OUA Football Midseason Report

September 28, 2011 8:52 am

The first half of the 2011 Ontario University Athletics football season is in the books, with each of the conference’s 10 member schools having played four games. As we enter October, the race for the Yates Cup is set to heat up very quickly, with the Western Mustangs looking to defend their 2010 OUA title and several other teams still in contention vying to dethrone them. Here’s a look at three of the key storylines that defined the first half of the OUA season.

The Education of Billy McPhee

The Queen’s University football program is one of the most illustrious in the CIS, boasting three Grey Cup championships from the 1920s (before the trophy was awarded solely to CFL teams), 23 Yates Cup victories and four Vanier Cup titles. The Gaels’ most recent national championship came in 2009, with fifth-year quarterback Danny Brannagan leading the team to a 7-1 record and a first-place finish in the OUA.

Alongside the next year’s CFL #1 overall pick, defensive end Shomari Williams, Brannagan would spur the Gaels to a 32-6 dismantling of McMaster in the OUA semifinal, which would be followed by a thrilling 43-39 victory over archrival Western in the Yates Cup final. From there, Queen’s would shock the defending Vanier Cup champion Laval Rouge et Or in the national semifinal by a score of 33-30, before coming from behind to top the Calgary Dinos 33-31. Brannagan would capture MVP honours in his final collegiate game.

Billy McPhee ranks 2nd in the OUA with 1050 passing yards in four games.

With Brannagan, Williams and a host of other impact players gone, the Gaels fell back to earth in 2010, finishing 3-5 and falling to the McMaster Marauders in the OUA quarterfinal. Rookie quarterback Justin Chapdelaine was efficient, completing 64% of his pass attempts and limiting his interceptions, but he had no chance of replicating Brannagan’s prodigious numbers from the year before. With another rebuilding season looming, head coach Pat Sheahan made the decision to convert the athletic Chapdelaine to receiver and start fresh with another untested youngster at quarterback – this time, sophomore Billy McPhee.

Just four weeks into his tenure as Queen’s primary signal-caller, McPhee has shown flashes of brilliance tempered by moments of mediocrity, offering hope that he may one day reenact Brannagan’s considerable achievements while reminding fans that there’s still a long way to go. The first game of the year was nothing short of disastrous, falling at home to CIS preseason #3 McMaster by a score of 26-2, with McPhee completing 13 of 32 passes and tossing two costly interceptions. He fared little better in a 19-6 loss to the Ottawa Gee-Gees, going 20 for 40 for 208 yards, but failing to register a touchdown for the second straight game.

As dismal as the first two contests were, the inverse would be true for the next two. Facing the perennially competitive Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks at home in Week 3, McPhee exploded for 362 yards and four touchdowns, sparking the Gaels to a 49-7 lead (they’d eventually win 58-35). Incredibly, McPhee would crank the offense up another notch in Week 4, throwing for 328 yards and just six incompletions, deferring to emerging running back Ryan Granberg at key points and leading Queen’s to a 63-3 demolition of the York Lions.

With upcoming tilts against the Toronto Varsity Blues and the undermanned Waterloo Warriors, the Gaels should improve on their 2010 record and finish .500 at the very least, and if McPhee can turn up the heat against Queen’s other opponents, the Windsor Lancers and the Western Mustangs, a home playoff game may be in the cards. For now, the Gaels are still in a distinct rebuilding stage, but if the early returns are any indication, the future is promising, for the quarterback and the program alike.

Aaron Colbon is in his first season as the starting quarterback of the Ottawa Gee-Gees.

Gee-Gees Yearn for Yates

Although Brad Sinopoli was unable to take his team to the Vanier Cup during his four years at the University of Ottawa, his 2010 statistics eclipsed those of Brannagan during his standout 2009 campaign. Sinopoli debuted as the Gee-Gees starting quarterback in 2009, posting respectable totals en route to a 6-2 season (although Ottawa would lose their first playoff game). In his final collegiate season, Sinopoli won the Hec Creighton Trophy as the most outstanding player in CIS football, passing for 2756 yards and 22 touchdowns.

