Friday, November 30, 2018

With Melnyk As Landlord, Sens In A Haunted House With No Escape

Lebreton Flats remains Ottawa’s ultimate “haunted house”, but it's not the only one.

Not that any real haunted houses remain on the Flats anymore. They were first wiped out by a massive fire in 1900, back in the day when it was possible for entire cities to be leveled by one casually tossed cigarette. Rebuilt quickly, an even worse disaster occurred when the Diefenbaker government expropriated the entire neighbourhood in the 60’s, demolished the houses and storefronts and then promptly did nothing with it for 40 years other than using it as a snow dump.

In any other city on any planet, land that valuable in sight of Parliament Hill would be a thriving part of the inner city. In Ottawa, weary OC Transpo riders stare at it every day out dirty windows on their way to the suburbs, wondering why there’s a big empty, depressing space in the middle of the city.

There’s not even a Starbucks there. The mind reels.

Refreshingly, those riders will soon be zipping by the Flats on trains instead of buses, but that “haunted house” will remain for the foreseeable future while Ottawa’s two alpha male businessmen fight to the death for the right to make millions of dollars from the country’s most famous snow dump.

And really, that’s what we’re talking about here when you remove all the language surrounding development, city planning, and condo revenue.

It’s about two businessmen, John Ruddy and Eugene Melnyk, who can’t make a deal with each other, and have decided to go nuclear in the courts, once again razing the Flats right back down to the contaminated soil. Not with fire, not with federal expropriation, but with unbridled ego.

Better journalists than myself have gone into detail surrounding the botched partnership so there’s no need to analyze the particulars here. Maybe Melnyk has a legitimate grievance over Ruddy developing a property in direct competition with the condo developments on the Flats, as he contends in the lawsuit. The two combatants will get their weeks in court and their pound of flesh once the judgments come in long past the time anyone really cares.

For Ottawa Senators fans, the judgment came down swiftly and without mercy almost immediately after the news broke in November. A shiny steel and glass rink for a rebuilding hockey team won’t be available to take the train to anytime soon. And it feeds into the now permanent perception that Melnyk is only capable of careening from one public relations disaster to another, all the while razing this town’s beloved hockey team right down to the pavement of the empty parking lot at the CTC in Kanata.

For a metaphorical match, you could do a lot worse than comparing the history of the Flats to the history of the Senators.

Both were once thriving components of this city, both suffered disasters – the Sens didn’t burn down but former owner Rod Bryden went bankrupt and the team was sold for pennies to Melnyk in the aftermath. The government tore people’s houses down in the Flats without much worry how the occupants felt or where they would go. Melnyk tore down every superstar and fan favourite who dared to step into the limelight – Marian Hossa, Daniel Alfredsson, Kyle Turris and Erik Karlsson.

And now both entities are in an embarrassingly long and drawn out holding pattern, with absolutely no certainty of what the future holds. The Flats could take another ten years until some clever businessman puts the right deal together, with or without an arena for the Senators. The team could drift ten years in a rebuild that has no guarantee of success and in a half-full arena in Kanata nearing the end of its life cycle.

That’s almost the definition of “haunted” - stuck in a realm between life and death, unable to cross over. Can you think of a better definition for either the Sens or the Flats?

Ruddy has the hearts and minds of the city behind him, due to his success with the Redblacks and various other profitable ventures around Ottawa. Melnyk gets billboards asking him to leave on the next available bus to Toronto.

This favorable view of Ruddy means nothing in the legal world, but it means everything in the real world.

Melnyk enjoyed an extended honeymoon when he “saved” the Senators from Bryden’s bankruptcy in 2003. Keep in mind that this bankruptcy occurred in an NHL era when teams had relocated for lesser reasons than bankruptcy. The loss of Ottawa’s franchise was a very real possibility at that time. Melnyk stabilized the franchise for what was a decade of success, culminating in a trip to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. Life was pretty good around the team for a long time.

That seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

The new arena in Lebreton Flats was Melnyk’s last chance at winning back the hearts and minds of Senators fans. It was all set up to be the ultimate Hail Mary pass with Melnyk once again pulling this team from the fire and getting that public acclaim that he so clearly desires.

