There was a moment during the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 7-3 squashing of the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday, when the TV camera settled on a young man in a black cowboy hat, a country singer identified as Brett Kissel of Flat Lake, Alta. He sheepishly held up a small hand-printed sign: “I [heart] Canada’s Team. Pesky Sens!”
One message from Alberta, while the day before another had come from the other direction, Newfoundland and Labrador. The Senators’ surprisingly effective playoff performer, Colin Greening, talked about how he had been converting all his pals in St. John’s who had grown up cheering for the Montreal Canadiens or Toronto Maple Leafs.
Cheer for the Senators, Greening told them – “because we are the last Canadian team.”
True enough – Vancouver crashed instantly in the postseason, Montreal almost as fast, Toronto went down in Shakespearean proportions – Ottawa is indeed the last Canadian team.
But is it “Canada’s Team?”
It is an intriguing question as the Senators come down to what will be either their final Stanley Cup playoff game of 2013 or the beginning of new hope for and increasing interest in the “pesky” team from Ottawa.
The Penguins are up 3-1 in this best-of-seven second-round playoff series and look to close it out here Friday. If not, Game 6 would be in Ottawa on Sunday, and, if necessary, a deciding Game 7 in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.
No one expected the Senators to get this far; most expected the Penguins to march all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
The Senators have been charmingly representative of the personality Canadians like to believe they carry: underestimated, underappreciated, determined, resilient, and when triumphant, humble.
Of the 28 players listed on the Ottawa postseason roster, 16 are Canadian.
Of the 28 players listed on the Pittsburgh playoff roster, 16 are Canadian (though one, forward Craig Adams, was actually born in Brunei).
Pittsburgh, however, has Canadian players of such esteem they could form a miniature Olympic-level Team Canada on their own: Sidney Crosby at centre, with wingers Jarome Iginla, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, Kris Letang on defence, Marc-André Fleury in goal. There are also tough, skilled Canadian grinders such as Matt Cooke and Brenden Morrow to do the heavy lifting.
Ottawa, on the other hand, could best ice a mini Team Sweden – Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad, Robin Lehner.
Roster games, of course, are rather silly when it comes to determining which country should cheer for which NHL team.
Ottawa’s difficult in ever turning into “Canada’s Team” lie much deeper than names and birth certificates.
In the first instance, geographically Ottawa is squeezed on both sides, Maple Leafs loyalists to the West, Habs worshippers to the East. Any visit of either team to Scotiabank Place during the regular season is a perfect illustration of divided loyalties and strong passions unlikely to die down just because the Senators happen to be the last Canadian team standing.
When teams from the West did manage to reach the final in this young century (Vancouver Canucks in 2011, Calgary Flames in 2004, Edmonton Oilers in 2006), the rest of Canada was relatively happy to embrace each of them as the best hope available to bringing the Stanley Cup home for the first time since Montreal won in 1993. Should the Winnipeg Jets make it to the Stanley Cup final some day, the entire country would be cheering for them.
In Ottawa’s case, it’s different. It didn’t happen in 2007, when the Senators fell in the final to the Anaheim Ducks. It won’t happen this year. Might never happen.
Ottawa simply grates against Canadians. It’s where the cheques they make out to the “Receiver General” go to vanish. It’s where the decisions that infuriate are made. It’s where, in many parts of the country, the wrong party holds power.
The Senators, ever since the days of Rod Bryden’s ownership, the various financial crises and the four times between 2000-04 that the Sens and Leafs met in the playoffs (the Leafs winning each time), there has been a sour relationship between the Senators and the Centre of the Hockey Universe.
Bryden used to call TSN the “Toronto Sports Network” for the obsessive manner in which it and the other sports broadcasters fawned over the Maple Leafs.
Most Ottawa hockey fans are convinced to the bottom of their hearts that Hockey Night in Canada – from Don Cherry to Bob Cole – have a deep dislike of the Senators. Cherry because of his kisses to the likes of former Leafs captain Doug Gilmour and current star Nazem Kadri; Cole largely because he had the simple misfortune to be assigned play-by-play in so many games against Toronto that Ottawa lost.
But there is one new reason that the Ottawa Senators – no matter how pesky, resilient, determined or humble – will never be embraced by all Canadians in the spring of 2013.
It’s that name.
The Ottawa … Senators.