Black Ice Issue #33 — How The Mighty Fall

I have been away from blogging for a couple of months due to personal reasons. I’m publishing some old articles in the next few days and will commence updating articles again this week. Sorry for the delay folks!

-Joe Tory

 

History has a way of rewarding and subsequently punishing great men to a comical degree. Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Nixon — each man rose on his laurels to conquer the better part of their contemporary world, only to see victory turn to enmity in a matter of tragic moments. If a great man of history, on the cusp of creating a new dynasty for civilization could be rolled up into a 22-man roster and slapped with an NHL insignia, that man would be called the Ottawa Senators.

 

They were the almost dynasty. The could have beens. The would have beens. The should have beens. The almost but not quits. Here in Vancouverdom we don’t mind, when the Canucks tore off Ottawas shirt and gave it twenty lashings, it was all in the spirit of liberty, equality and brotherhood. Vancouver could have licked them 10-0 (or in the case of the Juniors vs. Kazakstan) 15-0, but in the end, we settled on a 3-0 decision and a modest two points. What is the point of humiliating our enemy when they arrive, already soundly defeated. But an even bigger question is, how did this once mighty organization, fall so hard and so fast upon troubled times? The answer is even more telling if you read between the lines of this, once proud, organization.

The once really good (quite possibly could-have-been great) Ottawa Senators, suffered from a unique form of hubris in their days leading up to the 2007 Stanley Cup finals. It was a hubris that can be attributed to a long stretch in the 90’s in the bowels of the standings to a huge leap in success following years of good drafting and deft handling of player development. Superstars, such as MarianHossa, Martin Havlat and Zdeno Chara, where all former Senators that played with the team through a lengthy run of regular season success and post-season failure in the early millennium.

 

The history of the the Ottawa Senators has been dubious since its inception. Lacking the liquid assets to endorse an expansion team, land developer Bruce Firestone opted to leverage a huge commercial development on farmland west of Ottawa in order to secure the cash deposit for the expansion fee. This went against the conventional wisdom at the time, where the cash strapped NHL opted to take the money ($50 million) and let the new franchise flounder. On the promise to build a new arena up current NHL specks, the new owners underestimated the government involvement in the development contingent of their plan and the bureaucratic entanglement soon handcuffed Firestone and he was forced out of the ownership group. At the behest of the rookie management team, head coach Rick Bowness (currently Vancouver Canucks Assistant) was co-coerced to throw the inaugural season in order to secure a top pick in the upcoming entry draft. While winning only ten games in their first NHL season, the Senators franchise, still rife with financial instability, managed to secure the suspicions of the NHL but ultimately won the Alexanger Daigle lottery in their final game of the season, losing to the Boston Bruins and winning the lottery based on total games won (the equally terrible San Jose Sharks had 11 wins on the season, one more then the Senators).

Ottawa used this automatic first overall pick eligibility to select Junior sensation Alexander Daigle. This decision, along with their questionable inaugural season, shadowed them for years to come. Daigle turned out to be one of the largest draft busts in history, leading the Senators on a five year exodus into the NHL wilderness before ultimately being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers. Scoring only 74 goals in four season, Daigle’s monstrous expectations and subsequent rookie contract ($12 million dollars, the largest in league history) was exceeded by Russian sniper, Alexei Yashin in team scoring and durability. It was Yashin, who would later get caught up in a contract squabble with the Sens, that was the cornerstone of Ottawa’s future. Despite leading the Senators in scoring, Daigle was the first son of Ottawa and the prize of its owners. Yashin, knowing his worth compared to the disappointing Daigle, held-out playing the beginning of the 1995-96 season until the Senators wised up to the incongruency. Despite high numbers the following three season, Yashin again held out (this time for the entire 1999-2000 season) due to another contract dispute. The venom in Ottawa towards theRussin was palpable and he was traded to to the Islanders.

 

It is interesting to note that while Rick Bowness was head coach in the first years of the Ottawa Senators, his assistant was none other then Alain Vigneault. Also interesting to note is that current Canuck, Pavol Demitra, was drafted by the Senators (227th overall, 1993), but didn’t evolve into his present form until a trade that sent him to St. Louis in 1997. These footnotes can be heralded for what superseded the club, a change in luck for the Senators. In 1994 they drafted an unspectacular Swedish rookie, Daniel Alfredsson, who would turn out to be the face of the franchise and the clubs all-time leading scorer. Subsequently, the club retained their drafting pedigree, selecting future stars like Marian Hossa and Martin Havlat, and trading the bloated ego of Alexei Yashin for Zdeno Chara (and the draft rights that allowed them Jason Spezza) so that the once dim future of the Senators began to illuminate.

 

After their tumultuous infancy the Ottawa Senators, replete with a cast of ascending stars, began climbing the standings. Their acent apexed with a league best 113 point in 2003 (despite the team going bankrupt and filing for emergency NHL funding) and their 2007 trip to the finals versus the Anaheim Ducks (ironic in its own right as an ownership group out of Anaheim offered to buy the Senators after their dismal performance during the 1992-92 season).

 

The Canucks win over the Senators on Sunday (December 28, 2008) was case in point for the struggling club. What happened to this once mighty juggernaut that came within games of a Stanley Cup? To lose in undramatic fashion to the Canucks was more telling of the Senators as a team then the Canucks. Vancouver is without their Captain (a game-changing goalie, something foreign to the Senators) and best player (Mats!) has yet to join the team. This was a game the Canucks needed to have in the bag. The Senators, on the other hand, are going the opposite way in the standings. Barely surviving their skid last season this year they are in a full tailspin. The history of the Ottawa Senators has very little in common with that of the Vancouver Canucks, instead lending only to the tradition of consummate disappointment for their long-suffering fans. The Canucks, even in 2003, were and are a better team. Vancouver must break through the firewall of San Jose and Detroit to stand a chance at Lord Stanley’s Chalice. That is ultimately what befell the Senator. The road to the Stanley Cup is through the West, to get to the winners circle even the West must beat itself. The East is merely a sacrament at this point in the season, the Senator know better then most of this glaring point in recent NHL history.

Much like the great men in history, the Senators witnessed their demise in the West. This was again the case on Sunday night.

 

Whatcha think?