Saturday, December 14, 2019

Brady Tkachuk Doesn’t Care What You Think

According to the experts in various fields, the unending apocalypse was headed to Ottawa this winter.

In the midst of a particularly nasty election in the fall, the well-coiffed hosts on the Weather Channel kept saying it was going to be a long, cold winter with plenty of the white stuff, allowing for a few corny asides like, “Get those toque’s ready folks” with a forced studio laugh that nobody was buying for a second.

Elgin Street was ripped up and resembled something out of an Italian neo-realist war film, while the city's colossally expensive new LRT was just starting to roll into a two-month PR nightmare that will likely become a case study of crisis management for years to come in the world’s best schools.

Yet, the fine folks of Ottawa have handled worse, considering the city actually burned to the ground once, then watched the Parliament Buildings reduced to cinder in another fire 16 years later. They’ve endured ice storms, lumber gangs, the War Measures Act, sinkholes, the Phoenix Pay System, Mike Duffy and continue to live with Pierre Poilievre pissing in the streets and barking at people.

If you believed the pundits, that was all a minor irritant compared to the incoming train wreck of the 2019-2020 Ottawa Senators hockey team.

One hockey podcast, going team-by-team in their predictions for the upcoming season, just began laughing uncontrollably when it came time to talk about Ottawa. Once they calmed down, one host magnanimously said “Okay, all jokes aside, I guess Thomas Chabot and Brady Tkachuk are relevant. Otherwise, this is going to be a disaster to watch.

You might be able to find a publication that didn’t predict Ottawa to finish last, but you would probably have to leave the continent of North America to hunt it down.

Everybody had their laugh and got in their snarky comments on Twitter, because the world loves a good beat down, especially in sports.

It can now be said, Brady Tkachuk didn’t give a shit.

Neither did new coach D.J. Smith, reclamation project Anthony Duclair, the forgotten J.G. Pageau and local superhero Mark Borowiecki. You can probably count on one hand the number of players who didn’t show up to camp with something to prove to the hockey world.

If this column was a movie, now would be the time to insert a highlight packed montage (to the soothing sounds of Slayer) where we would watch Tkachuk scoring 25 seconds into the season’s first game against the hated Maple Leafs and celebrating directly in the face of Toronto fans. That sort of immediate defiance was like a microcosm of the months to come.

Just as Slayer really dig into Raining Blood, we’d see Borowiecki casually strolling down Vancouver’s Downtown East Side with a shopping bag full of baby onesies, spotting a robbery in progress and then clotheslining the suspect to the pavement and holding him until the baffled cops arrived.

If this were a Western, Borocop would have lit a cigarillo and rode off into the sunset to the next border town while an old, unshaved barkeep stands on the saloon porch watching him go in wonder.

We’d continue with replays of Duclair on the penalty-kill, blowing by a lazy Flyers defense, stealing the puck from goalie Carter Hart and wrapping it into the net for another Senators short-handed goal.

We’d see assistant coach Jack Capuano, whose idea it was in the first place to use the once-maligned winger on the penalty-kill, smiling slightly on the bench, while D. J. Smith continues to furiously chew gum through good times and bad.

The song’s not over yet. We’re just getting to Pageau’s goals in November. In they go, on breakaways, from the slot, from beside the net. It seems ridiculous how many there are, but Pageau just doesn’t stop scoring in every conceivable situation, 11 in total for November alone.

As Slayer chugs to the finish, we need to see more of Brady. Opposing players follow him around the ice just trying to get a piece of him, and if they do, they regret it instantly. Tkachuk suddenly seemed to grow a few inches and 20 pounds over the summer and he’s been using every ounce of it in punishing, devious ways – in front of the net, in the corners, or just standing in front of the other team’s bench, chewing his mouthguard and smiling. It’s like looking directly into the eyes of a Philippine Crocodile who just crawled up into your picnic. You leave the food where it is and back away to your Dodge Caravan very slowly.

We finish with way too handsome goalie Anders Nilsson, who arrived in Ottawa on a last-chance trade after being labelled inconsistent during stints with the Islanders, Oilers, Blues and the Canucks. Just like Craig Anderson, who resurrected his career with the Senators in a similar fashion years earlier, Nilsson has actually won a few games on his own for this team, something that hasn’t happened in Ottawa for quite some time. He looms in the net like a giant statue but suddenly flashes an athletic left pad or glove to stymie chance after opposition chance.

