OTTAWA – Sergei Gonchar wanted to experience playing in a Canadian market after seeing how passionate hockey fans can be when he visited with his previous teams.
The veteran defenceman also has an idea of how quickly things can sour, but he’s hoping to avoid experiencing that side of things after signing with the Ottawa Senators as a free agent on July 1.
“You have to experience it.…I have an idea what it’s going to be like but I never went through it, so it’s something that I have to learn to deal with,” Gonchar said Friday. “But, at the same time, I’m hoping we’re going to win more than we’re going to lose so we won’t have this problem.”
It was his first appearance in the Canadian capital since signing a US$16.5-million, three-year deal to leave the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 36-year-old blue-liner was considered one of the marquee players available in this summer’s free-agent crop and, after stops with the Washington Capitals, Boston Bruins and Penguins, with whom he won a Stanley Cup in 2009, over his 15-year NHL career, decided to take his game to Canada for the first time.
“It’s a new page in my hockey career,” said the native of Chelyabinsk, Russia. “Playing in Canadian cities is something that has always been special for me and now it’s going to happen for me every night, so it’s going to be special for me every night.”
Plenty of other players have learned the hard way that being under constant scrutiny from fans and the media in Canada can get old fast, but Gonchar considers it a challenge.
“Every time you see how much people have passion for the hockey, it gives you that extra energy, so I’m looking forward to it,” he said.
It’s the reason why, he says, that after it became apparent he wasn’t going to be able to re-sign with the Penguins—his first choice—he elected to come to Ottawa from among “a few teams” that were interested in his services.
“When you’re in a city for five years, right, and you win a Cup and things are going well for you, it’s obviously not easy to leave,” he said. “But, to me, it seems like it was time to move on.”
Senators general manager Bryan Murray presented Gonchar with the No. 55. It’s the same he’s worn throughout his career. They joked he now owes Brian Lee, the previous owner of that number, several dinners in exchange for it.
That’ll be the first in a few changes that his arrival is expected to bring.
Even at Gonchar’s age, Murray and the Senators expect his skill and poise with the puck to beef up their offensive attack, at even strength and on the power play, where Ottawa ranked just 21st in the league last season.
Despite missing 20 games in 2009-10, Gonchar recorded 11 goals and 50 points. Although the Pittsburgh’s power play underachieved, ranking 19th in the league despite a collection of players that included Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Gonchar notched 30 of his points while on the man advantage.
The Senators lost free-agent defencemen Anton Volchenkov and Andy Sutton, neither of whom are noted for their offensive abilities. Volchenkov signed with the New Jersey Devils, while Sutton has yet to land elsewhere.
Gonchar’s arrival gives them a dimension they were previously missing.
“It’s hard not very hard to choose him no matter what his age was. I don’t think age is a factor for a player of his nature,” Murray said. “He’s high skilled, he addresses a tremendous need of this hockey club and that is, he provides skills at the back end, direction at the back end.
“I’ve said this, and with a little bit of sarcasm, but I hate blocking shots all the time. I’d like to have the puck, I’d like to have skill on our line…that can help our forwards. This gentleman and (Detroit Red Wings star) Nicklas Lidstrom are the two people, in my observation career, that provide that and make the team tremendously better.”
Another benefit that fans will be hoping the addition of Gonchar can provide is to help Russian Alex Kovalev rebound from a frustrating first season in Ottawa.
The 37-year-old joined the Senators last summer and went on to produce just 18 goals and 49 points in 77 regular-season games before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.
Gonchar was diplomatic when asked if the presence of another veteran Russian might provide Kovalev with a wake-up call, a suggestion that Murray bristled at when it was suggested.
“I can tell you I will do my best. I can’t tell you if I’m going to wake him up or not,” said Gonchar.
He was more definitive when asked about the future of the Senators and what he feels his role will be.
“I’ve been in the league for a while and won a Cup, so I know what it takes to win it,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve been in the league for a long time and, on the power play, I was on the top unit on the power play for many years so that experience will help out a lot, too.
“I can tell you the team is very close (to being a contender). When I was playing against them in Pittsburgh, it was always a challenge.…I can tell you this team is very good and, maybe with a few additions, this team can make the next step.”
With forward Peter Regin and defenceman Chris Campoli headed for arbitration and a deal still to be worked out with forward Nick Foligno, Murray said he doesn’t anticipate any more signings before training camp, but said the Senators would still like to add one more player.
That could also come in the form of a blue-liner.
Defenceman Jared Cowen, the team’s first pick (ninth overall) in last year’s entry draft had an impressive showing last week during the team’s development camp and could be given a shot at cracking the roster.
“We may already have a defenceman who can play in that more physical spot that we’re looking to fill,” Murray said.