Senators' support of Alfredsson's HHOF bid signals cultural shift in organization

Former Ottawa Senators player Daniel Alfredsson makes his way to the ice as his father Hasse Alfredsson (centre) is comforted by his daughter Cecelia Sable as Alfredsson's wife Birgitta and son Fenix look on during a ceremony retiring Alfredsson's Senators jersey number 11 in Ottawa, Thursday December 29, 2016. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Ottawa Senators co-founder Cyril Leeder was 6,000 feet in the air, riding a hot air balloon in France at the time former Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson was announced as a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. 

The Leeder anecdote, which he noted on Twitter with a 'where were you when Alfie got in the Hall?' segment, seems like a fitting metaphor for the Senators' cultural shift recently.

It feels as though the sky's the limit for where these good vibrations might lead. What’s next, general manager Pierre Dorion signs a marquee player to lift Ottawa into a playoff spot for the first time in six seasons?

Anything seems possible when you consider the change in atmosphere around the Senators franchise in recent weeks. 

A few of the developments:

• On June 23, the Senators and their new corporate partners (under the umbrella name Capital Sports Development Inc.) were cited as the preferred bid to build a new NHL arena in LeBreton Flats west of Parliament Hill, a concept that was declared dead in 2019. 

• This week, Alfredsson gets named to the Hockey Hall of Fame after being eligible since 2017 – and for the first time in five years, the Senators franchise officially backed Alfredsson as a candidate.

• On June 1, the Senators displayed a rainbow theme to their team logo while announcing their Pride month initiatives – a move that club staff might not have felt comfortable pursuing a year ago. Since coming into the ownership of the club, Anna and Olivia Melnyk have let it be known they want a more progressive approach on the team’s website and content channels.

• In early April, the Senators teamed up with OSEG, the owners of the CFL Redblacks and OHL Ottawa 67’s to launch a bid to host the 2023 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships in Ottawa. Though the bid was not successful, it was the first joint initiative of the two professional Ottawa sports organizations in years. 

On it goes. No wonder the fan base in Ottawa is engaged with its team in a way that it hasn’t been in years. 

Other than the progress of and excitement around young Senators players like Brady Tkachuk, Josh Norris, Tim Stützle and Drake Batherson etc., fans have not taken great pride in their franchise. In fact, the gallows humour involved in being a Sens fan resulted in the ‘Sickos’ campaign, which took a kind of perverse pleasure in staying a Sens follower despite the prevailing darkness around the team. 

Today, there is radiant sunshine bursting through those dark clouds. 

Not only has Alfredsson been welcomed into the HHOF, he has also been symbolically welcomed back into the family of the franchise. 

For about five years, both Alfredsson and Leeder have been estranged from the hockey club, an anguishing scenario that took place under the regime of Senators owner Eugene Melnyk. Leeder, who had been president/CEO of the hockey team, was fired by Melnyk in early 2017, on the very day that ex-GM Bryan Murray was honoured into the club’s ‘Ring of Honour.’

For the longest time, Alfredsson has barely set foot in the Canadian Tire Centre. In February of 2020, when longtime teammate Chris Phillips had his No. 4 retired at the CTC, Alfredsson attended, but stayed in the background and left the arena without speaking to reporters. It all felt so terribly awkward.

One week after Melnyk died in late March, Alfredsson was back in the rink with members of the Swedish Embassy to mark Swedish heritage night at a Senators game. The images spoke volumes. 

On a Zoom call with Ottawa media Tuesday, Alfredsson talked about the importance of Bryan Murray forming a bridge between Alfie and ownership. Murray passed away in August of 2017, but a few years earlier, he made it possible for Alfie and Melnyk to be in the same room again, despite the contract impasse of 2013. 

“When I left for Detroit, I think it wasn’t the best relationship,” Alfredsson said of his 2013 departure from the Sens to Detroit, where he spent one final season as a player.

“Bryan Murray really made it possible for me to come back and work for the team again, and retire as an Ottawa Senator (2014), which I think healed a lot of wounds, but we still weren’t at the stage where, you know, it was an open relationship.

“But that’s life sometimes and here we are today – it’s different and I’m very happy that it is that way.”

Alfie takes the high road yet again. He credits his father, Hasse, and mother, Margareta, for keeping him grounded. Hasse told him – “It’s not enough to be a good hockey player, you still have to be a good person.”

Giving back to the community in Ottawa came naturally to him. He calls the connection to fans and residents here “organic,” yet in Sweden, it wasn’t common to do charity work and back a cause. He learned that here. 

He can feel a lot more comfortable being the face of the franchise again. 

Melnyk has been rightly credited with saving the Senators franchise in 2003, and he did some good things as owner. But the sense of liberation since the ownership has been passed to his two young daughters and a board of directors is palpable. 

Managers feel freer to manage their business as they see appropriate, without worrying if they are going to be questioned or called out. 

President Anthony LeBlanc has made regular appearances on radio and TV and along with CFO Erin Crowe, helped get the Senators' LeBreton Flats bid in order. To his credit, Eugene Melnyk made sure the Senators got that bid into the National Capital Commission before he died. 

Not only did LeBlanc help orchestrate support of Alfredsson through the team’s official website, the Senators also supported the #AlfieToTheHall campaign, started by superfans Corey Meehan and Stephen MacDonald.

In their push to bring more attention to Alfredsson’s Hall of Fame credentials, Meehan and MacDonald reached out to Leeder, who not only supported the initiative but brought in ex-Sens staffer Craig Medaglia to put together some compelling videos and online content. 

Now, many of the media in Ottawa – this writer included – have been sounding the horn on Alfredsson’s candidacy for the Hockey Hall for several years. But the timing of this campaign was apt, and it held significance as much for who was involved as for what it achieved. 

Did the campaign make a difference in the end? Alfredsson himself said he wasn’t certain, and felt his own career had been enough to get him in. But he was more than touched by the sentiment of the effort, a kind of crescendo to the decades of support he has received in Ottawa from fans – who appreciate his efforts in the community, especially in the arena of mental health, and not just his hockey resume. 

They might all come back into the fold, in some capacity. Alfredsson has said he is open to the idea of a position with the team, though he is not sure what that might entail. 

“Before, it’s always been, I don’t want it to be too time-consuming with a young family (wife Bibi and four sons), but now the kids are getting older,” Alfredsson said, Tuesday.

Medaglia, who created such brilliant content for the Senators during some of their most difficult times, should be extended a red carpet on which to walk back to his former job with the team. 

Leeder is happily engaged in the local corporate world, but belongs in the Senators family in some capacity, even if just as a figurehead. 

Regardless of how these important links of the past re-engage, it’s inspiring to see them part of the present and future of this organization as it hurtles toward the 30th anniversary as an NHL franchise. 

 “There’s a different perspective on everything now than five years ago, I’d say,” Alfredsson said, “so who knows?”

Who knows indeed. Whether 6,000-feet high in France or boots on the ground in Ottawa, the sky’s the limit for the Ottawa Senators and their fans. 

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