It hasn’t all been highlights of course. The editing room is littered with ugly outtakes and a few dried pools of blood.

The point is nobody gave this team any chance to have a highlight reel at all going into October. On top of that, they’re not close to being the worst team in the NHL. The stats and the eye test both tell that same story.

The once mighty Detroit Red Wings, now led by Ottawa native Steve Yzerman, are painful to watch. Their goal differential hovers around the -60 mark heading into the Christmas season and not even contentious draft pick, Filip Zadina can lift spirits around Hockeytown as he is constantly compared to Tkachuk, the player Ottawa opted for over Zadina despite howls of derision on Twitter that it was the wrong choice. Zadina himself even vowed to “fill the nets” of Montreal and Ottawa with pucks for snubbing him. So far, the nets have been relatively safe from his wrath.

New Jersey is reeling despite the same pundits predicting a playoff team on the rise. Like Ottawa in year’s previous, they are struggling to sign their top player in Taylor Hall and saddled with P.K. Subban’s contract that looked better when they thought of themselves as a contender.

Multiple teams have fired coaches under accusations of inappropriate conduct in what has turned into the NHL’s own PR nightmare that may not have an end if retired players keep coming out of hiding with horror stories.

For once, the Senators are not a part of these headlines. In the past few years, it was a given that the Senators would be rocked by scandal every other week. They know what it’s like to be in that perfect organizational storm and are suddenly enjoying the peace that comes when the gloom passes.

Hell, the players are even smiling now. Sure, there’s more contract headaches on the horizon but those are more opportunities than an existential threat of loss. Guys like Dylan DeMelo and Connor Brown suddenly look like keepers and not just deadline rentals for faceless draft picks.

Duclair has earned his role in the top-six and might even get a payday here, something that seemed very distant when he landed in Ottawa straight out of John Tortorella’s doghouse in Columbus. When other coaches are asked about how they prepare for Ottawa, it actually sounds genuine now when it’s said, “they’re a hard team to play against”.

Suddenly, there’s no more angst to be had (unless you rely on the bus to get to the game) and the jokes have stopped.

This is a team. Maybe not a great team right now, but it’s a team that even has a little charm to it most nights.

At some point the fans are going to realize it and stop covering their eyes. After all, you don’t want to miss Brady Tkachuk’s next game or shift. You never know what’s going to happen. You just know that something WILL happen.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Better Late Than Never For Logan Brown

Check out the latest Black Aces column up at Faces Magazine here.

"The road to the NHL was supposed to be faster for Logan Brown. Like a lot of commuters in Ottawa, he arrived a little late to the office.

Everyone has been waiting for this kid, some more patiently than others. Drafted 11th overall by the Ottawa Senators in the first round of the 2016 draft, Brown was immediately pegged as the big, skilled centre to fill the skates of the departed Jason Spezza. It seems almost ridiculous to suggest a 21-year-old is “late” to make his mark, but today’s NHL is an unforgiving results-now league where high draft picks are expected to arrive more or less All-Star ready.

Brown showed up like most teenagers you know – confident, gangly and a little sleepy...."

Read the entire article here.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

The Pageau Decision Must Weigh Heavy On Pierre Dorion

Check out the latest Black Aces up at Faces Magazine here.

"Pierre Dorion needs this like he needs a hole in the head.

The Ottawa GM has yet another fan favourite to sign or deal before the trade deadline, and no one is going to forgive him whichever way he chooses, a familiar feeling for the Orleans native.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau, the locally born draft steal who has the distinct privilege of having his name sung by fans whenever he scores a big goal, needs a new contract or a new postal code and nobody seems to know what Dorion should do about it...."

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

No One In Ottawa Feeling Sorry For Leafs Woes

The latest Black Aces column is up at Faces Magazine. Read it here.

"Let’s call it an “involuntary compulsion”.

Hockey fans in Ottawa always seem to have one squinty eye on the blue and white team down the 401, a glittering city that’s four and a half hours away by car but just a quick step or two away via memory lane.