He’s not Ebenezer Scrooge or some comical villain that enjoys the negativity surrounding him. In fact, it’s the opposite. He reacts with indignant fury when given a chance to defend himself or his organization (as the UBER overreaction and the Flats lawsuit will tell you), which indicates he sees a grave injustice in how he’s portrayed by the media and fans. He’s not enjoying the billboards and the columns speculating on whether he’ll sell the team or not. It probably hurts more than he’ll let on.

Melnyk likely envisions a scenario where he’s the good guy again. He might even think it’s just around the corner. He won’t sell the team because his story and his legacy are not yet complete. It’s just a matter of getting the “right message” across and convincing us to see things his way.

Now that he’s booted the Flats opportunity into outer space somewhere, there’s just no hope anymore for his public rehabilitation in Ottawa, but alpha male businessman just don’t go gently into the good night. They fight to bitter end regardless of reason or even self-preservation.

For Senators fans, you just have to hope there’s something left to salvage once the ego battle is over.

As Ryan Adams once sang “I don’t want to live in this haunted house anymore.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Cautionary Tale Of Matt Duchene, And The Road To Redemption

Read the latest Black Aces column over at Faces Magazine here.

"Matt Duchene has the kind of face any Mom would love.

The kind of face you’d see in the 50’s selling Wrigley’s Doublemint or Neilson’s Hot Chocolate. The Haliburton, Ontario native has the look of a kid who’d knock on your door on a winter afternoon and say “My Mom made you this apple pie. She say’s Muurrrry Christmas!” and then turn around and trod through the snow with his mittens hanging limply on a string from his sleeves.

He’s only 27 (which is close to being considered “ancient” in today’s NHL) but he doesn’t look much different than most of the 19-20 year olds who invade league rosters year after year. During interviews he likes to wear his ball-cap backwards, and he smiles politely and speaks clearly. On the ice he’s undoubtedly a superstar – or at least has the skills of a superstar – with a ridiculously short stick that allows him to control the puck in tight around the net like almost no one in the game today. I don’t know what Zdeno Chara would do with that stick. He might eat it I suppose."

Read the full column here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

A Little Bit Of “Crazy” Would Look Good On Boucher

Check out the latest Black Aces column at Faces magazine here.

"It was a crushing moment for the Ottawa Senators, but head coach Guy Boucher just stared, seemingly frozen in thought. Was this grace under pressure or was it just another colourless moment from an increasingly colourless game?

First, let’s look at the facts. The Senators had just completed a 3-goal comeback in the third period against the Vegas Golden Knights on Nov. 8 but had quickly given up another to go down 4-3 with just under half the period left to go. Regardless of the sudden setback, the hometown Ottawa crowd was getting louder and the Senators best players, most notably young phenom Thomas Chabot, were coming on in waves. It was only a matter of time before the building was set to erupt again..."

Read the rest here...

Monday, November 5, 2018

Sens Odd Couple Headed For Divorce

Read the latest Black Aces at Faces Magazine.

"The planets are quickly aligning for the Ottawa Senators, but they’re not aligning for one of those miracle playoff runs that happen once a decade.

Instead, all the planetary signs are pointing to the most predictable of all Senators-related phenomena – another coach firing. Of course, this is not a certainty, and maybe GM Pierre Dorion and Head Coach Guy Boucher have a very well hidden rapport that will survive this tumultuous season, but the betting money is on the killing floor...."

A Goalie Under Siege, Craig Anderson Fights For His Legacy

Read the latest Black Aces column at Faces Magazine.

"Even a routine Sunday night in Las Vegas can be eventful.

While most Ottawa fans were curled up on a couch after the first snowy day of late October, Senators goalie Craig Anderson was in eternally sunny Vegas facing 53 shots as the Golden Knights stormed his end of the ice with ease. Anderson was incredible, turning aside 49 shots with his glove, his stick, his pads and even his head.

Somehow, it still wasn’t enough...."

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Unloved, Forgotten Game-Day Program - Ottawa Senators Score Edition

Over the years I've accumulated many of these things going to games and at one point I decided to scan the covers of the ones I still had (meaning the ones my wife didn't throw away).

