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25 years in, the Ottawa Senators apologize for nothing

NHL PLAYOFFS

25 years in, Ottawa apologizes for nothing

It's been a long, bumpy ride from expansion-draft punchline to surprise playoff run, Roy MacGregor writes

Senators captain Erik Karlsson skates with the puck during warm-up prior to Game 5 against the Boston Bruins during the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Ah, 2017 … the year of endless celebration.

It is the country's 150th birthday. It is 100 years since Canada came into nationhood at the Battle of Vimy Ridge and 100 years since the man who painted Canada, Tom Thomson, went missing. It's 100 years since the federal government brought in that "temporary" income tax that no one today remembers, 100 years since the NHL was founded … and 25 years since the modern-day version of the Ottawa Senators played their very first game.

That the Senators are still kicking in the spring of 2017 is testament to a different sort of survival. Like the century-ago Income War Tax Act, no one really saw it coming and no one expected it to last as long as it has.

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When the NHL announced that it was taking in two new expansion teams in 1990, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Ottawa Senators, the reaction was nothing short of incredulous. If Canada was going to get another franchise, it should have gone to Hamilton. Hamilton, after all, had the rink, the financial backing and the surrounding population. The only hitch, apparently, was that the Hamilton backers wanted to pay the $50-million expansion fee in instalments.

The Ottawa bid was the brainchild of three young men – Bruce Firestone, Randy Sexton and Cyril Leeder – who conjured up their dream over a few cold ones after a beer-league hockey game. They would build a rink, they said, and a town would grow up around it. They didn't ask for instalments – then again, they didn't have the money.

Bruce Firestone (right) is joined by Frank Finnigan, a former Ottawa Senator who scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1926, at an event to promote the bid for an NHL franchise in Ottawa, in this Sept. 6, 1989 photo.

No matter, the NHL, which has never been known for foresight, embraced the young men and their wacky ideas and the Ottawa Senators were reborn, back in Ottawa and the NHL after a 58-year hiatus.

There were problems from the start, and not just financial troubles. The NHL held an expansion draft – Lightning co-founder Phil Esposito likened it to being offered "snow in winter" – and the inexperienced management team screwed up its choices so often that "Ottawa apologizes" became a punchline that to this day requires no explanation in hockey circles.

They put together a team, however, and, miraculously, they won their very first game, defeating the Montreal Canadiens (who would win that year's Stanley Cup, the most recent Canadian team to do so) 5-3.

"Maybe Rome was built in a day," read the headline in the Ottawa Citizen.

Well, Rome wasn't and certainly the Senators weren't. They lost their next game, against the Quebec Nordiques, 9-2. They then flew to Boston, boarded a bus and got hopelessly lost in the fog. It was the perfect metaphor for a team that would go on to set records for futility.

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But that doesn't mean they weren't entertaining. They were, in fact, hockey's equivalent of the '62 Mets – baseball fans may remember manager Casey Stengel saying his best fielders were sitting in the upper deck – and the stories from that first 1992-93 season are today the stuff of legend.

When young defenceman Darren Rumble, previously a minor-leaguer, showed up for the first plane ride out of town, he carried his own pillow and bag of sandwiches. Told by one of the broadcasters that he should sign up for Aeroplan, he asked what that was. When the travel-points program was explained to him, he went wide-eyed and exclaimed, "If they'd had Bus-o-Plan when I was in the minors, I could go around the world."

Another rookie, Darcy Loewen of Sylvan Lake, Alta., became a fan favourite for his wild style of play – the other players called him Taz – and even his mother said he had "cement hands." Veteran Andrew McBain, a fine player, became the only Senator to make the ESPN "plays of the year" – by falling down the steps leading to the old Chicago Stadium dressing room.

Alain Vigneault, now coach of the New York Rangers that the Senators are facing in the Eastern Conference semi-final, was then an assistant coach with the Senators. To take his mind off the team's woes, he took up running. By Christmas he had dropped 30 pounds.

The Senators had to fire their mascot for "abusive conduct," only to have him run off with the car they'd rented for him. They had burglars break into their practice facility and make off with all their video equipment but the game tapes. "Burglars with taste," said assistant coach E.J. McGuire.

The Senators were also going broke.

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The first financial saviour was entrepreneur Rod Bryden, who finished building the team's new rink in a cornfield on the western edge of Ottawa and who was immediately billed by the province for the building of an overpass so fans could get to the games.

