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Ottawa Senators

A professional hockey team in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.

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At Last! Senators Capable of Doing Things!

  • Apr 14, 2013
Sometimes, it's heartening to know the NHL has a vast reservoir of intelligence capable of taking care of obvious little things. Like their You Can Play campaign right now. Or the fact that it knew enough to put a team into Ottawa, the capitol of Canada. Eventually.

Well, maybe not so much eventually. The Ottawa Senators were one of the very first hockey teams to even lace 'em up. They were founded back in 1883, and they spent their first 44 years of life jumping from league to league, like most professional hockey teams did way back in the early days. They are widely acknowledged as one of the greatest teams of the pre-NHL days, when they were given one of the most famous nicknames in hockey history: The Silver Seven. Those Senators won the Stanley Cup eleven times, fielded a grab bag of greats, and were there in 1917 when the NHL was actually founded. The Senators teams of the 20's, nicknamed the Super Six, are acknowledged officially by the NHL to be the league's first dynasty, which is an official designation given out by the NHL to dominant championship teams instead of just something to be debated. They won the Stanley Cup four times, won their division seven times, and were known for a very brutal hardline style of playing. Unfortunately, in 1934, they became victims of The Great Depression and were forced to pack up and move to St. Louis, where they played one season as the St. Louis Eagles before their conditions and poor record forced them to suspend operations. "Suspend" in this case meant they were forced to completely shut down, never to return.

It wasn't until 1967 that St. Louis got a new team, the St. Louis Blues. Ottawa, the capitol of Canada with a rich hockey tradition, had to wait until 1990. The NHL had been talking about expansion again in the 80's, and Bruce Firestone of Terrace Investments floated the idea by his fellow corporate executives. Although no one was very eager to throw their lot in with Firestone, apparently Firestone talked a good game. He believed the financing for a team could be found in a development project - him and his peers were real estate guys, you see. In 1989, plans were publicly announced, and the group decided they wanted to resurrect the old Senators name. While that provoked a few legal threats, Firestone had a trump card: He got permission from the descendants of the original Senators' owners to use it! There was a big Bring Back the Senators campaign which included Frank Finnigan, the last surviving member of the last Senators Stanley Cup team from 1927. The team went through a lot of financing struggles and bankruptcy through its history, but Ottawa had its team back.

The first general manager for the Senators was Mel Bridgman, a former player who had never held a GM position before. Coaching, the team picked up Rick Bowness, formerly of the Boston Bruins. On expansion draft day, the team's computer failed and the Senators, with no plan B, started taking potshots in the dark and grabbing players that were ineligible. Since most teams had this odd habit of protecting their young prospects, there wasn't much talent available in general, so the Senators were stuck building with journeymen and players who, while playing well in the minor leagues, were no longer considered hot tickets. Although they did get to pick Alexei Yashin in the entry draft, he couldn't join the team until 1993, so the Senators were pretty much stuck with a group of players basically called on by virtue of their being available warm bodies.

The opening night for the Senators was a great one. The team raised banners paying tribute to the original team's Stanley Cups, the NHL presented Bruce Firestone with a certificate of reinstatement, Frank Finnigan's number was retired, his son dropped the puck (Finnigan himself had died the previous year), Alanis Morissette sang the anthem, and the Sens beat the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens 5-3. It was the first wonderful night in a season which provided, well, absolutely no more of them. At the end of the year, the Sens held the record for the fewest road wins in one year, with one. Their record was a dreadful 10-70-4, for 24 points. At least they could take a little bit of pride in the fact that there was actually another team as bad as them. The second-year San Jose Sharks had gone an equally putrid 11-71-2, also for 24 points.