They used to give them away for free, but like most NHL teams, they eventually stopped that practice. To be honest, I'm not even sure if they print game-day programs anymore. Just thought I'd share these as they can bring back a few memories and a few familiar faces.

Most people tossed these in the trash on the way out, left them in their car where snow and slush and dogs destroyed them, or just left them under their arena seats after the game. Even a deep internet search doesn't bring many of these back from the dead.

From what I can remember, the Score program was published every few months but every game-day a new insert was stapled into the center featuring that night's roster and current scoring etc.

One day I'll post scans of the much celebrated Bodycheck magazine the Sens used to print in the early days of the franchise. But for now... the much unloved and forgotten Score game-day programs for your nostalgic Sens needs.

Primal Scream Therapy With Mark Stone (via Faces Magazine)

You can read the latest Black Aces on Faces Magazine's website located here:

"It’s been a long time since we’ve heard the Canadian Tire Centre that frighteningly loud.

When Mark Stone scored the overtime goal against the Montreal Canadiens on a recent Saturday night, with legend Bob Cole calling the game for Hockey Night In Canada, the crowd erupted into a kind of defiant frenzy. Defiant in the sense that every single pundit had predicted disaster for this much maligned hockey team, and here they were clinching their third straight win on home ice against arguably their biggest rival, the vaunted Canadiens...."

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Brady Tkachuk Is Out Of Control... And We Like It

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a smile on Pierre Dorion’s face that didn’t look forced.

Yet the morning before his 2-2-1 Ottawa Senators faced the Dallas Stars, the GM was making the local media rounds on television and radio with a detectable skip in his step. On camera with CTV’s Henry Burris, Dorion was the picture of relief, spinning hope that just a month ago seemed all but impossible.

And who could blame him?

Even the most moderate of pundits predicted total agony for this franchise, and the fact that this young-ish Senators team wasn’t 0-5 seemed like a Hail Mary that actually came through and landed into Dorion’s outstretched hands. Although everyone is happy to remind us all that it’s too early to be gloating about anything, letting Dorion enjoy this small moment in time seems more than reasonable.

I don’t see any “gloating”. I see a sort of collective “Oh”, the kind of muted response that seems appropriate for the occasion. Nobody is saying this team is going to swagger across the finish line into the playoffs, but it doesn’t look like they’re going to drive off a cliff either.

That same night, the Sens went out and smothered the explosive offense of the Stars with a 4-1 victory in front of a small hometown crowd of about 12,500. Two of the kids, Brady Tkachuk and Max Lajoie were instrumental in the win. After the game, goalie Craig Anderson told reporters that Tkachuk and Lajoie were “the heartbeat of this team, not only on the ice, but in the room”.

Now think about that quote for a second. This is Anderson, a fairly quiet but honest veteran player, telling reporters that a 19 and 20 year old pair of rookies are the “heartbeat” of the team. I’ve never heard any player say that, at least not that I can recall.

Dorion didn’t do any post-game pressers of course, but I’m willing to bet a few dollars he tipped back a drink of his choice and had a hell of a peaceful sleep out in lovely Orleans.

After all, Dorion and Eugene Melnyk made the ultimate gamble with their fan base by trading away Erik Karlsson. And unsurprisingly, they’re losing on that front in the short-term, with attendance low and the season ticket base rumoured to be at rock bottom levels.

Yet, despite all of this negative public and media sentiment, there is more than a trickle of positivity coming back to this team. You see it in little ways. Twitter, which is ultimately the barometer for the most extreme fans, has recently been dotted with lines like “I hate that this team is making me want to like them again”.

And that really sums it up, doesn’t it?

Watching Tkachuk barrel around the ice like an out of control fire truck isn’t exactly grace-in-motion, but it’s undeniably entertaining. Last weekend, with the Senators up 5-1 on the Kings late in the 3rd period, Tkachuk was battling in front of the Kings net like his very life depended upon it. You’d laugh if it wasn’t so impressive. It’s rare that a player can skate by him without getting a quick, almost invisible slash on the arms, and when he gets back to the bench he’s always laughing or yelling about something.