The Gee-Gees would narrowly escape their semi-final matchup with Laurier, winning 32-31 and setting up a home matchup against Western for the Yates Cup. After falling behind early, Sinopoli led a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback to put the Gee-Gees ahead. Their lead would disappear in heartbreaking fashion, with Mustangs Lirim Hajrullahu nailing a 34-yard field goal with one second left, clinching a 26-25 victory and eliminating Ottawa from the playoffs.

Today, Sinopoli is the fourth-string quarterback of the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders; while he’s yet to see any game action, the Stamps look primed for playoff contention at 7-5. His college team has fared similarly well in his absence: Sinopoli’s replacement at quarterback, fourth-year Aaron Colbon, has thrown confidently, while a commitment to team defense under head coach Jean-Philippe Asselin has held Ottawa’s opponents in check. (Aside from a 41-13 shellacking at the hands of Western, the Gee-Gees have allowed just 14 points in their three other contests.)

At 3-1, the Gee-Gees sit in a three-team logjam immediately below Western, wresting for control of second place in the OUA. Late-season games against Windsor and McMaster will be crucial for determining Ottawa’s eventually spot in the standings: wins could lead to a quarterfinal bye and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, while losses could spell a lower seed and a tougher road to the Yates Cup final. A decorated program that has come on very strong in recent years, the Gee-Gees have shown they can thrive without their former quarterback, as they continue to strive for the elusive provincial and national championships.

The Western Mustangs currently sit atop the OUA standings at 4-0.

Dissecting the Standings

The Western Mustangs have appeared in four consecutive Yates Cup finals, a mark that should extend to five seasons if the London club can continue playing the explosive brand of football that has led them to a 4-0 start in 2011. Ranked #2 in the country behind Laval, Western has scored at least 34 points in each of their first four games, including an 86-point outburst against Waterloo in the season opener. With no opponent above .500 scheduled for the rest of the season, the Mustangs should cruise to the OUA’s #1 seed, in search of their first Vanier Cup championship since 1994.

Directly below Western are three teams that could challenge for the Ontario title – Windsor, McMaster and Ottawa, all at 3-1. Two vital end-of-year matchups should help determine the race for the second seed – Windsor will visit Ottawa on October 15th, with the Gee-Gees then travelling to McMaster on the 22nd to conclude the regular season.

Queen’s and Toronto currently round out the OUA playoff picture, in fifth and sixth place, respectively (the 2-2 teams will face off against each other this Friday). Laurier, Guelph and York are still very much in the playoff hunt at 1-3, while Waterloo, returning from a yearlong suspension for steroid use, is languishing behind at 0-4.

The Concept of the Franchise Player

September 21, 2011 1:06 pm

Roy Halladay played 12 seasons in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform, earning six trips to the All-Star Game, winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2003 and establishing himself as one of the most dominant pitchers in Major League Baseball. Toronto never won more than 88 games or reached baseball’s postseason during Halladay’s tenure, yet the right-hander managed to top the 16-win mark on six occasions, even as his teammates struggled to stay afloat against superior competition. For over a decade, Blue Jay fans could head to the ballpark once every five days knowing that they might witness something spectacular: a no-hitter, double digits in strikeouts, or simply another run-of-the-mill Halladay complete game, of which he pitched 49 during his time in Toronto.

Roy Halladay threw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins on May 29th, 2010.

That all changed, of course, in December 2009, when freshly minted Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for three prospects. Headlining a club one year removed from victory in the World Series, Halladay thrived, leading the National League in wins and innings pitched. On May 29th, 2010, he threw a perfect game against the Florida Marlins; four months later, he no-hit the Cincinnati Reds in his first career playoff game. Halladay has shown no signs of decline in his second year in Philadelphia, closing in on a second consecutive Cy Young and leading the Phillies to their fifth straight division championship.

Halladay’s success since the trade raises an intriguing question: Say he rounds out his career in Philadelphia, winning one or more World Series as a member of the Phillies. When all is said and done, will he be remembered by history as a player that racked up individual accolades for many years on the middling Toronto Blue Jays, or will the first twelve years of his career serve merely as a prelude to his days on the powerhouse Phillies?

