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In this file photo, Ottawa Senators’ Chris Kelly puts on their NHL team's new jersey at its unveiling in Ottawa, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007. (TOM HANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
In this file photo, Ottawa Senators’ Chris Kelly puts on their NHL team's new jersey at its unveiling in Ottawa, Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007. (TOM HANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Roy MacGregor

A modest proposal: Rename Senators the Centurions Add to ...

What is it they say? When Washington sneezes, Ottawa catches the cold?

Or, as Joe Wallace, the late poet and proud Canadian Communist, preferred it: “Whenever they cough in Washington / They spit on Parliament Hill.”

No matter, but there is indeed spit landing these days on Parliament Hill, just as there is a lot of nervous coughing in Washington.

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And all because of a couple of unfortunate sports names.

In the U.S. capital, the concern is about the appropriateness of calling the local NFL team the “Redskins.” The debate over whether the team name is racist and demeaning to Native Americans has gone on for years, decades even, but seems finally close to a conclusion. Washington city councillors have voted for change; there have been protest rallies and petitions; there’s even been legislation tabled to ban trademarking the word “redskin.”

Change, they now say, is inevitable.

In the Canadian capital, the word “Senators” has fallen into disrepute just as – perhaps not without coincidence – the NHL team that uses the name has fallen from a playoff team that reached the second round to a team that will be lucky to see the postseason.

The word “Senators” has increasingly been said with a bit of spittle attached ever since the scandal involving the true residences and allegedly inappropriate expense claims of Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb moved from the headlines to Question Period to the RCMP to the Prime Minister’s Office and may yet be bound for the courts, though no charges have yet been laid.

One senator, Harb, has resigned his office. Another, Senator David Braley, who is under no suspicion whatsoever for his expenses, decided last week to retire three years early – apparently because the Hamilton businessman is so put off by the rising stench around Parliament Hill.

How the hockey team came to be called the same as the house of “sober second thought” is itself a remarkable tale.

The original motif was the Roman centurion – perhaps you remember CBC hockey analyst Don Cherry saying on Coach’s Corner that the logo looked like a condom package? – and the team had an elaborate marketing plan worked out along this line for when it joined the NHL in 1992.

The face of the franchise would even be a player called “Roman.”

The previous winter team management had travelled to Vierumaki, Finland, in order to take in the Four Nations Cup and check up on a particular player their scouts had tagged as the team’s first draft pick: Roman Hamrlik.

Hamrlik was only 17, but was the star of his Czech Republic team. Against Russia, he courageously blocked a shot, was clearly hurt, but finished his shift. When the Ottawa team managers went to the dressing room, the young man was limping visibly but said he’d walk back to the hotel with them.

The hotel was a mile away. Twice, Hamrlik stopped to gather himself. He went through the interview with sweat pouring down his face. Then, he took himself to hospital where they set his broken leg.

“He’s our guy,” they decided.

So certain were they in landing the young Czech that they targeted two others in the upcoming draft: Hamrlik’s 18-year-old buddy, Radek Hamr, and former national team captain Tomas Jelinek, a 30-year-old veteran who they thought could serve as mentor to the two youngsters.

On a coin flip, the first pick in the entry draft went to the other team admitted to the NHL that year: the Tampa Bay Lightning.

General manager Phil Esposito had made it clear Tampa would go for Todd Warner of the Windsor Spitfires. The Lightning had to sell hockey fast, and better a handsome, presentable, well-spoken Warner than the dark and heavily accented Hamrlik.

Esposito, however, had a sudden change of heart as he walked to the podium on the old Montreal Forum. He decided perhaps his scouts were right and, to the shock of the Ottawa team, announced the Lightning would select … Roman Hamrlik.

Ottawa stuck to its plan and took Hamrlik and Jelinek in later rounds, but they had no “Roman” to play with. Instead, the top Ottawa pick became Alexei Yashin, who would last only seven seasons with the Senators. Hamrlik would finally retire in 2013 after a stellar career.

Admittedly, the Ottawa “Senators” was a fine name so long as it was attached to the original Senators of early Stanley Cup triumphs.

But today, alas, the name conjures up far more Mike Duffy than (One-Eyed) Frank McGee.

There is, however, a far simpler solution for changing “Senators” than changing “Redskins.”

Fans, after all, have deep ties and loyalties to their teams, particularly the nicknames by which they come to know their heroes.

And so, all the team needs to do is cease being known as the Ottawa “Senators” and, sticking to that original Roman intent, change to the Ottawa “Centurions.”

Which would, happily, still allow their fans to chant:

“Go Cens! Go! Go Cens! Go! Go Cens! Go!”

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