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Alfredsson embodied Senators' rise, beloved by city

by Chris Stevenson

OTTAWA -- In his time with the Ottawa Senators, Daniel Alfredsson was as much a part of the landscape here as snow in winter, the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, and a chant about the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs that rhymes with make believe luck.

That Alfredsson, a central figure when the Battle of Ontario was at its peak, was so reviled by Maple Leafs fans only served to endear him even more to Senators supporters.

Through the ebbs and flows of Ottawa's return to the NHL, Alfredsson was the Senators' constant, rising to become their leader in just about every offensive category and its longest-serving captain.

He became active in the community, opening up about his family and mental health issues faced by his sister, Cecilia, and becoming the spokesman for the Royal Ottawa Hospital's campaign to remove the stigma from mental illness.

He was always there with a consistent effort on the ice and to answer for his and the Senators performances off it.

Alfredsson returned to Ottawa one more time Thursday, to announce his retirement after 18 NHL seasons, 17 of which were spent with the Senators.

In a 10-year period from 1997 to 2007, beginning with the Senators' first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and ending with them reaching the Stanley Cup Final, Alfredsson was the centerpiece, growing from unheralded rookie to become Ottawa's best player.

"Down by a goal or up by a goal, I could play him in all situations and count on him to do the right thing," former Senators coach Jacques Martin said. "He was the whole package."

Through the Senators' growth into a Stanley Cup contender, a high-profile contract dispute with former captain Alexei Yashin that lasted years, a bankruptcy, a change in ownership, turmoil behind the bench, a rebuilding phase, and all those battles with the Maple Leafs, Alfredsson was the dependable presence.

His career mirrored that of the franchise, from a collection of castoffs and rejects of which little was expected to the pinnacle of the game.

When the Senators roared through the Eastern Conference in the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was fitting Alfredsson scored one of the biggest goals in their history, in overtime of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Buffalo Sabres which sent the Senators to their only Stanley Cup Final.

It was a great moment in Ottawa sports history with its roots in a humble beginning.

Growing up in Gothenburg, Sweden, Alfredsson wrote an essay when he was 7 years old about how he wanted to be a hockey player.

Alfredsson's father, Hasse, used to drop him at the rink at 7 a.m. on his way to work. Hockey was part of the curriculum at the school Alfredsson attended, but he couldn't wait that long; he had his own set of keys to the dressing room and would sleep on a bench until the coach arrived.

Alfredsson was never the best player on his team and figured if he got a chance to play for the Swedish national team, he would have achieved his dream.

He was selected in the sixth round (No. 133) of the 1994 NHL Draft, a 21-year-old who had been overlooked the previous year.

"Wait until you see this kid," said John Ferguson, then the Senators director of player personnel.

Alfredsson didn't waste any time making Ferguson look good. After another season with the Frolunda Indians in Sweden, Alfredsson joined the Senators for the 1995-96 NHL season. He made an immediate impact, scoring 26 goals and 61 points to win the Calder Trophy as the League's top rookie.

Craig Anderson
GAMES: 1,246
POINTS: 1,157
It was a tumultuous season for the Senators with the move from the Civic Centre to what was known as the Palladium. The Senators' first coach, Rick Bowness, was fired in November and replaced by Dave Allison.

Shortly after, Senators general manager Randy Sexton was fired and replaced by Pierre Gauthier.

Gauthier fired Allison, who lasted 25 games (2-22-1) and hired Martin. It was under Martin's coaching and Alfredsson's leadership that the Senators began their ascent to the top of the NHL.

In December of that crazy first season, Alfredsson called his father in Sweden to contemplate leaving the Senators and going home. He decided to stay.

Good thing for the Senators, and for Ottawa, that he did.

That first season was the first indication that when there was tumult and chaos around him, Alfredsson could be at his best. It was a trait that would serve him well in the Canadian capital.

"What separates him from other players is he was able to put aside whatever was happening and perform at a high level," Martin said. "No matter what happened, he kept working and playing at that high level.

"What amazes me is his positive attitude through all those years."

With an indefatigable work ethic, sturdy skating style, powerful shot and the ability to lead through word and action, Alfredsson became the Senators' pivotal personality.

Much of Alfredsson's reputation in Ottawa was defined against the Maple Leafs in the Battle of Ontario. Two games stand out: In May 2002, with their Eastern Conference Semifinal tied 2-2, the Senators and the Maple Leafs were tied 2-2 late in Game 5. Alfredsson checked Toronto forward Darcy Tucker from behind into the boards to cause a turnover and then scored to give the Senators the victory.

The Senators would lose that series, as they always did against the Maple Leafs, but that moment was one of the few when the Senators got the better of their archrivals in the playoffs.

The other came in 2004, at the peak of the Senators-Maple Leafs rivalry, when Toronto captain Mats Sundin was suspended one game for throwing a broken stick into the stands at Air Canada Centre. He served his suspension when the Maple Leafs played the Senators, as luck would have it. In that game, Alfredsson broke his stick and faked tossing the piece that remained in his hand into the stands.

"I understand players not being too happy, but I know Mats," Alfredsson said then. "I was trying to make a joke, but it was bad timing."

Longtime Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson announced his retirement in the city that claimed him as one of its own. (Photo: Getty Images)

Maple Leafs fans booed Alfredsson every time he touched the puck after that and the boos resonated in Canadian Tire Centre as well, because Toronto fans would turn out in great numbers to support their team here.

Alfredsson came to be so despised in Toronto, the Toronto Raptors of the NBA would put his picture on the video board when an opposition player would go to the foul line to whip the crowd into a booing frenzy.

Alfredsson was known for his sometimes blunt honesty, and that came through in the Battle of Ontario. In Game 6 of the second round of the 2002 playoffs, the Senators looked poised to defeat the Maple Leafs. They led 2-0 at home when Ottawa defenseman Ricard Persson checked Toronto forward Tie Domi from behind. Domi was cut when he hit the boards, Persson received a major penalty, and Toronto scored two goals on the power play before winning the game and Game 7.

Alfredsson, with typical candor, said afterward, "If Tie Domi had better balance, we would have won the series."

Sometimes that honesty was a bit much for some to take. In the spring of 2013, with the Senators down to the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1 in their second-round playoff series, Alfredsson was asked if he thought the Senators could win three straight against the Penguins.

"Probably not," he said. "Their depth and power play right now, it doesn't look too good [for us]."

The comment polarized Senators fans. On one side there were those who believed the captain shouldn't be so fatalistic. On the other, Alfredsson was lauded for his honesty and avoiding a cliché.

But it was one of the few times Alfredsson ever split the fan base, with the great majority of his 17 seasons in Ottawa spent as the object of their adulation, largely because of the way he constantly had the team's success at heart in being one of its hardest workers. Martin said the quality that defined Alfredsson in the years they worked together was his constant search for ways to improve.

"It was his dedication and his commitment to the game," Martin said. "His commitment to the game and his commitment to getting better every day. I always admired his work ethic. It was exceptional. He worked before practice and after practice and he had fun coming to the rink.

"It was an energy that spread to his teammates."

And to a city and its hockey fans.

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