Skip to main content

What could they have possibly been thinking?

Well, in their defence, it was 1883 when the local hockey heroes decided to call themselves the "Senators." At that point, the only major political stench in Ottawa had occurred a decade earlier, when Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had been forced to resign over the Pacific Scandal.

The Senate then was still a much-admired institution of "sober second thought." It wouldn't be until 1887 that Sir John A., now returned to office, named John Abbott to the Upper Chamber – Mr. Abbott being the recipient of the telegram Sir John A. had sent demanding an immediate $10,000 from the Montreal group wanting to build the railway he'd promised British Columbia.

Never sensing that the name would one day suffer disgrace, the hockey team called the Senators would go on to win the Stanley Cup four times in the first 10 years (1917-27) of the National Hockey League. When Ottawa returned to the NHL in 1992 after a 58-year hiatus, the new team embraced the old name and, once again, were the Ottawa Senators.

No other word has experienced such emotional stretching as has been seen this week in the nation's capital. Cameras and reporters gather in throngs at the courthouse because of senators; an equal number of cameras and reporters gather at the cross-town rink because of Senators.

One story has been feel-good; the other story very much the opposite.

The original hockey Senators were nicknamed the "Silver Seven" by their fans; the political senators – Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau – might be considered the "Tarnished Trio" by a public that has already passed judgment, no matter what the outcome in Courtroom 33, where Mr. Duffy is facing 31 charges of fraud, bribery and breach of trust. Mr. Brazeau will soon face his own charges; Ms. Wallin is still under investigation and charges have not been laid.

The modern hockey Senators, on the other hand, are the darlings of the town, cheered even when they walk their dogs. Led by a young goaltender, Andrew Hammond, they have put on such a dramatic push for the playoffs over the past two months that Ottawans have largely forgiven the worst winter in recorded history.

Mr. Hammond is called "Hamburglar" by the fans and teammates who adore him. Not even the satirical press would dare attach such a nickname to one of the troubled political senators.

Mr. Hammond is also much admired for his humility; this is not a condition known to the political senators.

Hockey players get criticized for their tendency to avoid tough questions with clichés, but one suspects there that all 23 Senators on the hockey team would be able to say, accurately and instantly, where his primary residence is without first having the question defined in written rules and regulations.

The relationship of this city to its hockey Senators is loving but fragile. Having lost the original Senators to St. Louis in 1934 and then nearly losing the team again in 2003 to bankruptcy, Ottawans are ever fearful their team might go away again. As for the political senators, most Ottawans wish they would just go away.

This gap might close significantly if only fans of both hockey and politics would see matters as they themselves so often say: It's all a game – entertainment. On that level, both the team at the rink and the gang on the Hill compare much more favourably.

Take, for example, the Hamburglar's astonishing streak. His 19-1-2 record pales in comparison with a string put together by Georges-Casimir Dessaulles back in the days of the original hockey Senators. Mr. Dessaulles spent 23 years in the Red Chamber, 1907-30, and spoke only twice, once when he arrived and once when he thanked the Senate for recognizing his 100th birthday.

As for cheating, the modern senators and their expense fudging have nothing on the original hockey Senators, who were accused of "salting the ice" between periods back in a critical 1904 match. It slowed down their speedy Toronto opponents to a point where Ottawa was able to come back and claim the victory.

Both hockey and politics have had their senatorial whiners.

Darrin Madeley, a goaltender on the team that returned to Ottawa in the early 1990s, once complained that the paying fans at the Civic Centre had no right to boo. Not long before, Senator Hazen Argue rose in the Upper Chamber to complain, on the record, that the subsidized parliamentary tailor had refused to press his suit because of the foul odour.

Then there are the bailouts. Long before Nigel Wright ever wrote that personal cheque for $90,172 to cover Mr. Duffy's contentious expenses, then-industry minister John Manley came up with a scheme to have the federal government prop up the hockey Senators and the other Canadian NHL teams.

Public response to both has been pretty much the same.

As for witty repartee, the two Senators, of both puck and Parliament, have had their moments. Another Senators goaltender, Tom Barrasso, once responded to a reporter's suggestion that he'd been lucky the other team hit posts with: "What – you want me to stop the ones going wide, too?"

Back in 1990, during a filibuster over the goods and services tax, Senator Philippe Gigantès spoke for 21 straight hours and claimed he would require no toilet breaks because "the energy produced by my speech will ensure the water evaporates before it reaches my bladder."

There is, however, no Upper Chamber comparable to former assistant coach E.J. McGuire's great line after someone broke into the team's practice facility and stole everything but the game tapes.

"Imagine that," Mr. McGuire said. "Thieves with taste."

We're not likely to hear anything like that coming from Courtroom 33.