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Hockey tradition in Ottawa dates back a century

by Brian Hunter
While hockey neophytes might be under the mistaken impression the history of the Ottawa Senators in the NHL began with the 1992-93 season, most veteran fans are well aware there was an earlier incarnation of the franchise, one founded in 1883 and which played in the League until relocating to St. Louis in 1934 and eventually folding operations.

In fact, those Senators were one of the first teams to celebrate winning the Stanley Cup -- Ottawa won it 11 times between 1903 and 1927 -- by holding a victory parade. What is now seen as a staple of the championship celebration process actually began in hockey with the Winnipeg Victorias in 1896, but there wasn't another Stanley Cup victory parade until the Senators held them in both 1921 and 1923.

Expansion in the 1990s resulted in the version of the Senators we now know taking root in the Canadian capital, and while Ottawa has yet to recapture Lord Stanley it's had a couple prolonged playoff runs: The 2002-03 team won the Presidents' Trophy as the team with the most points during the regular season and lost a hard-fought, seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series to the eventual champion Devils, while the 2006-07 squad made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final but was ousted in five games by the Ducks.

And over these Senators' nearly two decades of existence, there are certain experiences which have become synonymous with attending a game, first at the old Ottawa Civic Centre and later at the new arena currently known as Scotiabank Place.

Anyone who has been out to either arena is undoubtedly familiar with "Spartacat," a lion-like creature that has served as the Senators' mascot since the initial home game against the Montreal Canadiens on Oct. 8, 1992. In addition to pumping up fans at the games, Spartacat is an integral part of the team's service within the Ottawa community, making appearances at charity events and visiting schools and hospitals.

Entertainment before the games has often included the traditional Scottish music of the "Sons of Scotland Pipe Band" of Ottawa, as well as highland dancers.

The Senators had a stretch of 11 consecutive seasons making the Stanley Cup Playoffs between 1997 and 2008, giving this generation of fans its first taste of postseason hockey and leading to the creation of "Sens Mile" -- a stretch of downtown Elgin Street with numerous restaurants and pubs where fans would congregate on game nights.

The idea began, of all places, on Facebook while the Senators were battling the Sabres in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2007. Following their clinching victory in Game 5 that sent the team to the Stanley Cup Final, residents mobbed the street for an impromptu celebration. As a result, Elgin Street was closed off for each game of the Final, and fans clad in team colors gathered for "Red Rallies" that extended to the Ottawa City Hall Plaza.

This past spring, with the Senators back in the playoffs after a one-year absence, the city council officially approved the designation of the stretch of Elgin Street between Nepean Street and Gladstone Avenue as "Sens Mile" to the great approval of fans and local business owners.

"It creates the hype," Dino Iafelice, the owner of Johnny Farina Restaurant, told the CBC. "We've got an NHL team; let's show it off!"

During the 2007 Cup Final, Ottawa went all out -- businesses hung large, hand-drawn "Go Sens Go" signs, fans created large displays outside their homes and decorated their cars and City Hall was draped with a large Senators flag. A video screen was set up outside for fans who didn't have tickets to gather and watch the games.

Inside Scotiabank Place the atmosphere was absolutely electric for Game 3, the first Final game in Ottawa in 80 years. Ontario Provincial Police Constable Lyndon Slewidge, a staple singing the national anthems at Senators games since 1994 who is known for ending with a win and thumbs up sign, had help from the fans, who took over the singing of "O Canada" and helped back their team to a 5-3 victory. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the only one of the series.

Even still, as the Senators look to secure yet another playoff berth this season and challenge for that elusive Stanley Cup championship, they look forward to that extra lift their fans provide.

"It's just the energy from all the fans and the city overall," long-time Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson told the team website in an interview last spring. "With the media and all the playoff predictions and everybody's talking about it … being here in Canada, hockey is so popular and you feel it everywhere you go. It's just that buzz in the city that's pretty unique."
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