The dressing rooms are off-limits at the Bell Sensplex practice facility where, on Wednesday morning 9 a.m. sharp, the Ottawa Senators opened training camp for the 2013-14 NHL season.
But so, too, is a small room where coaches, scouts and assistant managers huddle together in white lab coats, poring over the periodic table and last year’s player stats. Behind them, a large kettle boils with bat wings, frog toes and toad warts gathered from the swampy Carp River that flows by the newly named Canadian Tire Centre.
They are looking for “chemistry.”
It is, surely, hockey’s – though hardly baseball’s, and most assuredly not Tour de France cycling’s – most mysterious commodity.
No one knows what it is; everyone knows they have to have it.
The word has been used more than “puck” or “ice” ever since the Senators’ captain from the past century, Daniel Alfredsson, drove over the Carp River west toward Detroit and a new life with the Red Wings.
It has been all they talk about since Bobby Ryan was obtained from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for young Ottawa prospects Jakob Silfverberg and Stefan Noesen, as well as the Senators’ first-round pick in the 2014 entry draft.
Alfredsson was the heart and soul of the team for 17 seasons; Ryan was considered an expendable appendage in Anaheim, despite his obvious abilities and four 30-goal-plus seasons. Alfredsson had 10 goals and 16 assists in 47 games last year; Ryan had 11 goals and 19 assists in 46 games. Alfredsson will turn 41 in December; Ryan turned 26 in May.
If he is to be the future on the right wing that Alfredsson once patrolled, Ryan will have to be part of the team’s top line. And this, of course, is where “chemistry” comes in.
Can he find success with Jason Spezza, the team’s top centre and playmaker, and with Spezza’s long-time left winger, Milan Michalek, whose speed, when he isn’t injured, can be breathtaking?
Chemistry is, as Ralph Backstrom, winner of six Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens once told USA Hockey Magazine, “the intangible key factor” in hockey. Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri had it with the Edmonton Oilers.
The Sedin twins of the Vancouver Canucks are so attuned to each other linemate Alex Burrows once noted: “They communicate like dolphins.”
So far, Spezza and Ryan are only talking – but talking a great deal.
The Senators never made any secret of the fact Ryan would be tried first on a line with Spezza, and Michalek would surely hold down his familiar spot on Spezza’s left. In the first official practice Wednesday – out of which real intelligence is impossible to gather – the three looked very good together. Spezza is, as he calls himself, “the puck distributor,” Ryan the “finisher,” Michalek knows his job is simply to “use my speed and go to the net.”
“There’s no real rhyme or reason why you have chemistry with a guy,” Spezza says. “It’s not something that can really be forced, either. The more we play together and the more familiar we get, the more we’ll figure out if our games mesh well.”
Spezza knows what it is like to mesh, even if he has no more idea than anyone else what the secret is to chemistry. He and Alfredsson and Dany Heatley once formed the best line in hockey, the three of them combining for 296 points in the 2005-06 season and then, the following year, taking the Sens all the way to the Stanley Cup final.
Ryan is not Heatley. Heatley’s skill was quick release, accurate shot. Ryan likes to make plays, though he has already told Spezza that, if Spezza gets him the puck in the slot, don’t expect it back: “I can’t thread a needle – I’m shooting all the time.”
Comparisons are not only odious but unfair, Spezza believes. Ryan is obviously not Heatley and the 2013 game is just as obviously not the 2005 game. There is less scoring and more systems, sadly, and the wide-open game that followed the 2004-05 player lockout has tightened and dulled.
“We had a shooter, guys who could make plays, and we thought the game at a similar level,” Spezza says of that long-ago line. “We’re at an advantage here in that Milan and I have played together for a long time. And Bobby should fit in nicely for us …but you never know.
“We have all the individual pieces to make up a good line. But it’s just going to be a matter of figuring out if we can make it work together. Hopefully, we can get a few games here, a few chances to see if we can play with each other.”
Spezza has already warned Ryan, an American, playing in Ottawa will be different than Anaheim, and playing in Canada profoundly different than the southern United States.
If they don’t start scoring in the first camp scrimmage, or at least the early exhibition games – Sunday in Winnipeg against the Jets, Monday in Saskatoon against the Calgary Flames – then back home Chicken Little will be calling the all-sports talk shows.
“If things click right away,” Ryan says, “it could be a very dangerous line.”
And if they don’t click, the strange men in the white lab coats will be quickly put back to work.