The question has little to do with Halladay’s unmitigated dominance as a pitcher; rather, the implications lie more so with the identity of the Blue Jays franchise. Over the past decade, Jays fans had little more to root for throughout a season than for Halladay to make the All-Star team or win a major individual award. Even as Anthopoulos, Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero and Brett Lawrie usher in a new era of Toronto baseball, it’s still disheartening to look back on the last 10 years, see nothing more than a compendium of Halladay complete games and realize they might all be swept to the back of the history books if Doc continues to excel in Philly.

Alex Anthopoulos and Jose Bautista are at the forefront of Toronto's post-Halladay movement.

If that sentiment sounds completely selfish, it’s also not wholly accurate. If Toronto can’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox from April to September, there’s nothing Blue Jay fans would want more than to see Halladay mow them down in October. Still, as Halladay once belonged to a small, rabid pocket of Canadian baseball fans, he now belongs to Philadelphia and the league at large, and the Blue Jays don’t have much to show for it.

The concept of a franchise player, in this case, isn’t only in the traditional sense of the phrase, signifying an otherworldly talent pegged to lead his franchise for a significant period of time. This particular use of “franchise player” implies a player forming a special connection with fans, truly belonging to a franchise, both in the present and the historical future.

It’s a notion that extends to other sports as well. Zdeno Chara first established himself as a top-pairing defenseman in Ottawa, before signing as a free agent in Boston, assuming the Bruins captaincy, winning a Norris Trophy and, five years later, hoisting the Stanley Cup. It’s both satisfying and sour for Sens fans to relive the highlights of Chara cackling maniacally as he lifted the Cup, knowing that we experienced his rise to prominence but weren’t around to reap any of the benefits.

Zdeno Chara rose to prominence in Ottawa, but has enjoyed his greatest successes with the Boston Bruins.

You could, in a way, apply the concept to players of lesser regard; such as Chara’s teammate and longtime Senators fan favourite Chris Kelly. Beloved in our nation’s capital for his tireless defensive play and inexpugnable spirit, Kelly hit the jackpot with the trade that sent him to Boston in February.  He was never considered one of the leading members of the Senators, and his exploits as a career third-line centre won’t be celebrated by history, but watching Kelly’s accomplishments in Ottawa fall by the wayside in the wake of his Cup victory is bittersweet nonetheless.

There’s still hope for Ottawa fans, despite the departures of Chara, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat and many others, none of whom will be remembered as career Senators. Wade Redden, Chris Phillips and Daniel Alfredsson will always belong to the franchise in an historical sense; similarly, Mats Sundin will always be a Maple Leaf and Brett Favre will always be a Packer, their ignominious late-career exits notwithstanding. The situation is different for other franchises, however: Kevin Garnett is a Celtic, not a Timberwolf; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Laker, not a Buck; Alex Rodriguez is a Yankee, not a Mariner or Ranger; and Roy Halladay is a Phillie, possibly for good.

Again, this isn’t meant to trash or disregard Halladay’s accomplishments; it’s the natural instinct of sports enthusiasts watching their team sputter to another .500 season. Despite this, every Blue Jays fan is rooting for their former ace to lead his new club to the championship. Consider Philadelphia’s games on July 1st and 2nd at the Rogers Centre, the first of which where Halladay presented the lineup card before the game, the second of which where Halladay pitched a complete game to beat the Blue Jays. Both times, the Toronto faithful rose as one, saluting the greatest player in their post-World Series era, appreciative of his triumphs both for and against them, applauding him as if he was one of their own. In a way, no matter what history decides, he always will be.

Jose Bautista and the MVP Conundrum

September 16, 2011 12:45 pm

Major League Baseball typically awards its two Most Valuable Player awards in mid-November, roughly three weeks after the World Series champion has been crowned and seven after the completion of the regular season. Unlike other leading MVP candidates in the American and National Leagues, Jose Bautista’s year won’t continue into October; he’ll play his last game in 2011 on September 28th. It’s for this reason that he stands little to no chance of being named AL MVP, despite posting the best numbers of his career, leading the majors in every relevant offensive statistical category and asserting himself as the best all-around hitter in the game.

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos re-signed Bautista to a five-year, $65 million contract extension this past February. Coming off a monstrous 2010 season in which he hit 54 home runs (up from his career high of 16), the signing was viewed as somewhat of a risk: what if his offensive explosion was no more than an anomaly? Bautista has since erased all doubts, complementing his power surge with a dramatically increased batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and bases on balls. Still, his numbers aren’t the problem; it’s the fact that he plays for Toronto, perennial bridesmaids since 1994, that puts him behind the New York Yankees’ Curtis Granderson, the Boston Red Sox’ Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury and the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander in the minds of many AL MVP voters.

