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.
In the 16 years since, there has been plenty of glory but only one chance at the Stanley Cup, 2007, which came up short despite his own best efforts. In 2005-2006 he had 103 points and, along with centre Jason Spezza and left winger Dany Heatley, formed the most dangerous line in hockey. The year the peaking Senators might well have won the Cup, 2004-2005, there was no season, Alfredsson returning to Sweden to play, and star, for his old team, Frolunda HC, which he led to the Swedish championship.
But it has not all been glory. Like all long-time NHLers, he has battled injury, hip flexors and knee problems that periodically took away his ability to pivot. Fans once demanded he be traded after the team came up short in the 2006 playoffs. Toronto fans learned to despise him during four straight playoff meetings between the Senators and Maple Leafs – including a spoof of popular Toronto captain Mats Sundin when Alfredsson pretended to throw his stick into the stands – and, to this day, Alfredsson is booed in Toronto every time he touches the puck.
In Ottawa, however, he is beloved, and as much for his citizenship as for his play. Like so many hockey stars, he lends his name to causes; but unlike others, he does his charity work with great courage. He grew up dealing with mental illness in the family – sister Cecilia suffers from anxiety disorders – and, with the blessings of the family back in Sweden, began helping the Royal Ottawa Hospital to raise both money and awareness.
“It’s a stigma there, too,” he says. “It’s still a stigma all over the world. Our family had not been very open about it. I was worried about the reaction, but after I went public I was so thankful for the way people would come up to me at the rink or in the grocery stores and say how much they appreciated someone speaking out.”
They also appreciate the fact that he stayed on when it appeared the Senators were heading for rock-bottom and a complete re-build. Not only did he stay, but his own play
dramatically improved following off-season back surgery. Even so, there were early rumours that the re-building Senators would seek to trade their valued veteran before the trading deadline, just as the Boston Bruins did Raymond Bourque, in a deal that would give Alfredsson one last shot at a Stanley Cup and bring more young blood into the Senators. To do so, however, would require Alfredsson waving his no-trade clause.
General Manager Bryan Murray says he would have done whatever Alfredsson wished. At no point, says Murray, did he consider asking Alfredsson outright “do you want to go and can you get us an asset?” The franchise was too indebted to Alfredsson to put him in such a spot.
Alfredsson says he had no interest whatsoever: “I wanted to be part of this turning around. Of course I want to win the Stanley Cup, but I want to win it in Ottawa. I felt that if it never happened I would still be satisfied with my career. I was not going anywhere.”
As it turned out, the “contender” may well turn out to be the Senators themselves, the surprise of the first half of the season and seemingly headed for the playoffs at the All-Star break. Alfredsson himself, who earlier missed five games with his first-ever concussion, has had such a resurgence – 17 goals, 21 assists – that his presumed 2012 retirement is now on hold.
Murray says the Senators see him as sort of a Steve Yzerman, the quiet captain of the successful Red Wings who left the ice for management and is today GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. The “understanding” is that Alfredsson will be given the same opportunity.
Alfredsson has consulted with Sundin, now retired, and with Nicklas Lidstrom, still playing well for Detroit Red Wings at age 41, and thinks he will continue on “if health allows it.”
He and his wife, Bibi Backman, plan to stay on in Ottawa well beyond retirement, whenever it comes. His younger brother, Henrik, who came over to live with Daniel and Bibi while playing junior hockey, is now with the Ottawa police service. Their four boys – Hugo 8, Loui 5, Fenix 3 and William Erik, 18 months – all speak English and the older ones are in the public school system, though the family could easily afford private schools.
So acclimatized to the Ottawa Valley has Daniel Alfredsson become that he even drove to practice a while back on his snowmobile.
This, for someone who thought he might (ital)try(end ital) Canada for a short while before returning home.
With files from Eric Duhatschek in Los Angeles