DETROIT – Bobby Ryan couldn’t quite imagine what Daniel Alfredsson is going through after 17 seasons with the Ottawa Senators.
But when Ryan returned to Anaheim to face the Ducks, he got a taste.
“Just warming up on the opposite side, talking to the guys at the red-line and whatnot—I never had that experience before,” Ryan said. “Being in the visiting room when you’re only 15 feet away, it’s a much different feeling.”
Alfredsson got that Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena in his first game for the Detroit Red Wings against his former team. The Senators dominated 6-1, but no matter the score it was another milestone in the healing process.
“As with a lot of things, only time can really fix stuff and that’s what I think this situation needs as well,” Senators defenceman Erik Karlsson said. “It’s just going to take time, and it doesn’t really matter what you do, what you say or how you feel. You’re just going to have to wait it out for it to feel a little bit normal again.”
The new normal is Alfredsson in bright red with the winged wheel on his chest. There’s no letter above it, either.
Meanwhile, Jason Spezza has Alfredsson’s old job as Ottawa’s captain and is the first player other than the future Hall of Famer to wear that “C” on his jersey since Alexei Yashin in 1998 and 1999.
“It’s a long time in one spot as the captain of the team,” said Spezza, who scored two goals Wednesday. “I imagine it’s weird for him. It’s weird for us to see him in a Wings jersey. I can imagine him seeing me wearing the ‘C’ is different for him, but it’s the reality of the situation and I’m sure he’s moved past it.”
On the ice for warm-ups, Alfredsson didn’t stray from routine. Meanwhile, Spezza convened the Senators’ leadership group that includes Karlsson, Chris Neil and Chris Phillips while the rest of the team went about its business.
“It didn’t feel as awkward as I thought it would,” Alfredsson said. “It was OK, actually. It was different seeing them on the other side. I thought it was OK.”
Spezza said it was easy to lose touch of where Alfredsson was on the ice during the game. But the surreal experience didn’t escape him.
“You’re playing the game and you’re just worried about playing,” Spezza said. “It’s different seeing him, but it’s nice to catch up with him in the morning and see him. Once the game starts, it doesn’t really come into play because we’re so focused on the game.”
Because Alfredsson has been gone since signing with the Red Wings on July 5, the Senators treated this game as No. 8 of 82.
“We all kind of moved on from it the day it happened,” said goaltender Craig Anderson, who made 31 saves, including two on Alfredsson. “We can’t change it. You can sit there and sulk all you want and complain, but at the end of the day it wasn’t up to us. It is what happened and you have to move on. If you sit there and dwell on the past you’re not going to be very good in the future.”
In that vein, Ottawa players tried to stay in the present. They emphasized playing a division rival on the road and stuck to that mantra after crushing the Red Wings.
“It was another game. That’s all it was,” Phillips said. “Obviously playing against a teammate, a former teammate that we played with for a long time, but after that, it was another game. We wanted to beat him, but at the same time we weren’t going to allow ourselves to be distracted by what was going on.”
Alfredsson was in the starting lineup alongside Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. By the time he took his second shift, he was back in his usual spot on the second line.
It didn’t take long for him to settle in.
“Once the puck drops in the game, it felt (like) you’re focused, what you’re going to be, what you’re going to do out on the ice,” Alfredsson said.
As part of several interviews leading up to this game, Alfredsson insisted he didn’t harbour any ill will toward the organization that employed him for almost two decades.
“I think it was more just emotions about leaving the city and all the friends and people behind that made my time there so special,” he said. “I think that was the hardest. There wasn’t resentment towards anyone or anybody. I think just leaving the city and everything behind.”
Returning to that city is the next and perhaps final step in the separation. Alfredsson’s first game back in Ottawa comes Dec. 1.
Ryan has an idea what that homecoming will be like.
“I know the emotions that I played going back in that building (in Anaheim),” he said. “I think for him tonight he probably felt it to a degree, but going back into our building he’ll probably feel it a lot more.”
Follow Stephen Whyno on Twitter at @SWhyno