Jose Bautista's MVP candidacy has been hampered by the Blue Jays' middling results.

Much of the aversion to Bautista’s candidacy stems from the arbitrary definition of the word “valuable.” If Bautista was so “valuable,” then why are the Blue Jays still languishing behind New York, Boston and Tampa Bay in the AL East? Not only is this logic flagrantly unjust – one baseball player can’t alter the fortunes of an entire team* – it also gives credence to the train of thought that the award should go to the best player on the best team, an idea not present anywhere in baseball’s MVP criteria.

*Read Joe Posnanski’s article from August 23rd on his AL MVP vote, specifically the 10th and 11th paragraphs, about Albert Pujols’ transcendent 2003 season. Remind you of a certain Toronto outfielder?

Many fans are guilty of basing their opinions on how they’d award the MVP in other sports they follow. It’s my personal opinion that the MVP awards in different sports should be based on separate standards, to reflect the disparities in how they’re played. In basketball, for instance, it makes more sense to value team success when considering an individual MVP. With five players working in cohesion at all times, one man can have a profound effect on the impact of his teammates and the outcome of every game. Of the best individual players in the league, which one meant the most to his team?

Boston's Adrian Gonzalez might take home the MVP, despite ranking below Bautista in every relevant offensive statistical category.

Baseball, conversely, is an individual game masquerading as a team sport. The outcome is determined through a series of one-on-one battles; the traditional concept of teamwork seldom comes into play. Players can’t be held accountable for their teammates’ production; thus, the MVP voting should be slanted towards the best individual player, rather than a haphazard definition of most valuable.

It’s fairly safe to say that Jose Bautista is, at present, baseball’s best individual player. He leads the majors in home runs (42, as of September 15th), on-base percentage (.444), slugging percentage (.628), on-base plus slugging (1.072) and walks (117, 21 of which were intentional). Unlike 2010, when he was mostly just a power hitter, Bautista has evolved into the most well-rounded and dangerous hitter in the game, as well as an adept fielder at both third base and right field (meaning you can’t elevate a lesser hitter above him based on defense, such as Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury).

Until recently, baseball valued batting average (AVG) and runs batted in (RBI) over any other offensive statistic, despite the implicit flaws in both measures (AVG doesn’t account for walks, while RBI is reliant on a player’s teammates actually getting on base). Adrian Gonzalez’s AVG leads the majors at .340, but his OBP (.407) is still significantly lower than Bautista’s (due to the latter’s prodigious walk totals). Gonzalez and Curtis Granderson rank near the top of the majors in RBI, but they’re still only slightly above Bautista despite playing on teams with potential All-Stars at every position on the field. The more relevant stats are OBP (reflective of a hitter’s true value at the plate) and SLG (the ability to hit and hit for power) – and we all know who rules over those categories.

Detroit's Justin Verlander boasts a 23-5 record, which has swept him to the forefront of the MVP voting.

Bautista’s greatest challenger may be Detroit’s Justin Verlander, who will run away with the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher. Still, Verlander has appeared in only 32 games all season, meaning he’s been a complete non-factor in nearly four-fifths of his team’s games. He’s the best player on what will soon be a division champion, but there are several valid reasons that no pitcher has won the MVP since Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley in 1992, whose victory is widely regarded as one of the most dubious in league history.

Again, you cannot denounce a baseball player’s MVP candidacy because of the impotence of his team. The only legitimate arguments for Gonzalez and Granderson are the Red Sox and Yankees’ place in the standings, and for all their shiny RBI, they can’t profess to have more than a nominal impact on their team’s record. If you don’t believe that Jose Bautista should be the MVP because Toronto is merely a .500 team, then you’re penalizing him for the struggles of the Jays’ bullpen; the inconsistent play of Adam Lind and Edwin Encarnacion; the inability of Kyle Drabek and Travis Snider to stick in the majors; the injuries to Yunel Escobar and Colby Rasmus; and the continued presence of Mike McCoy in the lineup.

