He called it “surreal” – and it certainly was.
The first fans in raised the flag of Sweden.
At 4:58 p.m., when he stepped on the ice, helmetless, for the meaningless warm-up, the Canadian Tire Centre erupted in cheers – even though he was now technically the enemy.
“Go! Alfie! Go!” someone high in the stands shouted as retired OPP officer Lyndon Slewidge launched into the opening note of The Star-Spangled Banner.
Before the referee dropped the puck in this game, which t would end 4-2 in favour of Daniel Alfredsson’s new team, the Detroit Red Wings, his old team, the Ottawa Senators, played a tribute on the score clock – Alfredsson in long hair, shaved head, in curls, brushcut; Alfredsson ticking off Toronto Maple Leafs fans by pretending to toss his stick into the crowd, by hammering Darcy Tucker hard into the boards from behind. ... All played to a long standing ovation.
When he first touched the puck they cheered and, just to make him truly feel back home, someone booed. When the clock ticked down to 11:11 they began the old chant – “Alfie! Alfie! Alfie! Alfie! Alfie! Alfie!” – and as the clock marked 11:00 they cheered again.
“It’s hard to describe,” he would say later when asked about the chant. How, he wondered, does a person deserve such treatment when, as he put it, “all you do is play hockey.”
“He got the respect he deserves,” said Jason Spezza, who replaced Alfredsson as captain of the Senators.
It was not always sweetness and light for Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa – there were once calls to trade him, there was a trickle of bad blood this past summer when he opted for free agency and the Detroit Red Wings – but for the most part it had been a remarkable love affair that went back to the fall of 1995.
He was the rookie no one knew. He came over from Sweden, old at 22. They issued him No. 61 and, instead of his own locker, showed him a metal chair where he could dress for as long as he stayed, which wasn’t expected to be long.
“What are we going to do with him?” then coach Rick Bowness said at the end of camp. “He’s by far our best player.”
They were sure of him, he less sure of them. The Senators of 1995-96 were the definition of futility. They fired the coach and then fired the new coach and found a third coach. They fired the general manager. They moved from a cramped downtown rink to a new rink in the middle of a cornfield in the middle of nowhere – and certainly seemed to be going nowhere.
The one bright spot was Alfredsson, steady always and awarded the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. Three years later he was captain and would wear the “C” for 14 years.
If it seemed a lifetime it was. He married and he and Bibi had four children and, when they were old enough, sent them to neighbourhood public schools. He bought a snowmobile and drove it to practice. He raised money for mental health. He owned the city and was presumed to be forever here, moving into management as he entered his 40s.
But few lives head where they’re supposed to or expected to. He went to Detroit because he felt the Senators hadn’t lived up to a promise to make up for the final year of a contract in which he played for rookie wages. He went in the hopes of, finally, winning a Stanley Cup. He will turn 41 in nine days.
Sunday evening in Ottawa he helped set up the first Detroit goal – by fellow Swede Johan Franzen – and the crowd cheered when they announced his name.
The near-sellout crowd of 20,011 had, at that point nothing else to cheer for, their own team listless and error prone.
Detroit went ahead 2-0 when Drew Miller fired a hard wrist shot that beat Ottawa goaltender Robin Lehner high on the short side.
It was not until the 14:14 mark of the middle period that the Senators finally scored, Clarke MacArthur flicking the puck in behind Detroit goaltender Jonas Gustavsson off a rough scramble to the side of the net.
Finally, it seemed, the focus was on the game at hand, not on the “homecoming” of a much-admired captain who was no longer wearing the uniform of the beloveds.
The next time Alfredsson touched the puck ... they booed.
Not everyone, not even many – but more than enough to signal that, finally, the hockey fans of Ottawa should turn their attention away from what they lost toward what they have.
“That’s good,” said Alfredsson, ever the diplomat. “They should stick up for their team.”
And what these fans have is a team prone to giving up good scoring chances, Miller getting his second on a nice tic-tac-heel-toe play that saw him tap the puck into an open net back of Lehner.
Ottawa finally returned to life with time running out and Lehner out of the net for an extra skater. With 1:21 left in the game, Mika Zibanejad found a rebound on his stick and fired it in past Gustavsson to make it 3-2.
But then, just as seemingly had to happen, with Ottawa again pressing and the net still empty, Alfredsson, No. 11 for the Red Wings, got a puck along the boards and fired a long puck that caught a corner of the net.
This time, they booed heartily.
Alfredsson was no more the player in the wrong No. 11 jersey. He was a Red Wing.
“It’s sport,” Spezza said. “That’s what makes it so interesting.”
And what makes it compelling is emotion. The cheers at the start. The chant at the 11-minute mark. The boos when he scored.
And that special moment when, chosen third star of the game, Alfredsson made a point out of picking someone out of the crowd and throwing his stick to them.
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