Marc Methot knows the exact moment he died and went to heaven.
July 1, 2012.
Canada Day. Repatriation Day. And given that it happened on a Sunday, you could even call it Homecoming Weekend.
The big, stay-at-home defenceman of the Columbus Blue Jackets had been born in Ottawa and grew up in the Mooney’s Bay area where the Rideau River widens suddenly at the south end of the nation’s capital. He had just turned seven when the Ottawa Senators began their first, hapless season, but he was hooked immediately, a fan for life.
And now he was a Senator himself, headed to Ottawa in a trade that sent former Senators forward Nick Foligno to Columbus.
“This is a dream come true for me,” he said this week as training camp opened after a four-month hissy fit by the league and its players.
“I’m playing in my home town … finally getting to don the jersey.”
From hockey’s deepest obscurity – quick, name a single player on the Blue Jackets! – to a city where, on Monday, the fans came out 2,000 strong to watch such fascinating drama as players skating from one end of the ice to other, turning and racing back again.
When the tired players left the ice, the fans were hanging over the railings holding out 50-per-cent-off souvenirs for them to sign. Some players walked right past; some offered a glove for a high-five; some signed a couple of jerseys and moved on; Methot stayed and signed and signed and signed.
“I’m not used to that,” he said. “I’m not used to coming off the ice after practice and having people ask for autographs.
“Night and day.”
There will, however, still be dark nights in Ottawa – and it will have nothing to do with the time of the year and latitude. This is a fickle town and, where its team is concerned, a nervous town, having very nearly lost its franchise to bankruptcy and having come oh-so close just once to winning the Stanley Cup.
Last year, in Year 1 of a so-called three-year rebuilding plan, the Senators squeaked into the playoffs and took the New York Rangers to seven games. The fans will expect even more this shortened season.
Last year, much of the surprise was due to the play of a skinny 21-year-old defenceman named Erik Karlsson, who sparked the team’s offence with 78 points and went on to win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman.
The expectations are huge. General manager Bryan Murray knows this – knows, as well, that Karlsson’s personal expectations are just as huge as the city’s – and tried to bring a little reality to the situation when he said, correctly, “This is a young player who is not going to win the Norris Trophy every year.”
He will, however, have to play exceptionally well if the Senators are again to make the playoffs. “If we play well as a team,” captain Daniel Alfredsson said, “he’s going to be great again.”
And so we return to Marc Methot. People who understand that hockey is a smart team game that has the potential to release individual brilliance know that Karlsson needed Filip Kuba on the left side last season. The veteran Kuba, always perfectly positioned, smart and conservative with the puck, was the perfect partner for the freewheeling, unpredictable Karlsson.
Kuba, however, took his 36-year-old skills off to Florida Panthers and a two-year $8-million (U.S.) deal, something the Senators had no interest in matching or upping.
They would, instead, go after Methot, a player they had long sought, and Methot would become Karlsson’s anchor.
For Methot, the assignment was a thrill. “Any time you play with a guy like him,” he said. “I guess I shouldn’t say ‘any time’ as they’re probably rare opportunities, but he can skate so well that when he does jump he’s back right away. It’s kind of refreshing to have that as a D partner out there. I know he’ll be back despite maybe being the first guy up on the rush.”
They began camp paired together and will certainly be paired together when the Senators open the season Saturday in Winnipeg against the Jets. There are no guarantees, however. While they have looked very good in practice, practice is practice for something quite different: real games.
“We’ll see how it goes,” said Karlsson.
While Karlsson could be described as “wispy,” Methot is an imposing 6 foot 3 224 pounds. He is quick for his size and plays safe with the puck. Whether he has the smooth skills of Kuba remains to be seen.
But he will also be expected to allow Karlsson space to work his magic, and that means a presence beyond what he can do by staying back or moving pucks out of his own end as quickly as possible. Karlsson began last season as an unknown, finished as a face and a name and an impressive trophy.
He no longer has the help of anonymity and, as a known quantity, will be targeted for special attention by other teams. That will mean both a tighter watch on him and, given the way the NHL works, a lot of aggression directed his way.
Methot knows. “Absolutely,” he said. “Am I a heavyweight? Absolutely not. I’m not known for fighting by any means, but I also know and recognize the player that he is, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure no one touches him.
“A guy like him needs to be respected to a certain extent. You can’t just run after him because he’ll make you look stupid on the ice.
“I know [Karlsson] can handle himself in terms of moving out there. But around the net, in the little scrums and so on, I think there’s not only myself but a few other players who will be in there protecting him.”
“He’s a bigger man than me,” laughed Karlsson, “so he’s going to have to be that guy.”