The history between the Maple Leafs and the Senators is ugly and traumatic. Ottawa was always on the wrong end of multiple playoff battles, but skirmishes have been won by both sides along the way. Just a cursory glance uncovers a seamy underbelly of drama and irrational behavior that would seem almost barbaric if it were to happen in today’s NHL of concussion spotters and civilized discourse.

Yet some things never really change....."

Read the full column here.

Friday, October 25, 2019

No One Ever Said This Would Be Easy

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

“Tough start” doesn’t begin to describe how painful this has been for D.J. Smith as he begins his NHL head coaching career in Ottawa.

Maybe a better phrase would be “surgery without anesthesia”.

This is not a guy who’s been exposed to losing for very long. There were a couple of lean years when he was learning as an assistant with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires but once he was hired as the head coach in Oshawa, his career took off, capped by a Memorial Cup win in 2015 and a ticket to the NHL to be Mike Babcock’s assistant in Toronto.

Babcock recently called him a “serial winner” when asked to comment on his former friend. There’s not a bigger compliment in professional sports, except maybe “trains with Gary Roberts in the summer”.....

Read the full column here.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Sens Enter Their "Lovable Losers" Era On The Way To Contention

It’s deja-vu all over again.” – Yogi Berra

We’ve been here before, I think.

And I’m not talking about waiting excitedly for a new, probably ill-advised Bill & Ted movie.

I’m talking about watching an Ottawa Senators team drastically trying to switch their identity from out of control train-wreck to lovable losers to, eventually… Stanley Cup contender.

As this season of modest expectations kicks off, the Senators are likely entering their “lovable losers” stage, which is much preferable to the last two seasons where they involuntarily entered the American mainstream pop culture.

The Simpson’s show landed a joke so cutting about the franchise that it made even Leafs and Habs fans feel sorry for the Senators, at least for a day or two. The last time people were laughing so much at this franchise was back in 1993 when ESPN gleefully showed a clip of Sens winger Andrew McBain leaving the Chicago Stadium ice and going ass over teakettle down the stairs to the dressing room.

When McBain lost his footing that night, the Senators record was 9 wins, 56 losses and 4 ties. They wound up losing 14 more times that season, a record that is still hard to understand right now. For their efforts, they were awarded the luxury of drafting Alexandre Daigle, who would go on to fall down many more flights of stairs than McBain ever did, metaphorically speaking.

You’ve heard most of the stories before… holdouts, robberies, bomb threats, bankruptcies, divorce, road rage, trade demands, mascot injuries, fires, line dancing and bad karaoke.

Sens fans have lived through every imaginable horror in their short existence, but only once have they lived through what happened in April 1997.

That’s the month when the jokes stopped. A perennial last-place team full of castaway vets and promising draft picks finally came together and won a meaningful game that clearly altered the course of the franchise.

Let’s go back there for just a moment. Last game of the season. Win and you’re in the playoffs for the first time in team history. The only thing in the way is the Buffalo Sabres, the world’s best goalie in Dominik Hasek and the Senators own history which seemed to preclude anything good happening to nice people.

Unsurprisingly, nobody could score. The Senators are tighter than they’ve looked in weeks, after huge victories against Detroit and Montreal that put them in this position to win in the first place. This was all a new feeling for a lot of us watching at home. Local fans weren’t used to having anything important on the line, other than a $2 Pro-Line ticket.

Sudden alcoholism ran rampant across the city. Bathroom cabinets were raided for available pills. Dogs ran around chasing their tails for hours, feeling the electric stress of their masters.

In the last 5 minutes of the 3rd period, Alexei Yashin deked out Sabres defenseman Gary Galley, and curled back to the blueline to send a saucer pass to a pinching Steve Duchesne. The ensuing shot was weird to watch, like Duchesne was reaching for a lost tennis ball under the couch with a broom handle. He just sort of flung it out of there and it skipped by Hasek for the eventual clincher.

People snapped. Mentally and physically.

Play-by-play man Dave Schreiber shredded his vocal cords screaming “Yashin across to Duchesne… he…. DU DU DU DU DUCHESNE!

