There are human years, dog years, and then there are years spent following sport.
For a diehard fan or a monitoring journalist, it can feel as though a lifetime’s worth of emotions are experienced in a single season invested in the home team.
Have the Toronto Raptors’ playoffs not been raging for six months now? So it seems, as a nation lives and dies with each game in this agonizingly long NBA Finals.
In a similar vein, when sports talk radio was buzzing this week over a report Erik Karlsson and his wife, Melinda, wanted to be closer to her Ottawa home with Erik’s next contract, the thought came to mind: How long has Karlsson been gone from Ottawa, two years, three?
That he left just nine months ago in a trade with the San Jose Sharks seems impossible. Now, picture the days when he roamed the same Ottawa ice surface as his mentor and hero, Daniel Alfredsson. Feels like the Mesozoic Era in the Ottawa Valley.
Fans have long since reconciled with Karlsson’s departure, the first clear signal that the Senators were going deep into a rebuild (though cynics in town still call it cost-cutting). Thereafter, the Sens got rid of Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Mark Stone, while acquiring a waft of draft picks and prospects, including a 19-year-old Swedish defenceman thought capable of being Karlsson’s replacement – Erik Brannstrom.
That is, if Ottawa doesn’t already have the next Karlsson in Thomas Chabot, the 18th overall draft choice from 2015. In Karlsson’s absence, Chabot thrived this past season, eating minutes and leading the team in assists (41) and points (55). Unlike Karlsson, both Chabot and Brannstrom shoot left.
Add in Karlsson’s recent injury record – foot and then groin issues, both debilitating at times – plus the fact the Senators are unlikely to offer Karlsson at 29 years old the contract he would want, and it would seem Montreal would be the better fit. The Canadiens are desperate for a power play quarterback and are further along in their rebuild.
It wouldn’t be hard to imagine a career in Montreal with a permanent home in Ottawa, two hours away. Melinda can be close to her family and she and Erik can re-connect with the community they came to love here.
As for the fans in Ottawa, they either didn’t take the idea seriously, or have moved on from Karlsson, or both. Months gone since the Karlsson reign feel like years. Little more than eight months ago the mere thought of Karlsson leaving the Senators felt like the end of the world.
A short time later, the loss of Stone – younger, healthier, soon to be thriving with the Vegas Golden Knights and Team Canada — seemed the bigger blow, another indication of how quickly sentiment can shift in a fan base. Trading Stone was a last straw, the proof that the organization was willing to let go of their final veteran cornerstone. And a fan darling.
There was a time in Ottawa when Stone barely seemed suitable to carry No. 65’s skates. And yet No. 61 emerged as the unlikeliest of NHL superstars – the methodical puck hawk, with a knack for clutch goals; stone-faced, until he scores a goal and explodes with an emotional celly. Stone is missed, dearly.
Incredibly, the early Tuesday results of a poll on an Ottawa’s sports station had a slight majority opposed to the Senators signing Karlsson as a free agent on July 1. By late afternoon, the tide had shifted, with 65 per cent in favour of bringing back the former captain, at least from those who went through the motions to vote. At that, a rather modest majority considering Karlsson is the most talented player the Senators have known.
Had such a poll existed the day before he was traded, more than 90 cent would have lobbied on Karlsson’s behalf, voting after beating down the Senators office doors to reinforce their message. Some of those who remain in favour of a Karlsson reboot dream of a day when Eugene Melnyk moves on as owner and the new ownership brings back Alfredsson as team president and Karlsson as a player.
This was the same dream that imagined new ownership saving the bid to build a new downtown arena for the Senators on LeBreton Flats. “Missed it by that much,” to quote the great Maxwell Smart, with the Senators remaining at their facility in Kanata.
Until a time when the bigger dreams come true, the Senators fan base is choosing not to torture itself with such unlikely scenarios as Karlsson returning, physically healed, and willing to play for a long term contract so reasonable even the Senators would be obliging.
The ship has sailed on Karlsson being a Senator for life. It was enough to have him while he was in his prime, carrying the team on his back during a crazy playoff run to the Eastern Conference Final in 2017. But a page has been turned. The Senators belong to young Brady Tkachuk now, and Chabot. Under Karlsson, the culture was very different. Who wants to turn back?
Players and fans alike have made their goodbyes. Karlsson was saluted with a standing ovation in his return to Ottawa with the Sharks on Dec. 1, properly thanked for the memories.
What NHL sweater will Karlsson be wearing on his next visit?
Few in Ottawa are wasting precious energy on the slim-to-none probability the jersey will have a Senators logo.