By Sean McIndoe
Last spring, the Ottawa Senators shocked the hockey world.
With the odds against them, this group of brave souls pulled together in a stunning display of courage and fortitude to make the playoffs for the first time in their recent history thanks to a breathtaking late season run.
The team then went on to face the mighty Buffalo Sabres and, despite being given little or no chance to win by the experts, came agonizingly close to pulling off a tremendous upset. Along the way, the Senators captivated not just a city, but an entire nation, and in the process became well and truly Canada’s Team. This is the story as the Ottawa Senators fan will tell it.
It is also a laughable exaggeration.
The Senators playoff run, while exciting for long-suffering fans, was hardly memorable on a larger scale. In fact, the same sort of drama plays out in many cities each season as playoff time draws near.
Senators fans had every right to be disappointed after losing to the Sabres. They were not a very good team, as demonstrated by their quick exit from the second round after losing their only star player, goaltender Dominik Hasek. Meanwhile, hockey fans outside of Ottawa were paying more attention to the Edmonton Oilers.
While there’s no shame in fans getting caught up in the moment, the myth that the Senators were Canadian heroes continues to linger well into the new season. One need only listen to a group of Senators fans talking hockey in the concession stands or over a beer to realize that many have bought the hype: they feel the team and its players are deserving of status among the league’s elite.
Even those who defend the Senators fan as relatively well-informed admit that some take their hero-worship too far. Thomas Curran, an online columnist and season-ticket holder since 1992, says the team’s short history has shielded it from fan extremism. But he says he feels the situation will only deteriorate with time.
“The hockey fanatics are not yet blinded to the home team, and the fans tend to be older,” says Curran. “It will develop, I’m not suggesting there’s something in the water, but not until the team has been here 10 years or so.”
But it is the local media that is drumming up the hype with their supportive, often fawning coverage. Curran calls the local coverage “laughable” and calls the Sun in particular a “booster club.”
The newspapers typically reserve articles with a negative slant for the few players who have already fallen out of favor with fans, such as the recently departed Alexandre Daigle. But this the rare exception to the rule in a city where even modest displays of skill are met with gushing superlatives.
“That situation is incredibly prevalent here,” says local author and sports personality Liam Maguire, who’s followed the Senators since their inaugural season in 1992.
“Roy MacGregor and these guys think (Alexei) Yashin walks on water,” says Maguire, a Sun columnist. “But you take him and put him on any of the top half dozen teams in the league and he’s not even on the first line. He’s second line, maybe third.”
Yashin is perhaps the poster child for the over-rated Senators. Often mentioned in the same breath as the league’s superstars, Yashin has never scored 80 points or more than 35 goals in a season, far from the 100-point and 50-goal barriers often used to separate the best from the rest.
Yet he is the club’s all-time record holder for goals, assists and points in a single season, further highlighting the fact that the franchise has never had a player produce a standout season. Even Daniel Alfredsson’s rookie-of-the-year season came during a year that was weak for rookies.
Though typical Senators fans won’t hesitate to bestow “star” status on any number of players, the results have yet to support their accolades.
“If Alfredsson was so great, if (Damian) Rhodes was impregnable, if (Wade) Redden and (Chris) Phillips were the second coming of (Larry) Robinson and (Serge) Savard, you’d think maybe they’d be playing a little better than two games under .500,” Maguire says.
But the most alarming fact for the franchise is that, while fans fawn over minor accomplishments, their blind adoration has yet to translate into the type of attendance numbers the team requires. This season has seen average crowds in the mid-16,000 range, well below the Corel Centre’s capacity of 18,500.
The ideal hockey fan, arguably, is an intelligent observer who demands success, but still supports the team win, lose or draw. Senators fans are beginning to get a reputation as just the opposite.
“The Ottawa sports fans are some of the most fickle people in North America,” Maguire said. “The Ottawa fan is with you win or tie. People got caught up in (the playoff run), but watch out if things go bad because these people will be breaking their legs jumping off the bandwagon.”
It’s time for Senators fans to grow up. The first step is to be realistic in evaluating the team and its players. The second is to accept the team for what it is — young, modestly talented but with a potential for success in the future — and support it.
Being a fan is about more than blind praise and buying into hype. Fans in other Canadian cities have known this for years. Now it’s time for Senators fans to follow their team into respectability.