Sworn enemies embraced on the sodden floors of bars like The Prescott and The Dominion Tavern. Grown men and women wept openly in front of their frightened children. Yashin, not known to smile often, almost swallowed Duchesne’s head in the ensuing celebration.

I watched it in a bar across the country in Vancouver. Drunk old men stared at me as I let out a primal welp that I tried to conceal as best as possible so as not to look like a complete madman. I ran to a payphone to call my family in Ottawa and when the other end picked up all I heard was screaming.

My little brother jumped so high off the couch that he pulled a piston in his back and it hasn’t been right to this day. You know it’s an important game when you walk away with a permanent life-altering injury, player and fan-alike.

You might ask what’s the point of the trip down memory lane? Maybe there’s a chance the people who weren’t around in ‘97 will get lucky a few years from now to witness a team, derided and written-off, to catch a little taste of glory when they weren’t supposed to.

That Senators team went on to lose a 7-game first round series to those very Sabres a couple of weeks later, but from that point on, the team quickly morphed into a contender that suffered a series of devastating playoff losses when expectations were high.

It’s a different feeling to be a front-runner and lose than it is to be an underdog and prove the critics wrong (and still eventually lose). It’s a necessary step on the way to becoming a contender, and the window is brief, but it proves to be some of the most rewarding moments for both die-hard and casual fans.

When you look at the 2019 Ottawa Senators, you might see a last-place team full of kids and veterans on their last tours of the NHL. I see the seeds of a team that’s heading down the same path those early Senators did on their way to that defining ’97 moment.

When Daniel Alfredsson came to this city in 1995, people were openly wondering if the franchise was on its way out of town after just two years in the league. Rumours swirled of coach Dave “Sparky” Allison holding a séance in the Civic Centre to rid the team of bad mojo. If he ever did, it certainly didn’t work while he was still around.

Brady Tkachuk arrived with the team in similar dire circumstances, with star players being dealt and fans sitting on their wallets on the way to a last place finish. Luckily for Alfredsson, management stocked the team with vital draft picks like Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and timely trades for Wade Redden and Zdeno Chara.

Tkachuk must look around the room and see the likes of Thomas Chabot, Erik Brannstrom, Drake Batherson and trade acquisitions like Anthony Duclair and Nikita Zaitsev and wonder if the worst is finally over. There’s something eerily similar here to what led to that near decade of Stanley Cup contention starting in the late 90’s.

No one’s saying this year’s edition is going to get a chance to clinch a playoff spot on the last day of the season. They might be trying to clinch the 1st overall draft pick instead where a phenom out of the Quebec League is predicted to be the next consensus franchise player. This time his name is not Alexandre Daigle, but Alexis Lafrenière. And yes, that is a scary coincidence.

All I know is I’m stocking a strong supply of alcohol, pills and at least a pair of Amazon’s most recommended back braces, just in case this thing turns around quicker than we expected.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Someone smart probably.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Ottawa’s Favourite Shi(f)t Disturber Looks To Skip Sophomore Jinx

Read the latest Black Aces column over at Faces Magazine:

"For a few surreal years before Brady Tkachuk arrived in Ottawa, the most entertaining spectacle in town was watching the 2.1-billion-dollar LRT collapse into various sinkholes and the politicians desperately trying to tell everyone that it was all going to be okay … someday.

In fact, that’s the same message the Ottawa Senators were trying to relay to fans as their own team fell into a sinkhole so deep that you couldn’t even see the bottom.

That was the exact moment the mouthguard-chewing, eye-rolling, smirking 18-year-old super-brat Tkachuk arrived in town.

Entertainment quickly followed....."

See the full column at Faces Magazine.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Dorion’s Revenge And Other Notes On Inebriation

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit amphetamines”.

Lloyd Bridges says this matter-of-factly in the movie Airplane, as the surreal events spiral so out of control that the only logical recourse is to turn to heavy narcotics. Or lament their absence.

Now I’m not saying Ottawa Senators fans are living through their own version of Airplane, because at least that movie had laughs, but many fans have already turned to a variety of pharmaceuticals to make sense of the surreal situation they find their infamous team in. You can see it as they fidget in their seats at the CTC, staring blankly at the shiny lights and nervously adjusting their ratty toques. You can see it in the machine-gun style tweets lacking syntax or coherence, or even a GIF attachment.