In short, you’re penalizing him for everything but his own play. As Sports Illustrated’s Cliff Corcoran put it in his September 12th Awards Watch column, “it still seems clear that the player who, by any objective standard has been the most valuable player in the majors this season will not be recognized as the most valuable player in his league.”

(And despite these objective standards, Corcoran has Bautista in 3rd place. Go figure.)

Hockey’s Summer of Discontent

September 7, 2011 7:39 am

Wade Belak was found dead last week in Toronto. He committed suicide. He had a wife and two children and was only 35 years old. His is the latest in a string of deaths of National Hockey League enforcers.  Only a few weeks ago Rick Rypien of the Winnipeg Jets committed suicide as well. In May of this year Derek Boogaard of the New York Rangers was found dead in his home after consuming a toxic mix of drugs and alcohol. It was July 2010 when Bob Probert – one of hockey’s most feared fighters – died at the age of 45. Although his death was due to a heart attack, he also had a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. His death raised few questions about the potential dangers of a professional life spent fighting other hockey players. Perhaps it should have. But the death of three players in only a few months whose main role was to fight will invariably draw attention to this aspect of the game.

Wade Belak as a Toronto Maple Leaf

Hockey is unique among North America’s professional team sports for having players whose only notable skill is knowing how to fight. Wade Belak, Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard and Bob Probert and others like them all had the same job. Over an 82 game schedule an enforcer’s role is to go out night after night to intimidate the other team. Not always, but often this entails fighting the opposing team’s enforcer. At some point over the course of the game the two players will be on the ice at the same time. Both know that it isn’t a coincidence. If the players line up against each other at a face off the fight will begin the moment the puck is dropped: better to drop the gloves before any energy has been wasted skating. Occasionally a landed punch is so precise and so hard that the opposing player is knocked unconscious.  More typically a nose might be broken or teeth knocked out. Most fights are relatively short; a long fight might be two minutes long. But by the end of those two minutes the combatants often look exhausted, weary and sometimes bloodied. Afterwards they might exchange pats on the back as a sign of mutual respect. Their shared effort draws ovations from the crowd. More recently team mates have started hitting the boards with their sticks to mark their own appreciation. Both reactions also amount to tacit approvals of this part of the game. Fighting, we are often told, is an integral part of hockey. Fights change a game’s momentum and they keep players honest. Besides those who fight willingly accept their role and rarely get seriously hurt doing so – or so it seemed.

Rick Rypien as a Vancouver Canuck in a fight with a Calgary Flame player.

It’s understandable that people would think the job of an enforcer is a relatively safe occupation. Even among players of exceptional strength, Wade Belak, Derek Boorgaard and Bob Probert were giants. They were tall, broad shouldered, strong and knew, as the saying goes, how to handle themselves. With the exception of Bob Probert in his prime, they played only a few minutes a game. Otherwise they would sit either patiently on the bench or in the penalty box. It is easy to assume that they had grown accustomed to the rigors of fighting and approached the task fearlessly. And even the most active fighters don’t do so every game. But the players themselves are beginning to hint at a much darker story. Wade Belak talked about the physical toll fighting took on his body. He spoke about his anxiety over fighting. If he knew he was to fight a certain player, he would have troubles sleeping the night before the game. He may have realized that fighters are becoming faster and stronger with each passing year. They learn to throw their fists with lightning speed.  Perhaps he feared being on the wrong end of the sort of punch that could knock him unconscious. Or perhaps he sensed that receiving repeated blows to the head was slowly eroding his mental well being.

Indeed, it is a player’s struggles off the ice that are helping to expose the dangers of an enforcer’s on ice roles.  Far away from the rink and far removed from their last game those who passed away were struggling to cope with life. Still we must be careful not to establish a causal connection between a player’s role as fighter and, in the cases of Rick Rypien and now Wade Belak, their suicide. Rick Rypien had long battled depression and the disease has run through his family. Wade Belak’s mother revealed that he also suffered from the disease. For all we know, time spent at the rink with teammates and in front of crowds may have given them a temporary reprieve from their mental struggles. (Could this be why Rick Rypien and Wade Belak committed suicide in the summer?)

