Young Senators Josh Norris and Colin White were atom age hockey players when John Muckler led Ottawa into its first Stanley Cup Final of the franchise’s modern era.
Speaking to Norris and White on Tuesday Zoom calls, it was hard not to think about Muckler, a giant in the game, and a big deal in the Nation’s Capital when the Senators were routinely posting 100-point seasons.
The Senators general manager from 2002-07, Muckler was a five-time Stanley Cup winner as an assistant and then head coach of the dynastic Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s. He died on Monday at the age of 86. He will also be missed in Buffalo, a hockey city he called home as head coach and GM of the Sabres in the 1990s.
In June of 2007, when White would have been 10 and Norris eight, Muckler directed a Senators team coached by Bryan Murray to a five-game series win over the Sabres in the Eastern Conference Final before falling to the Anaheim Ducks in a five-game final.
Before that Cup final series, Muckler had put his fifth and final Cup ring from Edmonton on his finger as he spoke to reporters in Ottawa. The ring was from the 1990 championship, won by Muckler as head coach of an Oilers team that managed the feat without the great Wayne Gretzky, by then a member of the Los Angeles Kings.
“This one’s for Jenny,” said Muckler, playing with the ring on his finger, and noting that he had promised it to his youngest daughter, but only after he might win this sixth ring with the Senators.
It wasn’t to be. Muckler and the Senators not only lost to Anaheim, but Muckler was fired soon afterward and replaced as GM by Murray.
How things have changed in Ottawa over those 13 years.
Then, the Senators were a mature franchise, having peaked from their lean years in the early to mid-1990s as an expansion franchise. It was Muckler who brought former Sabres superstar goalie Dominik Hasek to Ottawa in 2005-06, a team that might have been the Senators’ best, but Hasek got hurt in the Turin Olympics and didn’t play in the playoffs.
Following the ‘07 run to the final, Ottawa entered a brief rebuilding period in 2011 and then a deeper rebuild in 2018 and ‘19 that players like White and Norris hope to soon help turn around.
Senators offer condolences
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, the man who replaced Muckler with Murray, offered condolences to Muckler’s family over their loss.
“John had the heart of a champion, was a consummate professional and a beloved family man,” Melnyk said, in a statement released by the club. “For years the Senators were perennial Stanley Cup contenders because of his dedication and leadership.
“On behalf of the entire Senators organization I want to express our sincerest condolences to John’s family, friends and all those whose lives he touched in the hockey community.”
White looks right and ready
White, 23, can’t know much about Muckler’s legacy, but he hopes to be part of the next wave of excellent hockey in Ottawa, which has been in reboot mode since a 2017 trip to the Conference Final. In fact, White is the only player left from that 2017 playoff team, having played a single game in the post-season after his NCAA season at Boston College.
White can hardly wait to start his next chapter after a rough 2019-20 season that saw him face the pressures of a new contract, a loss of confidence and a bad groin injury just nine games in.
“I tried to play through it, tough it out, and it just wasn’t working for me,” White says. “I had to shut it down.
“I came back, felt pretty good, then had another bump or bruise again. It was a tough year.
"(These) nine months (were) great to get my body healthy. I feel the strongest I’ve ever been.”
Within two weeks of Ottawa’s final game on March 11, White was in the gym.
“A big mindset of mine was to put on weight, and good weight, too,” he says.
Head coach D.J. Smith continues to be impressed by White in camp. On Tuesday, White was centre on a line with Nick Paul and Austin Watson.
“He’s been very good, he’s come back with renewed confidence,” Smith says. “He’s bigger, stronger. And he’s just getting to work.”
Smith feels White put pressure on himself last season and was in tough against opposing centres on the top two lines. He will be better equipped this season.
“The centre spot is a real battle right now,” White says. “It’s about making sure you come in every day and do the right things and try to move yourself up that lineup.”
If White holds down a top-six spot, he just might have either Brady Tkachuk or rookie Tim Stuetzle on his left side.
“Every guy in the lineup you want to play with right now,” White says. “It’s really exciting how our team is shaping up.”
Norris welcomes Stepan’s experience
Just days before training camp, Norris’s odds of making the starting lineup shifted when GM Pierre Dorion brought in veteran centres Derek Stepan and Cedric Paquette. Norris, 21, insists he didn’t let the moves bother him.
“I can’t control that,” Norris says. “They’re making acquisitions to make the team better and from my perspective, those guys have been in the league a long time and if anything, I can learn from them.
“They’re very smart players and good players. Cedric is already here and Stepan gets here in a few days.”
In Tuesday’s drills, Norris was on a top line with Tkachuk and Evgenii Dadonov.
“Chucky is a great player,” Norris says, “and Dadonov is slick and smart with the puck.
“I’m not complaining about my linemates right now.”
Norris acknowledged these are early days, and Ottawa’s full lineup won’t be ready until next week.
Indoor quarantine football
Tkachuk, Norris and White all returned to Ottawa more than a month before camp, and quarantined together in a townhouse owned by former Senators forward Mark Stone.
“The first week was great and by the second week we were kind of sick of each other,” Norris says.
Along with a home gym set up by Senators staff, the young Sens played lots of video games and watched ‘The Last Kingdom’ TV series. When they got truly bored, they moved a couple of couches and played indoor, tackle football.
“Brady was the QB and me and Whitey were going one on one in the living room,” Norris says.
“Thankfully, we didn’t break anything or knock anything over. We were just trying to stay sane and have some fun in quarantine.”
And while White’s new muscle was apparent, Norris was just glad he didn’t have to tackle the quarterback.
“Thankfully I didn’t have to go against Chucky, because he’s a lot bigger than both of us,” Norris said.
White plays round with BizNasty
White was living on a golf course for the summer and played a lot of rounds, none more memorable than the one with the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast crew.
“I got to play with Spittin’ Chiclets, a little match with BizNasty, Paul Bissonnette and Ryan Whitney, it was a lot of fun,” White says.
‘Life-changing’ for new dad Murray
Goaltender Matt Murray was back at work Tuesday after his wife, Christina, gave birth to a baby girl. The couple is keeping the name of the baby private.
“Obviously, it’s a life-changing experience,” Murray said on a Zoom call. “Any parent can tell you that. It’s our first baby. They are both doing well. I couldn’t be happier.”