The 1993 entry draft contained a real badass prospect named Alexandre Daigle, who was the clear number one pick. Everyone wanted him. The Quebec Nordiques offered to trade several players for him. As the 1993 season went on, with the NHL rules saying the team with the worst record got the first pick, the Senators and Sharks were going neck and neck in the whose to lose competition. Ottawa seriously wanted this guy, to the point where they were calling their potential opponents to make sure their best players were going to get plenty of ice time with which to fatten their stats. The Sens didn't make any trades, either. While the Sens finished with a dreadful record, it was clear they had been tanking to earn a lot of it. Firestone was even caught making comments about how his team was losing on purpose. He thought the comments would be off the record, but apparently forgot there's no such thing as an off the record comment. He was reported and the comment cost his team $100,000 in fines. It also caused the NHL to change its draft rules, instating a lottery in 1995 to keep this from happening again. It did, however, have the desired effect, which was that the Senators get the rights to Daigle, signing him to a $12.25 million contract which was the largest ever for a rookie. The NHL wasn't very tickled about THAT, either, and and few years later it resulted in the league capping rookie contracts. Karma came around for the Senators, though, and walloped them right in the gut. Daigle's play turned out not to be worth the $12 million. Hell, it wasn't worth $12. In 1995, he was demoted to being a part-time player. Over four seasons in Ottawa, Daigle only scored 74 goals before they traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers. He posted 327 points in his NHL career.

Fortunately, Alexei Yashin turned out to be a steal. In the 1994 draft, they got Radek Bonk, who went on to post several outstanding seasons in Ottawa. Despite those two, the Senators weren't getting any better in the standings. They kept finishing in last. Attendance was bad, Yashin was rightfully pissed off that the organization was going out of its way to promote the way inferior Daigle over his stellar play and started holding out, and the team's latest first round pick, Bryan Berard, walked out of training camp and publicly said he would never, ever report to the Senators. (Karma bit him too - he went on to a not-so-great NHL career which was only barely better than Daigle's. His walkout was a real bullet dodge for the team.) On December 11, 1995, the team finally made the move which would turn it around. Randy Sexton, who had been hired as Ottawa's GM in 1993, was fired. Pierre Gauthier was hired. By the end of January, he had signed Yahsin to a new contract, gotten Wade Redden from the New York Islanders, and hired Jacques Martin to coach. In 1995, the team drafted a new star in Daniel Aflredsson. In 1997, the Sens were finally a playoff team. Their first playoff series went the distance against the Buffalo Sabres, and the two teams were evenly matched the whole way. Unfortunately, while Ottawa held a lead in game seven, Yashin managed to find his own team's net, and that own-goal was actually the tying goal for Buffalo. Buffalo's Derek Plante then won the series in overtime.

The next year, the Sens finished one game over .500 for their first winning record. In the playoffs, they scored their first series victory over the New Jersey Devils, but lost the second round to the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Washington Capitals. But it wasn't until 1999 when the Senators made their big jump - they won their division with a record of 44-23-15 and 103 points. Their first round playoff matchup was with the Sabres again. Looking to avenge their heartbreaking seven-game loss to them two years earlier, the Senators.... Got swept. Rather easily, in fact. They only scored three goals in the entire series. The next year, Yashin went through a contract holdout for the whole year, hoping to either play somewhere else or make a particular legal claim. The team responded by suspending him for the whole year and giving his Captaincy to Alfredsson, who still holds it to this day. Yashin tried to play in Switzerland, but that wasn't allowed until the dispute was over. His free agency request was rejected, and the team even took legal action to recover damages which came about from the mess.

In the millennium, the Senators started coming to dominate the regular season. They began finishing with over 90 or 100 points regularly, only to find themselves in first round playoff purgatory. Yashin was finally traded in 2001, going to the New York Islanders for Zdeno Chara, and the team also drafted Jason Spezza. They didn't win a playoff series until 2002, upsetting the Philadelphia Flyers. In the second round, they played a tense series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but lost. The 2003 season brought the Presidents' Trophy to Ottawa, and the Sens plowed through the Islanders and Flyers in the playoffs before losing its first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals to New Jersey.

