In the end, as an end must come to all great athletes, his story will be told in numbers: 39 years of age, 1,101 regular season games, 406 goals, 655 assists, 1,061 points – all still counting – and one steady number, 11, that will hang from the rafters of the rink where, come Sunday afternoon, the 2012 National Hockey League All-Star Game will be played.
Daniel Alfredsson will wear the ‘C’ in that game, just as he, the longest-serving captain in the National Hockey League, has worn it for the past dozen years with the Ottawa Senators: a quiet leader known as much for his serene confidence as for his obvious skill.
In the beginning, however, there were no such numbers. Well, there was one – 133 – but it was more insult than salute. Nor was there much confidence to be found wherever one looked.
His father, Hasse, saw him as a soccer player, not a hockey player. His first hockey coaches, including Hasse, saw the future all-star right winger as a defenceman. He didn’t move up to forward until he was 14 years old. A future Olympic gold medalist (Turin, 2006), he was never a consideration for the Swedish national junior team. He didn’t even know the NHL draft was on the day he was selected by the Ottawa Senators back in 1994, didn’t think he could play in the NHL and, unbelievably, came within a phone call home of quitting and returning to Sweden barely three months into the year in which he won the Calder Trophy as the league’s most promising rookie.
Alfredsson was drafted 133rd overall in what is today considered a terrible draft year. Ed Jovanovski went first to the Florida Panthers, Oleg Tverdovsky second to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Radek Bonk third to Ottawa. Ottawa waited until the sixth round to select Alfredsson, having already taken Bonk, Stan Neckar, Bryan Masotta and Mike Gaffney. Even then there was heated discussion around the table about taking this over-aged Swede who had been ignored by every other team in the previous draft.
(Another all-but-ignored draft pick that year was goaltender Tim Thomas, taken 217th by the Quebec Nordiques; today, as both head into All-Star Weekend, they stand as the two best players selected in 1994.)
“I found out the next day,” remembers Alfredsson. “I didn’t think much about it. I had no agent, nothing.”
He learned he had been drafted only when a couple of agents called the Alfredsson home, enquiring as to whether or not he had representation. He declined to take either up on the offer, preferring to play another year in Sweden and, hopefully, have a chance to represent his country at the World Championships which were to be held that year in Stockholm. He made the team, they won silver, and he made a decision.
“I figured I’d like to go over and try,” he recalls. “Otherwise, I’d always wonder. I figured if it didn’t work out I could come back home and play in Sweden. I had nothing to lose.”
He came, unheralded and unknown, but shone enough at rookie camp that the Senators told him to stay on for the real camp. “They met with me at the end of rookie camp and did my evaluation,” he says. “They told me, ‘If you’re lucky you’ll play 20 games this year at the NHL level. The rest of the time you’ll be in PEI,” with the Ottawa team’s minor-league affiliate.
They paired him with veteran centre Martin Straka in the real camp and the two had instant chemistry. “He was our best player coming out of camp,” remembers Rick Bowness, then Ottawa’s coach and now an associate coach with the Vancouver Canucks.
Alfredsson had gifts that, surprisingly, made him even more effective on the smaller ice surface, which he now prefers. He could read plays in tight corners, could pivot so quickly checkers could not stay with him, and could finish in close. His only weakness was his shot, something he worked on for years and which, thanks to composite sticks, later became his best weapon.
Alfredsson liked Bowness, as well, but barely a month into the regular season Bowness was fired and replaced with the Senators minor-league coach, Dave Allison. It was a time of stunning turmoil with the team: star Alexei Yashin holding out for a better contract, the team struggling financially as well as on the ice. Under Allison, the team won only two games and Alfredsson could make neither head nor tail what the new coach wanted of him. By Christmas he was on the telephone with his father suggesting he might just quit and come home, it was that hard to take.
But then order came swiftly. Allison out and Jacques Martin in, hired by new general manager Pierre Gauthier. The team improved, moved to its new rink and Alfredsson soared – winning rookie of the year in June of 1996.