Bryden ran into multiple other roadblocks, from a government directive that civil servants could not accept free tickets to a shrinking dollar. At one point, in early 2000, the financial situation was so dire that the federal government was willing to step in and put up a $20-million support plan for struggling Canadian clubs. The backlash was so livid, particularly in media-centre Toronto, where the Maple Leafs had no need of charity, that the government quickly backed off its offer.

Meanwhile, the Senators as a hockey team had been improving dramatically.

So desperate had one coaching regime become, late in 1995, that the staff had assembled candles and a table and were on the verge of holding a seance before one of the assistant coaches, a deeply religious man, panicked and backed out.

But in early 1996 they had their new arena, a new general manager in Pierre Gauthier and a new coach in Jacques Martin. They also had a rising young star in Daniel Alfredsson who – to give the original managers full credit – had been plucked 133rd overall in the 1994 draft.

Then-Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson pursues the puck during a game against the Minnesota Wild in 2009.

Beginning with Alfredsson, who would serve as team captain from 1999 to 2013, the Senators slowly gained respectability on the ice. Off the ice, the struggles continued – the club eventually declared bankruptcy under Bryden's watch and was purchased by current owner Eugene Melnyk in 2003 – but on ice the team eventually reached the Stanley Cup final in 2007, losing to the Anaheim Ducks.

That may not, in fact, not have been the best Senators team ever. The team would have been formidable had NHL owners not locked out its players for the 2004-05 season. As well, the Senators seemed Stanley Cup bound in 2006 before star goaltender Dominik Hasek injured his groin at the Turin Winter Games.

The Senators slowly faded after the apex of 2007. They launched a complete rebuild in 2011 under then general manager Bryan Murray. It was a low, often painful process. The Senators missed the playoffs two of the previous three seasons and only made them in 2015 thanks to the incredible play of unknown goaltender Andrew (The Hamburglar) Hammond. The magic did not last, however, as earlier this year Hammond was placed on waivers by the Senators, the team having decided to go with regular Craig Anderson and new backup Mike Condon.

That the Senators are one of only two Canadian teams – along with the Edmonton Oilers – to win the first round of the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs was a bit of a surprise. Much more had been expected of other Canadian teams, particularly the Montreal Canadiens, but the Senators dispatched the Boston Bruins in six games and are currently tied at two games each with the New York Rangers, who put the Canadiens out in the first round.

Erik Karlsson battles through Rangers players in Game 1 of second round play in the 2017 playoffs.

It has been a year of tremendous change for the Senators. A year ago, it seemed their future in Ottawa was finally a lock when the National Capital Commission chose Melnyk's group for a $3.5-billion redevelopment project on LeBreton Flats. If all goes according to plan, the team will eventually be playing downtown, where critics have long said it should have been in the first place.

Murray, who has valiantly battled cancer the past many months, stepped aside to allow his assistant, Pierre Dorion, to take on the duties of general manager. Dorion hired a new coach, Guy Boucher, to replace the fired Dave Cameron, and Boucher brought a new, defence-first system.

Today's Senators may have the most entertaining player in their history to watch – defenceman Erik Karlsson – but Boucher's overall style of play did not immediately capture the public imagination. Empty seats early in the season infuriated Melnyk to a point that he cleaned house, firing several of the franchise's top executives including co-founder Leeder. One of those let go, chief financial officer Peter O'Leary, has launched legal proceedings against Melnyk that have yet to reach court. Former Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment executive Tom Anselmi was brought in to run the operation.

Dorion had a good rookie year. He traded young forward Mika Zibanejad to the Rangers for veteran Derick Brassard, who turned out to be a pivotal player in the Boston series. He brought in depth forwards such as Alex Burrows and Tommy Wingels and Viktor Stalberg. For a fifth-round pick, he pried Condon away from the Pittsburgh Penguins and Condon's arrival proved fortuitous, as Anderson was often lost to the team over the season so he could be with his wife, Nicholle, who has been battling cancer. Condon was often superb in relief.

Few, if any, would have thought last fall that the team would still be playing on May 6, with the puck about to drop on what is now a best-two-out-of-three series with the Rangers, the winner to move on to the conference final and the winner of that to play for the Stanley Cup.

The Senators would be a long shot to reach the final, but it is not as though they have never raised the Cup.

In their early years, they won it 11 times.

But the last, for those keeping track of anniversaries, was 90 years ago.

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