“It was unreal.”
That was Tim Stutzle’s reaction to neighbourhood kids gathering to toss caps into his backyard to celebrate the 19-year-old rookie’s first NHL hat trick in the Ottawa Senators 4-2 win Saturday night against the Winnipeg Jets.
That win took the Senators to an 8-1-1 record over their past 10 games, though there had never been fans present to celebrate such matters as the youngest Ottawa player in history to score three goals in a single game.
While a 6-1 loss to the Calgary Flames the following day brought a touch of, um, reality into the moment, there was no denying that Ottawa was finishing a season that seemed straight from the “Upside Down” world in the popular Netflix series Stranger Things.
On TV, the Upside Down is an unhappy place. In Ottawa, this Upside Down couldn’t be more delightful – considering the way the Senators’ 56-game season began and how it is finishing.
The Senators lost nine of their first 10 games, making them the one Canadian team in the North Division grateful to be playing in front of silent tarps and fake crowd noise. In a year that was supposed to be pivotal to a long-promised rebuild, the coaches early on went with veterans over youth, much to the chagrin of the long-frustrated fan base. New goaltender Matt Murray, a two-time Stanley Cup winner acquired in the offseason from the Pittsburgh Penguins, was a disappointment and soon injured. Five different goalies took to the Ottawa net this shortened season and three suffered injuries.
By the middle of February, the Senators were dead last in the league with a mere nine points in 19 games. But then, as newly acquired veterans sputtered and fell, the team began playing the prospects it had been touting for months and, surprisingly, the kids became a fast, entertaining, competitive hockey team – something that has been missing in Ottawa for some time.
Other than the teenaged Stutzle, there is 22-year-old Josh Norris, 23-year-old Drake Batherson, 24-year-old Thomas Chabot, 21-year-old Erik Brannstrom, 22-year-old Victor Mete, 21-year-old Alex Formenton, 20-year-old Shane Pinto and, most impressive of all, 21-year-old captain-in-waiting Brady Tkachuk.
As of Wednesday morning, the Senators were ahead of the COVID-struck Vancouver Canucks and tied with the Flames in the North Division. They had better records than the New Jersey Devils, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks, and were tied with the Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks.
It might fairly be said, then, that the happiest fans in all of Canada belong to a team that has already been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. That’s how Upside Down matters have turned in Ottawa.
The team came within a double-overtime goal of reaching the finals the previous time it made the playoffs. After that, however, the descent was brutal. A season later the Senators finished 30th.
Then things got worse, much worse.
A planned downtown arena and billion-dollar redevelopment was lost when the two sides fell out and decided to sue each other instead. The girlfriend of a high-scoring forward had an ugly, social-media war with the wife of the team captain. Both players were soon off to other teams. A cab driver in Phoenix posted video of a ride involving several of the players mocking the coaching staff.
Even off the ice there was disaster. The team produced a red infant “onesie” that featured the team logo and was fitted with small metal clasps – causing Health Canada to issue a recall for what it considered a … choking hazard.
“They’re the laughing stock of the league,” respected commentator Ray Ferrero said at the time. “There’s nobody more comical, in a sad way, than Ottawa is now.”
As popular players such as Mark Stone and Kyle Turris left town to play for other NHL teams, the fan base grew increasingly suspicious of owner Eugene Melnyk. Some angry fans even put up billboards with the hashtag “#MelnykGone.”
But Melnyk, who rescued the franchise from bankruptcy in 2003, remains the owner and has gone nowhere. At a Toronto corporate event two years ago, Melnyk said that his team was in a rebuild stage and not, as many had come to believe, an annual garage sale of talent the owner had neither the desire nor the means to keep in town.
Not so, Melnyk argued. The franchise was “all-in” for a “five-year run of unparalleled success.” He vowed to spend close to the NHL’s salary cap every year from 2021 to 2025.
It’s now 2021, and despite no ticket or beer sales at the Canadian Tire Centre, there is money, as the Senators will be getting their share of the Seattle Kraken’s US$650-million expansion fee.
Two of the rising young stars, Tkachuk and Batherson, are looking for their next contracts, as will be others on the team. General manager Pierre Dorion will be challenged to live up to his owner’s promise of success from 2021 on.
“You can already tell it’s a hockey city and everybody loves watching hockey and supports us,” an excited Stutzle say after the cap-throwing party.
Not always, young man, but certainly true today at the end of an Upside Down season.