As any honest fan will tell you, whether it’s the Senators or another NHL team, they truly want to believe that the guys are all one big happy family, both on the ice and behind closed doors in that almost mythical “dressing room” where we suspect so much high drama plays out safely away from the cameras and notepads.
They want to believe that the coach is giving some Herb Brooks type motivational speech to a captivated team before every single period and rookies and vets alike are taping up damaged body parts just so they can play one more game, one more shift, like Jason Smith or Kirk Muller in old clips from Coach’s Corner.
The average guy who works 9-5 in some office and can’t stand the humourless, constantly throat-clearing and dandruff cloaked person in the cubicle next to him likes to lean back in his chair once in a while and try to imagine what it would be like cracking jokes in a stall next to Chris Neil and filling Jared Cowen’s skates up with shaving cream before practice.
For this average, possibly bored-stiff guy, his world is a little more tolerable because he knows that at least somewhere, some people are still paid to hang out like kids at summer camp, play a child’s game and skate heroically on the ice (and sometimes bleed) to the adoration of an entire country. Sounds a lot like that movie Youngblood – overly romanticized and dumbed down for the masses.
While most illusions have largely been stripped away by a cynical press and an overwhelming avalanche of social media that is completely pre-occupied by telling us just how barbaric and stupid hockey is (when they’re not telling us how greedy athletes are), there is still a little room left for the old-school sentimental hockey fan in all of us when you see a team like the Ottawa Senators battle back from preposterous levels of adversity to win a game like they did on Wednesday night, down 2-0 after the 1st period and in serious danger of falling into a 3-1 deficit in the series from which they would never be able to recover.
While it’s certainly more hip to talk about statistics, contracts and head-shots, nobody is really having much fun doing so, the same way nobody had fun listening to The Smiths and New Order for more than two awkward formative years in their life.
Luckily, the playoffs affords us some pure, visceral drama which doesn’t necessarily require another “ironic” Tweet or a blog post meant to show how much smarter you are than real hockey people.
You can watch Matt Carkner postpone his penalty box exit for just a split-second in order to surprise the Rangers defence by taking a long-bomb pass, stickhandling over the blueline and then dishing a perfect feed to a streaking Milan Michalek for the Senators first goal of the game which almost caved in the roof of the Kanata rink from the noise it created.
You can watch a quiet newbie like Kyle Turris snap a perfect shot over the once unbeatable Henrik Lundqvist’s shoulder for the overtime win and notice that the incredulous look on Turris’ face is pretty much the same look on yours at that moment – pure disbelief and awe.
If you’re a Senators fan, and you’re probably a raving lunatic of one if you’ve found your way to some obscure blog like this, you’re definitely aware of the whole “Family” theme happening right now, from the players only t-shirts to the message scrawled by an absent Daniel Alfredsson on the dressing room board that simply read “Do it for the family”.
But the cynic in you probably says “Well, all teams do that in the playoffs. Millionaire athletes acting out a cliché. What makes this team more of a “family” than the New York Rangers or Nashville Predators?”
All you have to do is take a look at the footage directly after Turris scored the overtime winner on Wednesday night. As the Senators bench emptied and the players gang tackled Turris along the boards, the whole team broke into a spontaneous “pogo” that was both ridiculous and wonderful to see. Here are twenty grown men with their arms around each other jumping up and down in unison with pure joy on their faces, something you might see in soccer or occasionally in the NFL, but never in the NHL. Until last night.
The crowd in Kanata was going so crazy that the players almost didn’t know what to do with themselves so they just jumped up and down like kids in their first hockey tournament.
For any fan, it had to bring a smile to your face. You can’t put a stat on it and you can’t break it down to make it boring. It’s just a moment that exists in its own vacuum. It’s the same as Zdeno Chara leaping through the air with a monstrously huge bear roar onto a pile of Senators players in 2003 after Chris Phillips scored that huge overtime goal against the Devils. Even if the Senators don’t win the series, people will remember the Turris goal as a great hockey moment, especially in an organization without a history of championships or many iconic goals such as that.
The contributions of certain players that some fans thought were “useless”, like Carkner and Zenon Konopka, have been inspiring to see. Carkner completely changed the tone of the series with his beatdown of Brian Boyle in Game Two and Konopka is just one of a whole group of third and fourth liners playing strong minutes for this team. Give a guy like Konopka a 45 second shift and tell him to scrape and scratch for every single inch of the ice in front of Lundqvist and you get it exactly like it should be done. These kinds of players don’t reveal their true worth in the regular season because there’s so much more room and less intensity. In the playoffs when every play is made in a tangle of skates and sticks, Konopka quickly becomes more valuable because he doesn’t rely on skating and finesse for his game. He’s built for chaos. You can add Jesse Winchester and Jim O’Brien to that list.
The fact that the Senators are giving the Rangers the fight of their playoff lives right now without their leader and captain Daniel Alfredsson is evidence enough that this team might really be a “family”, or at least as close a Senators team we’ve seen since the Cup run of 2007 or possibly even before that. Some might even make the argument this is the closest Sens team of all-time after so many come from behind wins during the regular season and their surprising climb up the standings after an abysmal start.
We don’t really know because we don’t sit in a stall next to Chris Neil and tease a rookie about his “physique chiselled out of marshmallows” or share a cold one after a tough loss trying to cheer each other up. Like the average guy at the office, it’s probably enough to imagine that it’s happening.
Clearly something is happening with this team. How far they can take it on guts and will alone will be a hell of a thing to watch.