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.