Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Re-Birth of an Ottawa Senators Fan

It's been five days since the Ottawa Senators were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Five days since they went down to the reigning champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in double-OT of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.  Five days since the dreams all came crashing down.  Five days since I ugly-cried on my couch, alone in the dark, mourning the loss of something I could almost taste it was so close.

And it still hurts.  There's still a little salt in my wounds.  I'm definitely still not "over it".

This team, this spring... they took us on a rollercoaster ride that many of us never expected.  Most of the "experts" throughout the season didn't think this was a team destined for the playoffs, but they dug in deep in the final weeks of the regular season and managed to claw their way in.  Then they handled the Boston Bruins in 6 games in the first round, and the New York Rangers in 6 games in the second round, effectively and successfully.

Then came the Eastern Conference Finals, against last year's Stanley Cup champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Everybody wrote them off - they didn't stand a chance.

But this team, this spring?  I believed.  I really did.

This had been a season filled with adversity, and I admit that for most of it, I was nothing but a bystander.  I haven't had my heart and soul in Senators hockey for quite some time.  It was 10 years ago that they last made it this far in the playoffs - actually playing for the Cup that year, the only time they have ever had that chance, and losing to the Anaheim Ducks in the finals - and since then, things have changed.  Key players that I held near and dear left the team over the years (namely, my all-time favourite Wade Redden), and then there was the Alfie debacle, which saw our beloved and revered captain walk away with a sour taste in his mouth to sign with the Detroit Red Wings in '13.

I had a re-spark in interest in 2015 when the team went on an unlikely tear to make the playoffs, riding a surprising 23-4-4 record down the stretch that had just about everyone shaking their heads in amazement.  That was a fun time to be a Sens fan.  Third-string tender Andrew "The Hamburglar" Hammond stepped in when both goalies went down to injury and led that charge, which had fans tossing burgers on the ice after wins (and young and rambunctions rookie Curtis Lazar picking them up and eating them off the ice).  Those were the "Pesky Sens" days, and they were a hoot, I'm not gonna lie.

But that magical run was quickly snuffed out by the Montreal Canadiens in the first round that year, and thus my enthusiasm for them faded once again.  They missed the playoffs last year, and once this season got rolling, I was really only keeping one eye on them.  I get game updates via an app on my phone, and I follow along on Twitter, but I can count on one hand the number of games I actually sat down to watch.  There were some special moments - goaltender Craig Anderson's heroic play in the wake of his wife Nicholle being diagnosed with cancer early in the season; back-up goalie Mike Condon stepping in and playing amazingly well when Anderson did eventually leave the team for several months to be with his wife during her treatments; I actually attended the game when they honoured Chris Neil for his 1000th game (all played in a Sens uniform) with my friend Sharon and we had a super-fun night; and the game where they officially retired Daniel Alfredsson's iconic #11 and honoured the greatest Senator to ever don the red-black-and-gold...

But my heart was only half in it.  Truthfully, when the playoffs finally rolled around, I was still really unfamiliar with our team.  I knew we had a new coach this year, but I knew nothing about Guy Boucher.  Who is this Viktor Stalberg guy, where did he come from?  What happened to the Hamburglar, does he not play for us anymore?  And we have players named Wingels and Dzingel?!  Seriously???

It didn't take them long to win me over, though.  My God, you guys.  This past six weeks of watching the Sens in the playoffs... it was so much fun.  You can bet your asses I know their names now, and they have been etched into my mind as one of the greatest Sens line-ups ever assembled.

Erik Karlsson put the rest of the hockey world on notice, not only that he comfortably fills the Captain's shoes of a man who was once held high on a pedestal by Senators fans, but also that he is not just an elite defenceman in the NHL - he is one of the top three players in the world.  The highlight reel of his amazing plays over the past few weeks goes on for several minutes.  It is an honour to have him on our team.

Clarke MacArthur sparked one of the most feel-good stories of the playoffs when he was unexpectedly given the green light to return to the line-up after missing most of the past two years with concussions.  Most of us thought MacArthur's days as a hockey player were over, so to not only have him back, but to have him making an impact -  playing a regular shift and scoring important goals - was nothing short of miraculous.

