It’s been a week and I’m still thinking about what could have been
On the night of May 25th, 2017, I found myself at Lieutenant’s Pump hours before puck drop, optimistic for the night that lay ahead. I had yet to partake in the so called Red Light Dance that had been breaking out after every latter round Sens playoff win. I was certain that I would be out on the streets, celebrating with hundreds of other jubilant Sens fans. I couldn’t picture the opposite scenario. I just couldn’t. I fully expected a series clinching win, followed by a joyous celebration, consisting of post game hummus and disgusting bar rail drinks (a new tradition with the boys @slowhnds @MattBostelaar). Once that were done, we’d drive to the airport late at night, despite the rain, to welcome the boys back to town. I fully expected myself to be at the CTC on Monday, May 29th, for Game 1 of the Cup Final.
Here’s a bit of context for you. I’m 24. The last time the Sens made it to the Eastern Conference Final, I was 14, about to finish up grade 9. Although I was a kid, I saw how that playoff run transformed the city. I remember the energy, the excitement and the anticipation, especially during game days. At the time, I was playing little league baseball, and often times, my games would coincide with Sens games. On the drive to and from my baseball games, the streets would be completely deserted. Everyone in Ottawa was glued to their TV’s, as the boys powered through the first three rounds with ease. The car flags were up, kids were wearing their jerseys and shirseys to school, and Belly made this gem:
I didn’t want it to end. Ultimately, however, it did. I remember watching Chris Phillips’ own goal and being absolutely gutted. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t bear the thought of Niedermayer hoisting the cup, so badly wishing that it was in Alfie’s hands instead.
I hardly remember 2003. I do, however, remember the heartbreak and frustration that were the series’ losses to the Leafs. I remember 2006 and the OT loss to the Sabres, thinking what if? What if Hasek hadn’t gone down in the Olympics and injured himself? I thought that was our year. Immediately following the loss, I almost didn’t know what to do with myself, and I know that sounds dramatic but I was a 13 year old kid, absolutely in love with my team. Not knowing what to do, I went up to my room, attempted to read Return of the King, but to no avail as I began to cry. Yup.
I remember ’07 and the Eastern Conference Final against those same Buffalo Sabres. Back then, my brother and I would be out in the front yard, playing catch, or road hockey, while our radio would be on full blast, announcing the play by play. The day we made it to the cup final for the first time, I remember playing catch with my brother right before OT. The second the game was back on, we ran inside and watched with the anticipation of what was surely to come. And then this happened:
I was absolutely elated, jumping up and down, celebrating with my family. My dad, who really doesn’t care much for hockey, even celly’d a bit. To this day, my brother and I still call him out on it.
Even out in the suburbs, the city was buzzing that day. I’ll never forget it. The footage from Elgin that day was surreal. It was like Canada Day on roids. I wanted so badly to be a part of that. If the city were that alive off a berth in the Final, I couldn’t help but think of what it would be like had we actually won the cup.
For those from Ottawa, I think you would agree when I say that there are few times when the city is as alive as it is during a deep playoff run by the Sens. Being born and raised in Ottawa, I’ve been lucky to witness as many post season berths as I’ve had. I’ve come to associate Spring in Ottawa with playoff hockey and I love it. I love that I can wear my Sens jersey to work, to Parliament Hill Yoga, while biking around the city, wherever. You’re proud as hell to wear it. Game days are filled with nerves and anticipation, while productivity at school and work are diminished greatly. And come game time, everyone’s on the same page and the deeper the playoff run, the better it gets.
Woke this morning feeling pretty damn fortunate to be part of this group and what was accomplished this year.So proud to wear a #sens jersey
— Zack Smith (@Smit_Treat15) May 26, 2017
Pageau 4 Goal Game
On the night of Game 7, the power at Lieutenant’s Pump went out. My friends and I scrambled to find somewhere with enough room for all of us to watch it. We settled on a little hotel bar off of Elgin, called Cooper’s. It wasn’t exactly ideal but as long as we had a TV we were fine. When Pittsburgh scored their first goal, we were all pretty deflated, but it’s funny how quickly things can change. Mere moments later, Mark Stone came through and tied it up. For a bar full of old people, the place was buzzing.
