OTTAWA — Players on opposing teams stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a circle at centre ice as hockey made a stirring return to Ottawa on Saturday night.
Fans, many wearing red and waving Canadian flags, paid their respects to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent as part of a poignant ceremony prior to the Senators’ game against the New Jersey Devils.
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The glow sticks fans received as they entered the arena stood in place of candles, and for almost 10 minutes the Canadian Tire Centre was the scene of a public, national vigil.
It was the first hockey game to be played in Ottawa since Wednesday’s attack on Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial, where Cirillo was shot and killed. Vincent died in a hit-and-run attack Monday near Montreal.
"Tonight we have an opportunity to stand united as one," public address announcer Stu Schwartz said.
Members of Cirillo’s Hamilton-based division joined local first responders inside the circle of 40 players from both teams. Players lining up on opposite blue-lines for anthems is so commonplace in hockey, but this was a chance to literally stand together.
"Put away the fact that we’re going to battle for 60 minutes just after that and recognize that at the end of the day it’s a game and there’s more important things," Senators winger Bobby Ryan said. "It’s not a bonding moment, but it’s one of those moments where you realize you’re all part of something bigger."
Devils coach Peter DeBoer said his team was happy to be a part of that unique part of the tribute. His players agreed.
"To stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those guys, it really shows our respect," defenceman Damon Severson said. "I think as players of a sport, any sport, the people who work with our police task force, it shows them we really do appreciate that."
With photos of Cirillo and Vincent on the arena video screens, the sellout crowd of 19,266 stood for a moment of silence that lasted 42 seconds.
What followed was a co-ordinated singing of the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "O Canada" between fans in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto and led by Ottawa anthem singer Lyndon Slewidge. The emotional rendition of Canada’s national anthem gave way to cheering, as fans — some with Cirillo’s name written on the back of their jerseys — remained on their feet and applauded until well after the military and police personnel left the ice.
"It gives you the chills with the glow sticks going and the fans being loud," Ryan said. "’O Canada’ was emotional — something that I’ll always remember."
Patrick Stump’s "My City" set the tone for Ottawa’s next step.
"It’s nice to come together and kind of reflect and mourn at the beginning of the game," said Senators defenceman Mark Borowiecki, an Ottawa native. "Hopefully that kind of jump-starts the healing process for us."
The Senators were supposed to play the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night but the game was postponed due to the shooting attack. It will be played on Nov. 9.
In Toronto, the Leafs took part in the co-ordinated ceremony before facing the Boston Bruins. The Canadiens did the same before facing the New York Rangers.
"Hockey Night In Canada" opened the proceedings with a video montage featuring scenes from Ottawa, including the National War Memorial. References to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Thursday speech to Parliament gave way to the message that Canadians "unite around this game because we always unite around the game."
DeBoer, a native of Dunnville, Ont., understands the value of that and took some time in the afternoon between meetings to go to the war memorial. Devils defenceman Eric Gelinas, who’s from Vincent’s hometown of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., also went to the site.
Fans at Canadian Tire Centre, which is about 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa, faced increased security measures that the team said will be in place moving forward. Every person entering the building, including staff and media, had his or her bags searched and was wanded with hand-held metal detectors.
At the site of the attack, hockey’s role in the healing process was clear. Amid the flowers, candles, stuffed animals and hand-written thank-you notes was a black Canadian Olympic hockey jersey.
Once the ceremonial portion of the evening was over, the Devils defeated the Senators 3-2 in overtime in what was ultimately a regular-season NHL game. But beforehand and as much of North America watched, they stood almost arm-in-arm as the ceremony went on in an apparent nod to Harper’s speech that, "In our system, in our country, we are opponents. But we are never enemies."
"I thought that was a great touch," said Dax Lanham, a 44-year-old Ottawa native who wore a white Canadian Olympic jersey to the game. "They’re not all Canadians. They’re Americans, they’re Europeans. It’s not just Canada and the U.S. uniting, it’s the whole world uniting around one big circle."
Players at Air Canada Centre in Toronto didn’t follow that lead, but the sentiment was the same.
"We may battle in arenas and on ice but tonight we stand together," PA announcer Andy Frost said.
Jaromir Jagr, who scored his NHL-best 125th game-winning goal, said it was important for the Senators and Devils to stand together.
"It was good for Canada and maybe the whole world to show we stick together no matter what happens," Jagr said. "The world is kind of tough. There are a lot of people in the world and some of them are a little more crazy and not thinking very much. That kind of stuff happens, but we have to show we stick together."
— With files from Neil Davidson in Toronto