OTTAWA – It was almost like Daniel Alfredsson never left.
For a few minutes Sunday afternoon, Ottawa Senators fans forgot about any animosity toward their team’s former captain after he left to sign with the Detroit Red Wings. During and after a pre-game video tribute, the crowd of 20,011 showered Alfredsson with “Alfie” chants accompanied by a standing ovation.
“It’s hard to describe,” Alfredsson said of his emotions. “How do you feel you deserve to be cheered on like that after all you do is play hockey? It’s kind of surreal at times to have that feeling.”
Alfredsson didn’t know what to expect in his return to the place he called home for 17 seasons. Greeted with such a warm reception, he skated to centre ice at Canadian Tire Centre with his stick raised to salute the fans.
Of course this time was different. By the time Alfredsson buckled his chin strap and skated to his spot on right wing for his 596th career NHL game in Ottawa, the crowd moved on and past honouring him to chants of “Go, Sens, Go.” Boos followed later, once when he carried the puck into the offensive zone and then again when he scored the empty-net goal that sealed the Red Wings’ 4-2 victory.
“I thought once the puck dropped, the crowd also did the right thing by cheering on their team,” said Alfredsson, who also had a secondary assist on Johan Franzen’s goal. “They should stick up for their team, and that’s what they’re doing.”
Drew Miller also scored for Detroit and Clarke MacArthur and Mika Zibanejad for Ottawa, but this day was all about Alfredsson.
As soon as Lyndon Slewidge finished up his rendition of “O, Canada,” the Senators’ tribute to Alfredsson began on the video boards. Alfredsson stood in front of the visiting bench and looked up at the screen while the crowd rose to its feet to make a standing ovation the backdrop to the moment.
Among the highlights were Alfredsson’s appearance as the unofficial host of Ottawa’s 2012 NHL All-Star Game, his hit on Toronto Maple Leafs forward Darcy Tucker from the 2002 playoffs, and his overtime goal that sent the Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final. He was shown receiving the Calder Trophy and the King Clancy Trophy and winning the gold medal with Sweden at the 2006 Olympics.
After the video opened with the words “Involved in the community,” it was natural that his community work in Ottawa also got some attention. In total, the tribute lasted 67 seconds, but the chants of “Alfie” lasted long after.
“I really appreciate the gesture from the Sens organization and the fans,” Alfredsson said. “It’s extremely humbling.”
The chants came back with 11 minutes left in the first period as some fans attempted to revive the old “Alfie” tradition. With Alfredsson wearing No. 11 on the visiting team, it didn’t quite have the same roaring effect.
Alfredsson assisted on Franzen’s seventh goal of the season in the second period and earned some cheers when that was announced. Boos later on didn’t bother him.
The 40-year-old’s acrimonious exit set the stage for conflicting emotions.
Alfredsson made it clear in late June he was going to return for another season in the NHL. Contract talks with the Senators soured, leading him to sign a US$5.5-million, one-year deal with the Red Wings.
It was a decision Alfredsson called a “selfish” one at the time, citing what he believed was a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup in Detroit than the opportunity Ottawa presented.
Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said in an interview with TSN that there was “no ill will” toward Alfredsson from the organization’s perspective.
“I don’t think there was ever any anger,” he told TSN via satellite from Barbados. “It was more just basically the shock value of what transpired, and that eventually fades away and you just move on. … It happens in professional sports, in every sport, and you just move on.”
Melnyk declined comment when asked if Alfredsson would be considered for a job with the Senators after his playing career was over, citing that he didn’t want to violate league tampering rules. He expressed some openness to the idea of retiring Alfredsson’s No. 11 someday.
“There’s no question he’s probably the most prominent person in the organization in modern-day Ottawa Senators (history),” Melnyk said. “It’s not a gimme, but I can tell you what, if I was a betting man, I would bet on it.”
That night would undoubtedly be a crowd-pleaser. Alfredsson wasn’t sure what to make of that possibility.
“I think any time you talk about what’s going to happen after your career, it’s hard to imagine,” he said. “How do you justify and deserve certain things for what you do? I’m extremely thankful for being able to do what I really enjoy for a living and that a lot of people are interested in it. It’s hard to say if I deserve it or not.”
A sixth-round pick in the 1994 draft, Alfredsson spent 17 seasons with the Senators, including 14 as captain. He played 1,178 games with Ottawa, recording 426 goals and 682 points.
Because of what he meant to the Senators, Red Wings coach Mike Babcock welcomed the video tribute to Alfredsson.
“It was a great tribute to him at the start from the fans, and obviously he wanted to pay tribute to the organization who took care of him and his family for all those years,” Babcock said.
A few fans applauded Alfredsson as he stepped on to the ice for pre-game warm-ups. He said Saturday he wasn’t anxious to see how the crowd would greet him.
In 595 home games at the building known as The Palladium, Corel Centre and Scotiabank Place, Alfredsson had 228 goals and 361 assists. It’s now called Canadian Tire Centre, and Sunday was his first game there as a visitor.
Alfredsson drove to the arena with former Senators teammate Erik Karlsson and the two walked in together, but this time the friends parted ways to go to their respective locker rooms.
This wasn’t Alfredsson’s first game against his former team as the Senators visited Joe Louis Arena in Detroit on Oct. 23. Ottawa won 6-1 and again 4-2 in Detroit on Nov. 23, a game Alfredsson missed with an injury.
Alfredsson was front and centre for this one, which should provide closure for him and the Senators.
“I think it does put a lot of questions away for both sides going forward,” he said. “I think that’s the way it should be.”