Bob Probert as a Detroit Red Wing

Nevertheless the emerging science of brain injuries suggests that repeated head trauma can inflict long-term damage to the brain. The effects of fighting are not as necessarily as overt as those suffered due to a body check induced concussion. After a fight a player may not suffer from dizziness or a pounding headache. The dangers are more subtle, insidious. But this is what renders the damage to the brain a fighter might sustain a bigger challenge to the game’s future. The cumulative effects of a professional life of fighting are harder, if not impossible, to detect until it is too late. A player makes an exceedingly comfortable living while playing and then retires while still in the prime of his life. Only later may symptoms of brain injury be manifest.  And the symptoms are varied. Depression is only one among many possibilities. Retired players might experience memory loss or, like Bob Probert, be prone to angry outbursts. As they get older, they might be more susceptible to dementia. Science will soon shine a much brighter light on what a life spent fighting can potentially do to the brain. What we learn may not be pretty and will likely only fuel the belief that fighting is a part of the game hockey should do without.

Besides the scripted element to fighting makes a mockery of the reasons constantly invoked to justify its ongoing presence in the game. When Wade Belak was a Toronto Maple Leaf and Brian McGrattan an Ottawa Senator, how did a fight between the two change the momentum of the game? How did it serve to keep other players “honest?” Why does the need for fighting suddenly disappear during the playoffs, when the game can be played at a fever pitched pace? We can appreciate the fighter’s courage, but should dispense with the idea that his role serves any useful purpose or is integral to the game. Hockey must evolve before more lives are prematurely lost.

Senate Reform, Part X: The End of the Beginning

September 5, 2011 10:01 am
Pittsburgh Penguins v Ottawa Senators - Game Four

Now it all makes sense.

You bleed for your team, you follow them through thick and thin, you monitor every free-agent signing, you immerse yourself in Draft Day, you purchase the jerseys and caps, you plan your Sundays around the games… and there’s a little rainbow waiting at the end. You can’t see it, but you know it’s there. It’s there. It has to be there. So you believe.

Of course, there’s one catch: You might never get there. Every fan’s worst fear. All that energy of the years just getting displaced, no release, no satisfaction, nothing. Season after season, no championship… and then you die. I mean, isn’t that what this is all about? Isn’t that the nagging fear? That those little moral victories over the years won’t make up for that big payoff at the end – that one moment when everything comes together, when your teams keeps winning, when you keep getting the breaks and you just can’t lose.

Bill Simmons is one of my favourite sportswriters. He’s from Boston, originally; he wrote the above passage in 2002, nine years before the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years, six before the Celtics won their first championship in 22 years, two before the Red Sox snapped their 86-year title drought and one day after the Patriots won their first Super Bowl. Writing for ESPN.com, his words could have applied to any team hoisting their first championship trophy, to any fan experiencing their team’s first championship.

Before being bound to impartiality, every sportswriter was a fan of something; they were either born into fandom or adopted a team as their own based on a number of reasons – a transcendent player, a captivating colour scheme, the birth of a franchise in their backyard. Their proclivity for analysis and criticism was born from a love for the game, following their team day in and day out and living and dying with the outcome.

Simmons is far from impartial, though he manages to toe the line between columnist and cheerleader. Unabashedly biased towards the Boston teams, he’s still thoughtful enough to expound on the highs and lows of any sports franchise. While over the top, the nostalgic adoration he shows for his hometown clubs can be endearing – a West Coast convert unwilling to abandon the teams he left behind.

In a column posted on February 4, 2008, Simmons opened with these exact same three paragraphs – only this time, his Patriots had been upset in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.  He’d been to the mountaintop three times over with the Pats, in 2002, 2004 and 2005, only to see it finally come crashing down. In every sport, for every championship and every heartbreak, there’s always a tomorrow.

This is going to be the final piece in the Senate Reform series, and I hope you’ll excuse the fact that the storyline is centered primarily around me. If you’re a Sens fan, it’s about you, too – just intersperse your memories and experiences where mine are below.

I was born in 1992; December, to be exact, two-and-a-half months after Neil Brady scored the first goal in the history of the modern Ottawa Senators. The first game played after my birth came on New Year’s Eve, a road date with the Detroit Red Wings. Fittingly, the Sens lost, their 34th defeat in 40 games and the 12th game of a winless streak that would last 15.