Frustrated with a bunch of playoff losses to, of all teams, the Leafs (four series losses to Toronto out of four), Bryan Murray was brought in as head coach. He spent the lockout being productive as a scout, and when hockey returned in 2005, the team had acquired Dany Heatley from the Atlanta Thrashers for Marian Hossa and Greg DeVries. Heatley, who was in dire need of a scenery change after a car accident he was responsible for killed his teammate, took the line with Alfredsson and Spezza to form the CASH Line, named for Captain Alfredsson, Spezza, Heatley. They also had the services of goalie Dominick Hasek, losing a bit of his days as The Dominator but still potent. They killed everyone in the regular season, then killed the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The second round was a different story. They met the Sabres once again - the same Sabres who had spent a huge chunk of the regular season keeping pace with them. Although some of the early season games had Ottawa blowing out and embarrassing Buffalo, the Sabres managed to get their act together, and by the time the second round got there, the Sabres were every bit as good as the Senators. The shock of the series was that - even though every game was decided by a single goal - it took only five games for Buffalo to ditch Ottawa. The following year, though, the two teams met once again with a big prize on the line: The Prince of Wales Trophy! What was also notable in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals matchup was that Buffalo had been the Team of Destiny. They had run right out to the Presidents' Trophy, and had their way with Ottawa all season. Ottawa had, in the past, met the Sabres three times in the playoffs, losing all three series. This time, though, things finally went Ottawa's way. The Sabres had apparently decided they were playing well enough to look past their opponents, and that made it easy for Ottawa to catch them underprepared and underperforming. The Sens knocked off the Sabres in five, thus reminding the fans in Buffalo (as if we ever needed reminding) that their teams are never, EVER the Team of Destiny. In the Finals, the Sens were easy picking for their 1992 expansion west coast counterparts, the Anaheim Ducks, who crushed them in five games which weren't as close as they looked.

So far, that was the highlight for the Senators. Team turnover began, and Heatley was traded to the Sharks in 2009. The team still hasn't fallen to the putrid levels they were playing at upon their arrival in the NHL, but they ain't good, either. Not by a long shot.

The Senators have retired two numbers, neither of which is really theirs: One is Wayne Gretzky, who I usually don't mention because the league retired his number across the board. The other is Frank Finnigan, a player for the old Senators. The 1992 Senators have, since the millennium, been another one of those talent collector teams: Dominick Hasek, Mike Fisher, Dany Heatley, Alexei Yashin, Martin Havlat, Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk, and Patrick Lalime have all been Senators. The unquestioned face of the team is Daniel Alfredsson, a career Senator since his drafting in 1994 with only a couple of lockout-forced interruptions in Europe.

The Senators have two major rivalries. The first is the good old territorial war against the Toronto Maple Leafs. The second is with the Buffalo Sabres. The Sens have met both teams many times in the playoffs. It's Buffalo which probably takes the cake, though, because the most memorable and important sign of on-ice success for Ottawa was winning the Eastern Conference Championship against Buffalo in 2007. That came after THE defining moment in the rivalry. Early in 2007, when Ottawa's Chris Neil smacked Sabres Captain Chris Drury, injuring him in the process. That wasn't going to stand in Buffalo, so on the next shift, while the Sens put out their top scoring line, the Sabres put in their checking line with order to bring it to 'em! What followed was one of the NHL's Brawls to End All Brawls. The Sabres got into a fight with the entire Ottawa bench, the goalies attacked each other, and even the coaches for Ottawa and Buffalo were seen exchanging some presumably very angry words with each other.

The Ottawa Senators are deferential to their past teams. They have the requisite Stanley Cup banners hanging from their rafters, and on the night of their first game, the NHL gave them a certificate of reinstatement. They have Frank Finnigan's number retired for his work with those old teams. However, it's important to note that the NHL does treat the 1992 Ottawa Senators as a different team from the old teams, at least in a legal sense. Unlike the Cleveland Browns, which are treated like the Browns of old in official NFL documents (their official status for the three years Cleveland didn't have a team is that operations were suspended) instead of like the expansion team they are, there's no legal suspension status given to them. They are a different team from the teams fielded in the rocky days on the NHL.

The Ottawa Senators have strong fan support, but there's no telling how soon that Stanley Cup is going to come. It was possibly a few years ago, but the team has been shifting to listlessness since then, so an adopting fan will have to be pretty patient. The payoff might be worth it, though. Take the Ottawa Senators with a grain of salt.

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Nicholas Croston ()
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