jason) Spezza, (Chris) Kelly. All these guys who I’d grown up watching and worshipping. To be on the ice with them, I think it was nerve-wracking for me.”
For Phillips, a stalwart in Ottawa for nearly 20 years, one thing sticks out above the rest when remembering a young Borowiecki.
“I remember hearing what a hard worker he was, and then saw it firsthand for myself,” Phillips says. “It was cool to have a local kid that had grown up a fan of us on the team. It was a great story of perseverance, because of how hard he had worked and the path he took to get there.”
Over time, as things naturally progressed, the novelty eventually gave way to familiarity.
“As I kind of matured as a man and as an adult and felt a little more comfortable in my role, I think that nervousness turned into a kind of gratitude,” Borowiecki says. “It’s special to be able to pull on the jersey of your hometown team — a lot of guys think about it and talk about how cool it would be. And I’ve been able to live it for almost 400 games. It’s something I try not to take for granted.”
Each passing year has seen Borowiecki’s Sens tenure take on new life. Once a name associated only with rugged, bone-clattering checks and heavy-haymaker bouts, he’s grown into a cult classic in Senators lore. Incidentally, much of that has more to do with who Borowiecki is off the ice than his proficiency on it — though he is in the midst of a career year under new coach D.J. Smith.
His old mates couldn’t be happier seeing Borowiecki grow into a beloved leader for the young Sens.
“It has been so great to see. His game has not changed — he leaves it all out there every game he plays, and does whatever he can to help the team win,” says Phillips. “His leadership is exactly what every team needs — a heart-and-soul guy that wants to win, has fun doing it and has the character to know the right things to do both on the ice and in the community.”
That off-ice aura around the hometown boy grew exponentially over the past year, specifically in December when the defender affectionately known as ‘BoroCop’ staved off a robbery in downtown Vancouver.
It’s been a wild ride made even more odd by incidents such as that one. But for Borowiecki, if his reputation as a person precedes who he is as a player, so be it.
“It’s a little bit more viral than I anticipated this year, I think. But it’s definitely a source of pride for me,” he says of the praise he’s gotten for his character away from the rink. “You know, I used to sit in the back of the plane with Chris Kelly and he impressed that upon me — ‘What do you want your legacy to be after you play? Is it just on-ice accomplishments, or is it how you’re known as a human being?’ And I think this year, especially, Tara and I are lucky enough to be having our first child here soon, and it’s kind of changed my outlook on life. You know, what can I do on a daily basis to be a good person, and help someone else, to try to make this community and — not to get too abstract — but make this world a better place for my son to live in?
“I think that’s a lesson you can pass on to a lot of young guys, too: Treat people with respect. I’m very proud that people know me as being a respectful guy and a good person, and that’s what’s important to me. It’s not just the on-ice hockey stuff. It’s how I’m viewed around the community.”