Meme’s have quickly spread of Tkachuk in all sorts of strange comedic situations, like his now infamous cringe reaction to Lajoie on television or getting his helmet screwed tight on the bench like he’s in a Three Stooges skit. His baby face just seems to accentuate all this, yet it’s a bit deceiving.

He doesn’t look at all like a 19 year old rookie when he’s rambling around ice like he’s trapped in a cage. He’s scored 3 goals in 4 games which leads all Sens forwards in that category. He’s 2nd on the team in shots behind Lajoie, 3rd in power-play points, and he’s done all this after missing the first two games of the season.

Every time he scrambles over the boards, you can feel the fans pay attention in the rink. Everybody watches this guy because it’s impossible not to. Wherever he is, helmets fly off, people lose their sticks, nets come off their moorings and plexiglass sways dangerously.

In a way, he’s the anti-Karlsson. The former Senator was all sleek skill and silent speed. Tkachuk is all arms and legs and chewed-up mouthguards.

But the fans are starting to eat it up.

Even my own 8 year old son, who, horrifyingly, has shown absolutely zero interest in his father’s favourite pastime, saw a clip of Tkachuk on TV and said “Who’s that guy? He’s kinda funny and crazy.” Before this, the only interest he’s had in hockey was singing word for word Brian5or6’s “Hotsam Batcho” song… again to my horror.

Suddenly this team has a few budding stars to market and it doesn’t seem like a total reach. It helps that Thomas Chabot and Tkachuk are both comfortable in front of a camera. Chabot probably had to learn it on the fly in a second language while Tkachuk just inherited it naturally from his NHL family.

There’s still more than a few long and short-term worries however.

Logan Brown’s apparent unreadiness for the NHL this year surprised me. He’s fallen out of favour a little with prospect watchers but I easily envisioned the big centremen stepping in right away right behind Matt Duchene. Turns out he’s in the AHL, sidelined by an injury while Filip Chlapik, Rudolfs Balcers and Drake Batherson are all making their case to be the next call-up. Brown feels like a century away right now but that can all change pretty quickly.

Cody Ceci continues to struggle, both on the ice and with the fans. Two wins in a row with Ceci sitting out injured isn’t going to put this to rest anytime soon. Thankfully Chris Tierney and Dylan DeMelo, both acquired in the Karlsson deal, have been revelations in their roles, making the disappointments of Brown and Ceci seem less vital.

And yes, you can always rely on worrying about contracts for Duchene, Mark Stone and Ryan Dzingel.

But maybe it’s okay for Sens fans to just enjoy the temporary hope while they can. Maybe, if things keep going the right way, it can be more than just temporary.

Remember the defiant quotes before the season started from Duchene and Mark Borowiecki? They were polite about it, but you could tell they wanted to stuff this season down everybody’s throats if they got the chance. There were clues sitting here in front of us that this team was going to fight like hell.

It was there when coach Guy Boucher seemed to snarl his displeasure at seeing veteran Zack Smith waived. Nobody was thrown under the bus but it was easy to detect an “us vs them” mentality forming. It had been too long a summer of the coach (who quietly does not have a contract extension) and the players just hanging out there on the clothesline being pecked at by everybody.

They had no control until they could actually step on the ice and finally do something about it. Now we might just have a team worth watching here, forged by the need to prove us all wrong.

How far they're willing to go to prove that point will be the entertaining part. Just don't take your eyes off that "crazy" Tkachuk kid. You might miss a garage sale.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Some Guys Have All The Luck

It’s a tale of two cities for Thomas Chabot and Cody Ceci.

Last Saturday night in parade-expecting Toronto, in front of a national audience on Hockey Night In Canada, the 21 year old Chabot calmly dangled Leafs defenseman Igor Ozhiganov and top-shelfed a goal so pretty that even the most heartbroken of Sens fans probably felt a ragged pulse for the first time in months.

A short two days later at the Boston Garden, fellow defenseman Cody Ceci had one of those mediocre games that would go largely unnoticed in most NHL cities, but for fans watching at home in Ottawa, it was another opportunity to hit the rage button on a once highly regarded prospect turned fan punching bag.

Not many teams can stop the Bruins first line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pasternak – and Ottawa was no exception on this day – but the sight of Bergeron’s hat-trick goal bouncing in off of Ceci’s skate launched a thousand and one “I told you so” tweets.