Already traumatized by a summer where the most popular and best-looking player in team history was traded for reasons that are still not ultimately clear, Sens fans now face a second death march into oblivion as the remaining fan favourites are set to be moved by the trade deadline.

Mark Stone, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, all unrestricted free agents come July, are certainly headed out the door by February 25. Why such a dire prognostication? And from this very writer who makes it a point to be blissfully optimistic at almost every opportunity, even annoyingly so?

The reason lies in the inescapable fact that if any of those guys were going to sign with Ottawa, it would have happened by now. With the team dying for a good news story, with season-ticket sales reeling from a toxic fan atmosphere and the sudden decrease in the handsomeness ratio, GM Pierre Dorion has no reason to keep fans in cinematic suspense. Chances are Dorion has already presented his best offer to both Duchene and Stone and both offers have been rejected by their cigar smoking agents.

It’s the old Occam’s Razor theory: the most obvious answer is most likely to be correct. You can theorize as to why Mark Stone didn’t sign a long-term contract this past summer, or January 1st when the next opportunity arose. You can make arguments that it’s difficult to negotiate signing bonuses with a lockout on the horizon and even more difficult for Stone to accept the team captaincy, endless money, the key to the city, free Golden Palace eggrolls and complete and total adulation from men and women alike. Tough sell for a 26 year old.

More likely it’s that Stone has decided to move on. And so has Duchene. Dzingel is just waiting in the background, the third wheel this domestic drama. Dorion may not even have the time to trade him.

Ahhh… this is getting too gloomy. “It ain’t over till it’s over”. Picture a faded poster on a wood-panel wall in a basement that shows a cat hanging off a tree branch that says “Hang in There”. It’s super cute.

Picture Pierre Dorion calling a press-conference and on either side of him is Stone and Duchene (with the C and A on their respective jerseys). The two players are smiling, rich beyond their wildest dreams, but Dorion is smiling deviously, staring down the local press sitting in chairs before him, the naysayers who predicted this press conference would never happen. Even worse, in the back rows sit the dreaded Digital Influencers, the twitter and podcast nerds who have never even known the acrid, decaying smell of hockey skates stink-baked into a fine bouquet. Everyone is wrong and Pierre finally gets the chance to tell them, in both English and French.

Even Dzingel, sitting at the end of the table and cut out of most press pictures, has a new multi-year contract (but they forgot to give him a hat and a glass of water).

This could all happen still.

Thousands of Sens fans could finally kick their opiod and alcohol habits and renew relationships with their spouses after a year and a half of dark civility. The Sens may have to call in the police to squelch the riot of ticket buyers trying to pry open the doors at the CTC at 6 in the morning when it’s -32 with the wind chill.

Eugene Melnyk, John Ruddy and Jim Watson each do a staged shot of Wild Turkey and slap each other on the back before locking arms and doing a traditional Russian dance with lots of choreographed kicks and shouts. The press are so taken with this display that Don Brennan even joins in the line dance and everybody has a good-natured laugh at just how fun this day has turned out to be.

Erik Karlsson refuses to sign in San Jose because he believes Dorion and Melnyk will take him back this summer to join a team that is being labelled by outside pundits as the “Harlem Globetrotters of the NHL”. When Karlsson’s agent calls Dorion on July 1st, he has to leave a message and gets cut off before he can finish leaving his number. EK has to sign with Tampa, who have imploded internally because they lost in the first round. They don’t even have a press conference to announce it, let alone any Russian dancing.

You’ve noticed I haven’t applied Occam’s Razor here, or even Sherlock Holmes theory that “Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” I have NOT eliminated the impossible. I refuse to, out of general principle.

The wait we are experiencing for the announcement of the signings is simply bureaucratic. They want to make sure they have the freshest Alaskan Crab for the press conference and Paul Anka is not available to fly in until next week.

You’re an impatient, ungrateful lot aren’t you? Just look at you, scratching your necks feverishly, waiting for you next fix, unable to concentrate without refreshing Twitter every few seconds.

You must think I’m an idiot. Well, guess what?