In between periods I’d step out into the rain to get some air, looking down towards Elgin and Maclaren, fully envisioning myself celebrating on the streets within the next 40 minutes. I kept telling my friends that if we were to win, I’d sprint down the block and a half to Elgin to cheer my ass off.
Third period. Nerves, rapid heart rate, quick breathing, and that was all before OT. With less than ten minutes to go Pittsburgh took the lead on their power play, and everyone was livid with Kessel’s atrocious diving skills. Yet despite the anger and disappointment, there was a sense of optimism with this squad. They endeared themselves to their fans and even outsiders with the way they played and with their resiliency. As soon as the Penguins took that lead, I knew that couldn’t be it. I refused to believe it. So when Ryan Dzingel tied it up, I knew that was it. I truly believe we couldn’t lose. The resolve that the boys were showing was outstanding and even if they couldn’t end it in regulation, I knew we would do it in OT.
I thought about all of the storylines surrounding the team throughout the year. The Anderson family’s strength in the face of adversity, Brian Murray’s own battle with cancer, Clarke MacArthur’s incredible return from numerous concussions, and Jonathan Pitre’s remarkable resilience.
I thought about the team being a goal away from playing in the Cup Final, despite so called ‘pundits’ writing the team off, time and time again. I loved the thought of my ‘boring’ team potentially playing in the Cup Final, finally bringing the Cup to Ottawa during Canada’s 150th year. As Ian Mendes said, this team almost made you believe in Hockey Gods. Everything seemed to be lining up so perfectly. This team made you believe, which is why I couldn’t picture what would ultimately end up happening.
When Pittsburgh scored the winning goal, I thought that I was dreaming. Sadly, it’s a moment I’ll never forget, as much as I may want to. My friends’ faces collapsed in their hands, as I looked up and saw the image of Andy and the boys standing or kneeled over in stunned disbelief. It felt all too familiar. I got up, made my rounds and quickly left, not wanting to talk to anyone.
That walk down Elgin towards Sparks was one of the saddest of my life. The streets were full of fellow fans, heads down, words barely audible, as the rain began to fall, reflecting the mood of the entire city of Ottawa. I walked past an old couple, and upon seeing me in my state, the man told me that “we’ll get em next year”. Another fan walked right up to me, a bit too close for my liking, and began to analyze every little thing, while speaking very rapidly. Normally, I’d oblige, but I was having none of it, responding with one or two word replies.
I couldn’t sleep that night. I couldn’t help but think of what if. Even now, as I write this, the Predators are down 0-2 and I can’t help but think, what if that were us that were just two wins away from the Cup?
The thought I struggled with the most after the loss was what if it took us another decade to get so close? I can’t help but think of the opportunity that we squandered. I truly believe we could have beaten Nashville, just like we could’ve beaten the Ducks in ’03.
So when it all comes to a sudden halt like it did last week, it’s hard not to think what now? I miss wearing my jersey on game days, I miss talking to clients at work about the team, I miss watching with strangers who were my best friends on Elgin’s bars. Most of all, I miss the excitement that permeated throughout the city’s streets and the last thing I’d want is to wait another decade to experience it all again.
That said, you can’t dwell on what ifs, nothing good comes from it and you’ll drive yourself mad. Sometimes I question my fandom, and why I am so emotionally invested in my teams. I’ve dealt with heartbreak from not only the Sens, but the Jays and Raptors as well. You’d think you’d grow tired of it. But year after year you’re back, with renewed optimism, because you know one day that all of those downs will be so worth it when your team finally strikes gold. All of those tough, heartbreaking losses will make that elusive sixteenth win that much sweeter. When that day finally arrives, you best believe that I’ll be in the middle of it all, donning my heritage Alfie jersey while celebrating on the streets of the city I’m proud to call home. And you know what? Something tells me that we won’t have to wait another decade to get another shot.