Bobby Ryan erased all of the naysayers and anti-fans who were trying to chase him out of town after what they thought was a sub-par season, by showing up BIG time in the playoffs, scoring big goals, making amazing passes, and just being that big-game player we'd all hoped he could be.  Bobby was spectacular.

Jean-Gabriel Pageau backed up his historic hat-trick performance in a playoff game against the Habs several years ago, by scoring 4 goals against the Rangers in Round 2, including the double-OT winner, to put the "Pageau Chicken Parm night" into legendary status.  It was one of the most fun games I've ever watched as a Sens fan, all because of him.

Kyle Turris scored another big OT winner at home, the one that had the Sens defeating the Rangers in Game 5 before the hometown crowd, and then famously quickly departed the rink to attend the year-end banquet of the Capital City Condors, a special-needs hockey team that he champions... Yes, that was an extra-special moment too.

And of course, there was Craig Anderson, standing on his head on many nights, keeping this team in games that sometimes they had no business being in, and bouncing back in amazing fashion after games when things didn't go his way, all while Nicholle, just coming through the battle for her life, cheered him on.

Above all of that, I can now say I have a #1 favourite player again, as I realized Mark Stone brings "those feelings" up in me again - the same ones I used to have for Wade.  When I shout at him on TV, I call him "Marky" and I never shout at him in anger, I just beg him to play better. (yea..."Marky" had some bad games in there...) Despite his bad games, he also had flashes of pure brilliance, scored some big goals, and his post-game celebration dance in the locker room after Game 1 against the Pens had me smiling like a goof for days.  If I was to get a sweater with a name and number on it, I can now confidently say it would be Stone's #61 I would go for.

This team... this team made me so proud.  They made me excited to watch each game, they gave me such high hopes, and they really did make me bleed red-black-and-gold again.

Hell, they even somehow managed to get me cheering for Dion Phaneuf.

And so it was with my whole heart that I sobbed late Thursday night, just before midnight, when that knuckleball shot somehow drifted past JG Pageau and over Craig Anderson's shoulder in the second overtime period of Game 7, to end the series, and end our shot at glory.  The next morning, I was still teary-eyed.  I wasn't ready for this magical run to be over.  I had wanted it so bad... so bad...  And I didn't just want it for the team, or for myself.

I wanted it for Craig Anderson's wife, Nicholle.

I wanted it for Ottawa's "butterfly boy", Jonathan Pitre, whom the whole team visited prior to the playoffs starting, before he went into the hospital for his risky stem cell transplant surgery.

And I wanted it for our own "hometown boy", Bryan Murray.

I wanted that celebration.  I wanted that chance at Lord Stanley's Cup.  I wanted that opportunity so badly that yes, now five days later, it still hurts.  Very much so.  I thought it was written in the stars this year.  I thought everything was aligning for that perfect, magical run.  I wanted to play Nashville, more than anything else in the world.

It just wasn't meant to be.

But if there's one thing I take away from this year, it's that I can confidently now tell you that yes, indeed... I am a proud fan of the Ottawa Senators.  I mean, I always have been, and I always will be, but the passion they ignited in me this spring is stronger than any I've experienced since 2007.

I want to be a better fan for them. I don't want to just be a bystander, or someone who jumps on the wagon when playoff time rolls around.  I want to watch the games next year, as many of them as possible.  I want to GO to games more often.  I want to know who they are and be familiar with them all season long, follow them more closely and really understand them as a team.

One thing several of the players said throughout the playoffs was that, "Anyone who has followed us closely this year knew that we were a special group, and that we were capable of this."  Sadly, I was not one of those people.

But I will be.  That's a promise.

This is one hell of a team. I miss them so much now that they're gone, and I'm so looking forward to seeing them back together again next fall.  I can't wait.  I can't wait to cheer my heart out and be the die-hard fan I know I can be.

So until then...


See ya next year, boys.

1 comment:

Rev. Nancy Best said...

Awesome post Jillian! Go Sens Go!