Never mind that Ceci was (awkwardly) doing the right thing in trying to cut off a cross-crease pass. Never mind that fluke bounces factor into basically every NHL game in history.

All of that doesn’t matter. At least not to Ottawa fans and Mr. Ceci. For many, Ceci will never measure up, even though nobody really knows what that measure is supposed to be.

Analytics-minded fans say they know the measure, and it’s possession time among other stats. And they may very well be right. Ceci, miscast as a shutdown defender on a thin Senators blueline, has to face Bergeron, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Steve Stamkos, Alex Ovechkin and other Eastern Conference stars almost every time he steps on the ice. Which means he’s skating backwards more often than handling the puck, and when he does get it on his tape, it’s probably going high off the glass and through the neutral zone so his team can make a line change. Doesn’t make for a very compelling set of numbers.

For many, he also fails the eyeball test, which is really also just a “values” test.

We watch with our eyes but we also watch with our prejudices. We want to see what we already know, which is why analytics has cut through some of the traditional views and made everybody mad on both sides of the divide. It challenges everything we think we know and therefore it’s a threat. On the other hand analytics dismisses intangibles too easily and the eyeball test probably takes too much of it into account.

But you’re not interested in that old debate are you? I’m not.

We already know a lot about Ceci and we’re not going to part with that knowledge without a good fight. We see a minor miscue and it brings to mind hundreds from the past and suddenly that bad bounce turns into the blooper that should see him traded for a draft pick (a 2nd rounder has no blemishes – they’re friggin’ perfect).

We don’t see the routine plays that a veteran makes to be in position to halt a breakout or that vital routine pass to break out of the zone. Not the home run pass to create a breakaway, but the simple chalkboard play to get out of your zone. Ceci, and most vets, make these unremarkable plays more often than not and that’s why a coach like Guy Boucher values them. Fans only see the outliers and soon those outliers distort into the norm.

But when does reputation overshadow the on-ice play so much that the team has no choice but to move on from the player?

It’s a bit reminiscent of Jason Spezza, who was well-liked by more fans than Ceci, but still took so much heat that he wanted out of town shortly after being named captain. He felt he took more than his fair share of blame. Nothing was more stark than Spezza chasing Sidney Crosby around the net during a playoff series and getting beat so badly that it came to represent all of his shortcomings as a defensive player. Never mind that it was against the best player in the world at the time. For many fans, Spezza was a sum of his mistakes, not the superstar that he actually was and continued to be for some time.

Ceci’s bad bounce in Boston is nowhere near as dramatic or important, but you can see the track this train is running on. And it’s not pulling into Party Station anytime soon.

Ceci even recently admitted that he was expecting a role change this season with Erik Karlsson suddenly in San Jose (that’s a pretty good movie title, “Suddenly In San Jose”), but, once again, luck is not with the young Ottawa native.

That role has been offloaded to even younger players like Chabot, the out-of-nowhere Max Lajoie and pending UFA Chris Wideman. If Ceci can’t get that role right now, he’s never going to get it in Ottawa.

“If it wasn’t for bad luck….”

Meanwhile, Chabot is the fan’s new golden kid. He’s already got an organic fan nickname, which almost never happens in hockey anymore. His teammates probably call him Chabby, but the fans now refer to him as Hotsam Batcho, a Brian5or6 epiphany when a few beers prompted a deep dive into the world of anagrams (and other debaucherous activities).

It’s caught on and even Hotsam himself endorsed the name by being photographed in a custom Brian5or6 shirt with the nickname on the back. Fans swooned. Shirt sales went crazy. It was a love-in.

Unfortunately there’s no such opportunity for Ceci.

It goes a bit deeper than just stats and his perceived play on the ice (which to me is nowhere near as awful as some make it out to be, but it’s not something to celebrate either). There’s long been a sentiment that Ottawa management favoured local prospects for marketing reasons over more skilled options, but in the case of Ceci, he was one of the most highly rated defensemen in his 2012 draft class. That bugaboo may apply in other cases, but it doesn’t seem to apply here.

