Wednesday, November 7, 2007
What is Ottawa's success worth to Canadians, NHL? A lot
By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com
As the Ottawa Senators reach for history, they have a partner on the journey.
The Senators' extraordinary start to the 2007-08 season, one in which they have already set an NHL record for points with 13 victories in their first 14 games, has startled this hockey nation. Three Canadian-based clubs -- Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa -- have reached for the Stanley Cup in the past three seasons but failed, leaving the 1993 Montreal Canadiens as the last Great White North franchise to have won the trophy originally donated to the sport by a Canadian governor general.
But while the Flames and Oilers took steps backward after their stabs at glory, the Senators have surged ever since they were drubbed 4-1 in the 2007 Cup finals by the Anaheim Ducks.
Indeed, while the Ducks have clearly been working through a Cup hangover, the Senators have seemingly used that setback as motivation to reach higher, and are 20-1 this fall, including preseason starts.
They are without question Canada's dominant team at the moment, and in head-to-head matchups since the NHL lockout with their wealthier provincial cousins, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Sens joyously boast an overwhelming 15-2-2 record.
Life couldn't be better.
In fact, while the Senators soar, Canadians in general are marveling at their own suddenly brawny currency. On Wednesday, the Canadian dollar -- generally referred to as the "loonie" because a loon appears on the country's one dollar coins -- traded at more than $1.10 per U.S. dollar, a stunning change of affairs in the nation's economy.
Economists are calling it "nothing short of incredible."
And it means a lot to the Senators. And the NHL.
See, not since the 1970s has the Canadian dollar even traded at par with the U.S. dollar, and a half-dozen years ago, a 60-cent Canadian buck was a key reason why Ottawa and the other five Canadian NHL clubs, along with the state of the league's collective-bargaining agreement, were in distress.
Indeed, the Senators went bankrupt in January 2003, just 11 years after the franchise was reborn as an NHL expansion team.
|Jason Spezza signed a new seven-year, $49-million contract last week.|
As it turns out, however, bankruptcy was merely the prelude to a period of excellence.
Canadian billionaire Eugene Melnyk bought the team, which already boasted a variety of quality players, and, as the NHL and NHL Players' Association went to war over a new collective bargaining agreement, the Sens quickly became perfectly positioned for success because of their deep cupboards of quality young players.
No longer forced to compete with the inflated payrolls of teams from New York, Philadelphia, Detroit and Toronto after the lockout, the Sens continued to improve under the leadership of a steadily changing front office and enjoy the benefits of being a disciplined organization that operated under a draft-and-develop philosophy in the pre-bankruptcy years when it had little choice.
Indeed, the Sens might have posed a greater challenge to the Ducks in last spring's Stanley Cup finals if not for a lengthy, nine-day layoff before the series began, a layoff that seemed to sap the club of the exhilaration it had generated through beating the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference finals.
Now, in the still early days of this season, they are again the favorites to win the East and, based on their play, bring the Cup back to Ottawa for the first time since the original Senators captured the NHL title in 1927. Moreover, after signing center Jason Spezza to seven-year, $49-million contract last week, the youthful Senators have most of their core locked up in multiyear arrangements, including captain Daniel Alfredsson, sniper Dany Heatley, center Mike Fisher, defenseman Chris Phillips and rearguard Anton Volchenkov.
They are, it would seem, a shinny reflection of the buoyant Canadian economy, which, in turn, has some speaking confidently (or at least hopefully) about the possibility of a seventh NHL franchise. The NHL used to have clubs in Winnipeg and Quebec City before those teams moved to Phoenix and Denver, respectively; but now, after Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie was rebuffed in his bid to buy the Nashville Predators and move them to Hamilton, Ontario, there's talk that key NHL decision makers would be much more amenable to again putting a team in Winnipeg.
The Senators, meanwhile, swept the Boston Bruins on the weekend, then hammered the Maple Leafs -- again -- by a 5-1 score Tuesday night in the Canadian capital.
The so-called "Battle of Ontario" has become so one-sided that Melnyk, who owns a major junior franchise in the Toronto area, has been quoted as hoping the Leafs improve soon to reinvigorate the rivalry.
"You would like to see the Maple Leafs competitive," Melnyk said two months ago with a touch of condescension. "I think they are making changes that will make them more competitive."
The Sens, meanwhile, are apparently becoming an attractive team to be part of, or at least to stay part of. Both Spezza and Heatley settled for long-term deals well below the maximum $10 million per-season salary allowable this season.
Defenseman Wade Redden, who is seen as a likely salary-cap casualty after the season because of his $6.5 million price tag and status in July as an unrestricted free agent, has said he would be willing to take less to stay with the club.
"The hometown discount is very important," Melnyk told The Ottawa Citizen. "But what I'm basically offering, and what this organization is offering, is more than that, what I call a Stanley Cup discount.
"We know that we can spend, and all we want to be able to do is be able to put together a winning team year after year after year."
This is all a far cry from the years when the Senators mounted consecutive seasons of 10, 14, nine and 18 victories and were the laughingstock of the league, and from the days when the combination of a low Canadian dollar, unstable ownership and the absence of a salary cap made it difficult for small-market Canadian teams to compete.
Now, the Sens are leading the league, the dollar is high, Melnyk is seen as an ideal owner and the cap keeps high-revenue teams from blowing the Sens out of the water.
It's unlikely to completely thrill the NHL, of course; having a powerful team in Ottawa does nothing to lure big U.S. television dollars, the league's Holy Grail under the leadership of commissioner Gary Bettman.
But just as there's value to the NFL in having the Green Bay Packers prosper, in a different but similar way, there's intrinsic value to the NHL in having a modestly sized city in a country that truly loves the game succeed.
And just maybe win it all.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."