Over the next four seasons, the losses would mount, resulting in the firing of the team’s first coach, Rick Bowness, who would be followed out the door by his successor, Dave Allison, just two wins and 25 games later. The tide would turn soon after, however, with Jacques Martin leaving the Colorado Avalanche to take over as Ottawa’s head coach. In 1996-97, the Senators would reach the playoffs for the first time, due in no small part to the contributions of young players such as Radek Bonk, Wade Redden, Alexei Yashin and Daniel Alfredsson.

Ottawa never missed the playoffs in any of Martin’s eight full seasons behind the bench, with Chris Phillips, Marian Hossa, Mike Fisher, Martin Havlat and several other impact players joining the team in the next few years. From their modest beginning as an expansion franchise, the Sens gradually evolved into a juggernaut. With Bonk, Hossa and Alfredsson leading the charge up front, Redden, Phillips and Zdeno Chara providing strength on defense and Patrick Lalime manning the crease, Ottawa won three division titles and captivated an entire generation of young fans.

The Hossa/Alfredsson/Redden core would peak in the early 2000s, culminating in the Eastern Conference Finals run in 2003. The emergence of players like Fisher, Chris Neil and Jason Spezza and the decision to trade Hossa to Atlanta for Dany Heatley bought the core a few more years, and the team responded by rolling through a weak Eastern Conference and reaching the Cup final in 2007. They would be swiftly dismissed by Anaheim, however, and the wheels would fall off soon after.

Over the next four years, Ottawa’s goaltending carousel continued, the effects of John Muckler’s decimation of the team’s prospect pool were felt and stopgap solutions like Alexei Kovalev and Sergei Gonchar failed to pay dividends. Two playoff appearances would follow in the next three years, but the Sens were ousted by Pittsburgh in the first round on both occasions. It wasn’t until the team’s 1-17 run in January 2011 that several key veterans were dealt away and the rebuild was set in motion.

Slowly but surely, the 2006-07 Cup finalist team has been dismantled. Ray Emery missed practice, drove too fast and was exiled to Russia; Redden vanished from the face of the Earth and reemerged as a Connecticut Whale; Anton Volchenkov and Andrej Meszaros became too expensive to retain; Fisher was sent to live with Carrie Underwood in Nashville; Chris Kelly hoisted the Cup as a Boston Bruin; and Heatley made Ottawa fans forget about Alexei Yashin’s NAC donation fiasco. Only four men remain from four years ago: Neil, the ever-faithful pugilist; Spezza, the former boy wonder; Phillips, the steady second-in-command; and Alfredsson, the captain of the sinking ship.

These four have been chose to usher the Ottawa Senators back into contention. They’ll be assisted by a pair of youngsters who have already stepped into veteran roles: reliable winger Nick Foligno and offensive dynamo Erik Karlsson. Soon, the next legion of Senators will feature names like Rundblad, Cowen, Zibanejad, Silfverberg, Da Costa, Butler, Wiercioch and Lehner.

Soon, they’ll be privy to our team’s brief, momentous history. There have been playoff failures: Derek Plante’s goal, Ricard Persson’s lapse in judgment, Ed Belfour’s heroics, Jeff Friesen’s dagger, Joe Nieuwendyk’s floaters, Jason Pominville’s breakaway, the collective will of the Anaheim Ducks. There have been good memories through the years. Without a Cup, the losses are the ones that will be rehashed, continuously, until the city can finally savour its championship.

This piece was posted on a Monday. Early Sunday morning, I said goodbye to my hometown and my hometown team, embarking on the long drive down the 417, moving away for university. I’ve been alive eighteen years – eighteen years of energy being displaced, no release, no satisfaction. That can’t be true, though – we were here for the Cup run of 2007, when the Sens seemingly couldn’t lose, when the Sens Mile stretched from Kanata to Elgin Street and all the way through the East End. It didn’t work out here for Hossa, for Redden, for Yashin, for Lalime, for Chara, for Havlat, for Martin, for Fisher, for Kelly, for Heatley, and tragically, it won’t work out for Alfredsson. We’ve grown up together, the team, the city and I, and while the years following the magical run of 2007 seem to have signalled the beginning of the end, we know that can’t be true, either – not with a new beginning right around the corner.

I’ll be back in eight months. Someday, the Sens will be, too.

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