That he hasn’t blossomed into the offensive right-shot defenseman that many thought he would be probably comes down to playing behind Erik Karlsson on the right side. Not to mention playing behind Karlsson’s personality.

Karlsson is a natural star in every way, completely comfortable in his own skin and magnetic to even casual fans. Ceci’s only crime is having a “standard” hockey personality. He’s good at saying the right things in a rinkside interview but despite being a local star with the 67’s in junior, he’s not exactly the most requested player in media scrums. There’s no winks or moustache twirls.

Like most players, he enjoys his privacy and doesn’t seem to be clamoring to be the voice of the team. He’s well liked in the locker room by all indications and seems especially close to another fan favourite, Mark Stone.

Unlike Stone, he actually had to go through his arbitration hearing this summer and expressed some thinly veiled bitterness at what he had to hear from the team. He makes good coin this season, but it comes at some unknown personal cost.

In a fair world, Ceci would probably be seen as a “fair” player, but that’s fantasy land at this point.

Chabot has won the hearts of Sens fans, as has Stone, and it probably won’t be long before Brady Tkachuk and Alex Formenton are embraced the same way.

For Cody Ceci, the intense scrutiny will continue until something breaks, either for management or the player. He probably deserves better, but on a rebuilding team, Ceci is going to continually be put in the position where his mistakes are magnified and his good plays are unrecognized. I can only imagine how tough it has to be on his psyche. Or his family and his friends. These attacks have real ramifications. Just ask Jared Cowen, or other high draft picks before him who didn’t measure up to expectations.

I don’t know the guy but I imagine his dreams of playing in the NHL were the same as thousands before him. This was supposed to feel better.

As Rod Stewart, with his rooster haircut and red leather pants once sang non-ironically, “some guys have all the luck”.

Ceci could use some of that easy living Rod Stewart luck right now.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Opening Night

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." - Hunter S. Thompson

I was thinking of that quote as I walked up to the arena gates with Brian5or6 for opening night of the Senators 26th season. At this hour he was looking rather together with a pressed shirt, blue tie and a shiny gold watch. Under his arm he carried a "Hotsam Batcho" jersey neatly folded, on his way to pick up his first set of media credentials.

Before we even got out of the parking lot, random teenagers converged on us and wanted pictures of themselves with Brian5or6. This happened at least a dozen times while I was with him, and who knows how many times when he was wandering the arena between periods. He handles it like a pro and people walk away happy and with something to post on Twitter. Well known local media personalities slap his back and invite him out for beers. Senators executives shake his hand and want his opinion on how the fans feel about certain issues.

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

In a summer filled with turmoil and disappointment for hardcore fans, Brian5or6 was able to make people laugh and occasionally even put down their pitchforks for a night. If it took falling down a set of stairs, smashing a TV with a shovel or just screaming profanities into an iPhone, Brian5or6 captured the angst and was able to diffuse it somehow. Some people felt better seeing him throw a television off a deck. It meant they could leave their own TV on the wall. Maybe it WAS just a game after all.

That's what Pierre Dorion said to Brian5or6 when he met him for the first time this fall. With a knowing smile on his face, Dorion pointed at him and said "I've seen you. That video. It's just a game, you know?" And they both laughed and shook hands. Sure, it's just a game to Brian5or6. But for Dorion? As he's become well aware, it's much more than that.

The young GM seems to live in a hurricane of negativity and pressure. The fans take turns blasting him or ownership, or both. Without an assistant GM for the entire summer, Dorion was tasked with trading the team's best and most popular player and launch a full rebuild in front of a increasingly agitated fanbase. He accomplished the first and initiated the second, but the results will be unknown for a while. Pundits will be counting attendance numbers more closely than goals on the ice. That's the kind of atmosphere Dorion has to try and thrive in. It's not really a hockey atmosphere anymore. It's a sort of pseudo-political task the Sens are trying to navigate. They're not the first pro team to go through this and they won't be the last, but that doesn't make it any easier for Dorion.

Meanwhile, across the continent, Erik Karlsson made his San Jose Sharks debut a night earlier – a loss – and people strained themselves to find meaning in the result. They’re almost used to seeing #65 in teal now since photos began to surface out of training camp of the smiling defenseman in his new colours. Everything seems so sunny there in contrast. It feels personal to Sens fans, as if every Karlsson grin is an indictment of the struggling franchise he just vacated.

