OTTAWA – Daniel Alfredsson was asked by a reporter Friday what would make a good birthday gift for the Ottawa Senators captain.
“Right now, I need dress socks, especially blue ones. I’m running out of that, so that’s high on my list,” replied Alfredsson, who was celebrating his 37th birthday while the Senators prepared to play the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday.
It was an unremarkable gift idea for someone who’s proven himself to be a pretty remarkable player.
After arriving in Ottawa a virtual unknown almost 15 years ago, he’s become the face of the franchise and, despite his advancing age, he’s still the Senators’ best and most important player.
“He’s a warrior. He’s everything you want your team to be,” Senators coach Cory Clouston said. “He plays injured, he works hard, he’s a very intelligent guy, a real good teammate and he’s great to have on your team.”
With the retirement of Colorado Avalanche centre Joe Sakic in the off-season, Alfredsson assumed the mantle of the NHL’s longest-serving captain, a role he took over in Ottawa from Alexei Yashin in 1999 and has never relinquished.
Despite being the Senators’ oldest and longest-serving player, he still leads the team in scoring with 28 points, having appeared in all 30 of the team’s games, and shows no signs of slowing down.
He’s arguably better now than at any point during his NHL career, which began when the native of Gothenburg, Sweden, was selected in the sixth round (133rd overall) in 1994. After staying in his homeland for a season, he arrived in the NHL and won the Calder Trophy as its rookie of the year in 1995-96.
“I think I’m obviously a more experienced and smarter player than I’ve ever been,” said Alfredsson, who’s the Senators’ all-time leader in games played (962), goals (364), assists (585) and points (949). “The biggest (challenge) is physically, if I can feel like I do now.
“I feel like I play an energetic style of game. I like to forecheck, I like to skate a lot and once your body tells you that you’re slowing down and you don’t feel you have that energy day in and day out, that’s when it will probably become frustrating.”
The Senators regularly give Alfredsson days off from practice, but these “maintenance days,” as Clouston calls them, don’t mean that Alfredsson’s not at the rink, lifting weights and riding the bike to keep up his conditioning, which he said is the most important to a player’s longevity.
“He’s still got it for 37. I don’t know if I’ll still be playing at that age,” said Senators centre Mike Fisher, 29, who also had a special day Friday as he was scheduled to carry the Olympic flame as it passed through the region.
For Fisher, it hopefully won’t be the last of his Olympic involvement for a player hoping to crack Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey roster.
Barring injury, Alfredsson will be in Vancouver with Sweden, defending the gold medal he helped win in Turin, Italy, in 2006.
It’s just one of his accomplishments in a career in which he’s seen plenty of frustration in Ottawa, from the early days when the franchise struggled to become competitive, then to early post-season flameouts and, more recently, a rebuilding process as the Senators are no longer among the league’s elite.
However, he’s also been present for its highs, including a leading role in bringing the team to its only Stanley Cup final appearance in 2007.
Along the way, he’s managed to avoid controversy while firmly entrenching himself within the community. Easily the most popular player among Senators fans, he’s developed a special relationship with the city and the team’s supporters.
“There’s a long history,” Alfredsson said. “We’ve been through ups and downs, as a team and me as an individual, and I’ve been able to overcome them and become better and I think they really supported me throughout that time.”
Alfredsson said he’ll play for as long as he can. When he’s done, it’s likely he’ll be given a front-office role, along the lines of retirees such as Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis and Joe Nieuwendyk – who were so well respected on the ice that they made for good management material.
The one thing keeping Alfredsson from being recognized among players of that ilk is his lack of a Stanley Cup, but such is his loyalty that he won’t leave Ottawa to do it.
Earlier this season, he was asked by Toronto reporters if he’d consider moving on in pursuit of a chance to win. His answer then was no.
As he celebrated his birthday Friday, with Ottawa trying just to make it back the playoffs after missing out last year, it hadn’t changed. If he’s going to win, it would be with the Senators.
“I believe in not only staying here and rebuilding, but going into the playoffs, I think if you get something good going there, you can go all the way, so that’s still my dream. I don’t know if it’s going to happen, but that’s what I’m playing for,” he said.
“When you’ve played in one place so long, the relationship I’ve had with the organization and with the fans, I can’t see myself anywhere else.”