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Senators have forged special bond with community

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
More than two decades ago, it seemed like the most audacious of ideas.

But as they have grown together, this partnership of a city and a hockey team have come to feel so good and so right for each other. So much so that it's almost equally difficult today to fathom an Ottawa without the Senators and the National Hockey League.

"We thought it was something special to have an NHL team," said Senators president Cyril Leeder who, along with fellow dreamers Bruce Firestone and Randy Sexton, first hatched the idea to bring big-league hockey back to the nation's capital. "It's a bit of a public trust. It’s important to the community. But if you’d asked us back in 1990 ‘how important will the team be?’ … we wouldn’t have guessed this level. It certainly has exceeded all expectations as a community asset.

"The last 20 years have proven something, that Bruce was right and this is something very worthwhile and important to the community."

It's that connection between the team and the fans of Hockey County that will be front and centre when the Senators celebrate their 20th anniversary season. From opening night on Oct. 8 against the Minnesota Wild — when the 1992-93 expansion Senators team will be feted — throughout the entire campaign, the organization plans to mark two decades of hockey magic.

"The team has meant so much to the community and to hockey fans in Hockey Country," said Leeder, who called them "the soul and the foundation" of the franchise. "The team has certainly surpassed anything we could have imagined back in 1992. It’s certainly been an amazing 20 years, it’s been many great memories and this season, we’re going to try to relive and revisit some of those great memories."

Added Laurie Boschman, an Ottawa resident and captain of the expansion Senators: "It's wonderful to see the hockey club do so well (and to see) how much hockey means to this community and how much the Ottawa Senators mean to this community."

Twenty home games this season will be devoted to the first two decades of the modern franchise. Another 11 are being set aside to recognize the 11 Stanley Cups won by the original Senators, a founding member of the NHL and the league's first true dynasty. The current team will break out a new 'heritage' jersey on those occasions.

The final 10 home games will celebrate the game itself, which is so ingrained in the lives of so many Canadians from coast to coast — especially the passionate fans of the capital region.

"Everyone knows Canada is the home of hockey," said Ottawa mayor Jim Watson. "It’s part of our fabric. It’s in our DNA. It’s the makeup of our country. Hockey teams build community spirit. They build community enterprise. This is true across the country and it’s certainly true in our city."

In the eyes of CTV Ottawa's Max Keeping, the return of the Senators has also elevated the city's profile far beyond its borders, not only through the NHL team itself but by the addition of such events at the Bell Capital Cup, the world's premier minor hockey tournament, which annually attracts a field with global flavour.

"Nothing has been bigger or more important to the economic and cultural life (of Ottawa) and the emotional life than the return of the Senators," said Keeping, the Sens Foundation's board chairman. "Almost singlehandedly, it has elevated Ottawa’s status internationally. You couldn’t find enough tourism promotion dollars to get the millions of hits that Ottawa has had in USA Today and ESPN and Fox Radio (because of) the Senators.

"Twenty years ago, you had to tell most people from America where Ottawa was. Now they know about us and our greatest tourism weapon in making that reputation has been the Senators."

Consider, too, the story of the Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, who arrived in Ottawa some 16 years ago just hoping he might be able to squeeze in two or three years of NHL hockey before returning home to his native Sweden. Now he's one of the city's most recognizable faces, with more than 1,000 games and points on his resume, four sons all born here and icon status in the community.

"I came to a city with great people, a city that is clean, a city that promotes family life and good values," he said. "We definitely love being a part of this community and building a family here. The fans have been a huge part of this, how they support the team, especially through the tough times in the beginning when we weren’t very good. 

"The fans make us enjoy what we do and I think we in this organization take pride in giving back … to the community and to the people. It’s been pretty amazing, looking back at the relationship between the fans and the team and what we do for each other."

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