The buzz around this Ottawa Senators franchise hits the senses – as real as the mist lifting off the Loch March Golf & Country Club on a damp Tuesday morning in the Ottawa Valley.
As breezy jazz tunes played in the background, the noise created by excited players, team staff and sponsors grew to a din before the group hit the course to raise money for local charities, a pre-camp tradition finally returned.
On the charity front, too, there is renewal. As team president Anthony LeBlanc explained to the gathering, the relaunch of the Senators Community Foundation means the organization is reconnecting to such iconic programs as the Rogers’ House program (named after the late NHL coach Roger Neilson) for palliative youth and a breakfast program that feeds students in need.
Certainly the pandemic hit the Foundation initiatives – the Senators broke away from their longtime Foundation to form their own in 2020 just as COVID-19 was rising – but there is no denying the breath of fresh air that has resulted in dramatic changes to the club in the months since owner Eugene Melnyk passed. Former sponsors and alumni that had become estranged to the hockey team are flooding back in a way that already makes the 30th anniversary season of the Senators feel like old home week.
No more – here today, gone tomorrow, for ex-Senators like Chris Phillips.
Phillips, who had his No. 4 jersey retired in February of 2020, was named executive director of the Foundation that summer, resigned in 2021, and is now the VP of Business Operations with the Senators. To use a golf expression on tournament day, that is par for the course of transition that has struck the Senators on and off the ice, as they reloaded for the upcoming season with newly signed players Claude Giroux, Alex DeBrincat, Cam Talbot and a fat extension to rising star Tim Stützle.
Giroux: ‘We believe we’re a playoff team’
Giroux, the former Philadelphia Flyers captain, was named a Senators alternate captain this week and is feeling comfortable in his hometown surroundings after two weeks of informal skates with his new teammates.
While Giroux joked that many of young teammates are “clowns,” keeping things loose around the rink, the veteran centre was all business when he talked about goals for this group.
“For us, we believe we’re a playoff team,” Giroux said. “You know, there’s no bad teams in the league anymore, and every game is going to be hard to win.
"But for us, it’s starting day one - we need to get better every day and work on our chemistry.”
Fellow alternate captain Thomas Chabot, who makes it two-for-two with francophones wearing the ‘A’ in Ottawa, was one of those who spoke to general manager Pierre Dorion during exit meetings last spring about this team needing a personnel upgrade. Dorion delivered, in spades, even if he is still searching for an addition to the D-corps.
“It’s pretty obvious our team is a lot different than the team we ended the season with,” Chabot said. “We’ve added some great players and we want to take a bigger step.
“Every single guy in this room, we all want to make the playoffs and we all want to play games that matter until the end of the season, and extended season. We’re all aware that our division is not an easy division to sneak into the playoffs . . . but I think just the fact that everybody was here early this season (before camp) means a lot to us and shows that everybody is excited to get going.”
Captain Brady Tkachuk was the most guarded of the three captains when it came to expressing team expectations heading into camp, preferring to talk about “taking another step” rather than name playoffs as a goal. Yet, Tkachuk is no less bullish than his mates.
“I don’t think we need to put numbers or a set place in the standings . . . we’re not going to throw up expectations that add extra pressure, but we’re confident in what we’re able to do and we’re going to have expectations within the room,” Tkachuk said.
Ottawa’s fourth overall draft pick in 2018, Tkachuk says he hasn’t felt this level of excitement in the four years he has been with the Senators. This will make you feel old – Tkachuk is entering his fifth Ottawa training camp.
“It’s just something I’ve never experienced before,” Tkachuk says, of the anticipation for this season. The Senators last made the playoffs in 2017, and went on a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final.
In Calgary last spring, Tkachuk stayed with his brother, Matthew, during part of the Flames playoff run and was deeply inspired by it.
“To see the preparation that Matthew put into that, firsthand, was first and foremost, and then to see the energy in the crowd gave me motivation to put my best into having that experience here in Ottawa,” Tkachuk said. “I think everybody here would be so fired up and have even better energy than in Calgary – so that was definitely my motivation to get here as quickly as possible.”
If training camp is an annual exercise in bonding and chemistry, the Senators got a head start by getting together in the past month to golf, hang out and draft fantasy football teams. When camp ends, the Senators will likely do a bonding trip to Mont Tremblant, though the details are still being worked out.
Meanwhile, players will finish up any lingering tests and medicals that need to be done on Wednesday, before hitting the ice on Thursday. Even that feels like a long wait.
Says captain Tkachuk: “We just want to get going.”
Don’t we all.