Senators prepare for proper Alfredsson send off

Former Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson will take part in pre-game warm-ups on Thursday night, the day he announces his retirement from the NHL. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

OTTAWA — The last time Daniel Alfredsson spent a prolonged period away from the Ottawa Senators he took a trip to Spain.

It was during the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 NHL season and countryman Mats Sundin would soon learn just how badly Alfredsson missed competing. There were no available ice rinks, naturally, so the pair found other ways to stay in shape while on vacation.

“I had to play Daniel in tennis when working out and I had to play him in golf — he beat me in both of those sports,” Sundin said Wednesday from Stockholm. “There was no way he would lose and I remember laughing: ‘What a competitor.’

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“It doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he wants to win.”

That side of Alfredsson was evident throughout an 18-year NHL career that spanned 1,246 regular-season games and another 124 in the playoffs. As a hockey player, it defined him.

However, the reason the Senators have planned an unprecedented retirement ceremony for Thursday night is because there was so much more to the soft-spoken man from Gothenburg, Sweden than that.

Alfredsson left an indelible mark on this community. He is heavily involved in charitable causes locally, particularly those associated with mental health, and spent the most recent NHL lockout coaching youth hockey with former teammate Chris Phillips.

He and wife, Bibbi, laid down firm roots in the area, with sons Hugo, Loui, Fenix and William all being born here.

Even his younger brother, Henrik, moved to Ottawa to play junior hockey and never left — working now as a builder of custom homes more than 15 years later.

“He’s dedicated his whole life to this city,” said longtime teammate Chris Neil.

As a star player in one of the NHL’s smallest markets, Alfredsson became an everyday kind of hero. Fans could watch him score a couple goals one night and might see him pumping gas the next morning.

During his early years here, his number is even said to have been publicly listed in the phonebook.

And as people came to know Alfredsson better — be they teammates or fans or media members — the overwhelming impression they were left with is just how decent of a man he was.

“Being around him day to day … that’s a classy guy and someone that carried himself the right way,” former teammate Jason Spezza said earlier this week. “He’s the type of guy you want in hockey’s history books.”

That isn’t to suggest that there weren’t some unexpected bumps along the way, starting with Alfredsson’s decision to leave Ottawa for the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent in July 2013.

While some bad feelings clearly entered that contract negotiation, his competitive streak played a role in the decision as well. Alfredsson knew that time was running out and didn’t think he would have as good of a chance to win a Stanley Cup with the Senators.

More than anything, Thursday’s retirement ceremony at Canadian Tire Centre will be a very public burying of the hatchet. Both sides claim there are no lingering bad feelings and they’ll set about proving that before Ottawa faces the New York Islanders.

“It puts the shadow or whatever you want to call it (away),” said Phillips. “We don’t need to talk about it anymore really. All of the fences have been mended and rightfully so. I think that’s what is going to take place.”

Alfredsson will also get one final chance to skate in front of the fans that loved him most.

The unique idea of welcoming him back to the dressing room and having him on the ice for warmups in his familiar No. 11 sweater left some giddy. Erik Karlsson, a close friend and the team’s current captain, predicted that “it’s going to feel like normal.”

There isn’t a single current NHL player who has been as much of a mainstay with a franchise as Alfredsson. He’s appeared in 72 percent of all Senators games — 1,299 of 1,808 — including 121 of 126 in the post-season.

“This is where he should retire,” said Karlsson. “This is where he calls his home.”

No one could have predicted any of this back when Alfredsson was selected 133rd overall in 1994, the second year he was available to be claimed. At that point the NHL was such an afterthought for him that he wouldn’t find out he was picked until a day later.

However, Alfredsson eventually made the leap to North America — surviving three coaches, two general managers and two buildings in his first year alone — and became the face of an organization that has experienced all of its top moments with him in uniform.

“He communicated with the owner, he communicated with the GM, he communicated with everybody,” said Spezza. “He was there from Day 1. He’d seen it all. I think at times they would ask him for advice at how to run things because he had seen the good, the bad and the ugly.

“He’s a fixture there and I think he’ll probably end up being back there as a fixture, too.”

Now that Alfredsson has officially abandoned an attempted return to the ice because of lingering back issues, his future will become a hot topic. The smart money is on him settling into some kind of front office role with the Senators eventually.

Three years from now there will also be a debate about whether he merits entry to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Every player interviewed for this story believes it’s a slam dunk.

When Sundin surveys Alfredsson’s resume, he sees a man that was a “superstar” in every way. The long-time Leafs captain points to the fact that Alfredsson led Sweden in scoring when it won a gold medal at the 2006 Turin Olympics, plus his extensive list of NHL accomplishments.

He also believes that his deep connection with one franchise should carry some weight.

“His career is monumental for the Ottawa Senators,” said Sundin. “He’s a franchise leader and I think he will be for many, many years. … (Thursday’s) ceremony will be very emotional. You realize it’s over and you realize how fortunate you’ve been to play in a city where everybody cares about the game.”

Few players have ever cared quite like Daniel Alfredsson. Here or anywhere else.  

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