Fire the ovens.
Hockey players have been bronzed and honoured in Edmonton and Los Angeles (Wayne Gretzky), Boston (Bobby Orr), Detroit (Gordie Howe), Pittsburgh (Mario Lemieux) and Montreal (Howie Morenz, Rocket Richard, Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur).
All good Canadians, so far, who played the Canadian game at the highest possible level and came to personify the cities in which they played.
Strangely, though there are statues all over the City of Ottawa, none is of a hockey player, though a bronzed Rocket Richard can be found across the river in Gatineau and a statue is in the works to honour Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor-General who gave the Cup that mysteriously vanished from Canada almost 22 years ago.
It is hardly as if Ottawa has lacked for hockey gods. “One-Eyed” Frank McGee once scored 14 goals in a single Stanley Cup game and was later killed in action in the Great War. “King” Clancy once played all six positions – including goal – in a Stanley Cup match, guarding the net while goalie Clint Benedict served a penalty and finishing the game with a perfect 0.00 goals-against average and 1.000 save percentage.
But Thursday night in Ottawa, the Canadian Tire Centre scoreboard called Daniel Alfredsson “the greatest Ottawa Senator of all time” – and there wasn’t a dissenting voice in the sellout crowd that came to welcome the Swedish prodigal son home.
It was a remarkable day of wall-to-wall “Alfie” – radio and television filled with tributes, a morning news conference and a photo-op signing of a one-day contract so that Alfredsson could retire from hockey as an Ottawa Senator rather than the team he switched to in 2013, the Detroit Red Wings.
The media gave him a standing ovation at the presser; radio hosts interviewed every player who had ever touched a puck in his vicinity; his story led off the television newscasts; and the cheers during the warm-up, when the 41-year-old former Ottawa captain scored on the first “rush,” were, as expected, the greatest cheers of the night.
It was a day on which they could have renamed the airport Daniel Alfredsson International, when the Ottawa River could have become Alfredsson Creek, when the road to Toronto could have been changed to Hwy. 11 – if only to jab the scab that Daniel Alfredsson will always be in the Toronto sports memory.
He went undrafted as a kid playing in Sweden, eventually plucked in the sixth round by the Senators as a 22 year old no one expected to make the team. But he was, by far, the best player at the 1995 camp and could not be denied.
He was the NHL’s rookie of the year in a season he almost bailed from, so dysfunctional was the team as managers changed, coaches were fired and a new rink opened. But it all began to change with him.
He stuck it out, playing 17 of his 18 NHL seasons in Ottawa, 13 as captain, and taking the Senators to the Stanley Cup final in 2007. In the summer of 2013, unable to come to financial terms with the team he had once rewarded by playing for a fraction of what he might have commanded, he left for Detroit and one last chance of a Cup. It was not to be. Eventually, back problems convinced the head that it was time to move on.
There was bad blood, but it dried and was entirely gone Thursday by the time Alfredsson, his wife, Bibbi, and their sons Hugo, Loui, Fenix and William took to centre ice for the anthems prior to Ottawa’s match against the New York Islanders.
As in olden times, the fans chanted “Alfie! Alfie! Alfie!” and chanted it all again each time the clock struck the 11-minute mark of a period.
Alfredsson took one last spin of the ice in full uniform, the “C” once again over his heart and, as he had predicted, tears rolling.
“It was tough,” he said when the tribute was over.
“It’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to comprehend almost. It gives you goosebumps and it makes me extremely nervous.”
He felt he had botched his memorized speech and left out things he wanted to say, but in reality it was less about him speaking to a city than a city speaking to him. They wanted to thank him for his hockey, for his dedicated work on mental illness. They want him back home. The family wants to come home. The team wants him back in any role he might wish.
“It’s up to him where he wants to be,” owner Eugene Melnyk said.
“I didn’t expect my retirement would be this big a deal,” Alfredsson said.
“The way I’ve been welcomed back has been almost surreal.”
Surreal, too, during the warm-up when, briefly, a curious thought passed through his head.
“I couldn’t have played,” he said. “I’m not in good enough shape. But I skated a couple of laps and you feel like, ‘Maybe a few shifts.’”
The Senators, struggling of late, might well use him, yet he leaves the NHL with better numbers than any player who was taken in the draft year in which he was ignored: 444 goals, 713 assists in 1,246 NHL games. He played in five Olympics, winning gold in Turin in 2006.
Talk will now turn to the Hall of Fame and whether those numbers are good enough – though a larger block may well turn out to be unforgiveness in Toronto, home of the Hall, for the various transgressions he is felt to have committed against the Leafs in long ago Battles of Ontario.
No matter. In Ottawa he requires no Hall, no statue.
“You made your town our town,” he told them for himself and for his family.
“Thank you. À bientôt.”
Same to you, said the cheers.Report Typo/Error