Yet in a widely viewed Sportsnet interview on opening night, Karlsson wasn’t grinning very much. He seemed genuinely troubled by his departure from Ottawa, sometimes using “we” to describe the Senators, as if a big part of him were still back home, a word he often uses to describe this city.

There are countless Karlsson jersey’s on the backs of fans here tonight. No one quite knows what to do this early in the aftermath. Moving on is tough. You still see Hossa jersey’s from time to time, but not too many. Alfredsson sweaters are common, but there’s no anguish there anymore. It’s just old news, and someday this will be viewed the same. But it might be a while.

The actual game started on an emotional note as the mother of the late Jonathan Pitre, Tina Boileau, dropped the puck for a ceremonial faceoff after a video of her son, in various stages of his battle against a skin disease known as RDEB, was shown to the crowd. Somehow, she kept it together. Not many others could. They stood and gave her a tearful standing ovation while Jonathan’s inspirational voice was heard over the arena speakers. You don't have to be a parent to know how hard that must have been for her to remain stoic.

"It's just a game."

Spirits didn’t completely lift until Zack Smith, just a week removed from being on waivers, scored the Sens first goal of the season, and no one was happier than captain-in-waiting Mark Stone, who emphatically pointed at Smith with a crazed look of joy on his face. Stone usually reacts that way when teammates score, but this was something a bit more meaningful. It was momentary redemption for Smith, and it seemed to spur him on his following shifts, coming close to another goal in the first period. Maybe Dorion’s waiver gambit worked, if you take his word that it was meant to send a “message” to both Smith and the team. Like a few decisions the Sens have made recently, it’s a little shrouded in mystery.

Well, a mystery to everyone except Matt Duchene, who now famously said it was a "kick in the balls" to the dressing room. As some have already noted, there wasn't that kind of angry response from players when Karlsson was dealt, but in our search to ascribe meaning to the slightest of reactions or non-reactions, it's easy to get lost in it all. Let's not.

It was Max Lajoie’s first career goal to tie the game 2-2 that really lifted the fog. The kid who came out of nowhere (I kept having to look at the game sheet because his number 58 seemed alien to me) had his parents in the stands and the usual reactions happened after a player’s first goal – tears, more tears, strangers walking over to congratulate the mother and father. Soon we'll see Brady Tkachuk and his parents go through the same ritual, possibly in Toronto on Saturday night in front of a national audience if the hockey gods approve.

Everyone seemed to expect lots of empty seats (and in the dark corners of Sens Twitter, some openly wished it to prove a point), but it looked like most every game last year. Scattered sections with empty rows but nothing glaring. Official attendance was 15,858, with plenty of freebies, but it was a loud rink when Colin White put the Sens ahead on a power-play goal. When the Hawks pressed in the 3rd and began to take the game over, the crowd stayed behind the Sens and you could sense a little relief in the air. This team still has fans, after all the carnage of the summer and the billboards and the "laughingstock" sentiments from non-local media. Maybe they don't have many fans on Twitter, but neither do I. Only Brian5or6 does.

This market has taken vicious beatings in the past (the Rod Bryden bankruptcy, the Leafs) and they're taking one now, but I didn't get any sense of gloom walking around the rink. The kids were eating popcorn, the 50/50 sellers were barking, the drunk guys in Hawks jerseys were laughing with wives in Sens colours. Sure, there were a few awkward moments, particularly when a pair of girls on the huge video screen deftly swung around to reveal they were wearing Karlsson jersey's and the feed quickly cut, but for the most part it seemed like people still came here for the same reasons they came before.

It's just a game.

As I walked back to the parking lot with Brian5or6, I heard quickly approaching footsteps behind us and thought I was going to be in the middle of some kind of swarming/beating of a lifetime situation, but it was merely another young fan wanting a picture with my brother. His mom stood back smiling and thanking us while the picture was taken and the kid couldn't really form proper sentences. He just kept saying "I love your videos".

The mom and I exchanged a shrug and a smile.

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.