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Daniel Alfredsson vs. Ottawa: It was 'now or never' for ex-Senators captain turned Wings man

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

DETROIT — There are many ways to measure Daniel Alfredsson’s time with the Ottawa Senators. Here are a few: 17 seasons, the last 13 as captain; 1,178 games, 426 goals, 682 assists and 1,108 points, all club records; one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, in 2007; one All-Star Game on home ice, in 2012, in which he led Team Alfredsson and received so much love for who he was as a player and person.

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Daniel Alfredsson went from Ottawa icon to a support player in Detroit, and he says it's for the best. (USA To …

Here is one more: nine years. That’s how long Alfredsson lived in his last house in the Ottawa suburbs. That’s where he and his wife, Bibbi, grew their family. Considering they have four boys aged 10 and under – and they go back to their place in their native Sweden only in the summer – that’s where their kids have spent most of their lives. That’s what they left behind when he shocked the hockey world and signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent.

“Everybody talks about how children are resilient and can adapt pretty quick, but that was my biggest worry without a question,” Alfredsson said. “How are they going to fit into school? How are they going to do?”

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Alfredsson spoke this week as he prepared to face the Senators for the first time, Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena. The moment will be emotional, but not as emotional as it will be when he returns to Ottawa on Dec. 1. He misses a lot about Ottawa. He doesn’t deny having doubts about his decision at first. It has been complicated professionally and personally, a mix of emotions and motivations, but he insists he has moved on and it’s for the best.

He is selling his old house in the Ottawa suburbs. He has bought – yes, bought, not rented – a house in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham. After returning from Sweden and spending time in a hotel, the Alfredssons moved into the new house during the preseason. It’s on a smaller lot than they’re used to, in a more compact neighborhood than they’re used to, but it’s tony and leafy and a long walk to a downtown of dining and shopping. The older boys are settling into school and sports, and mom and dad can tell they are adapting well because they are bopping around, not dragging around. There are a few unpacked boxes still, but not many, and they can wait.

“Once the season started here, it got pretty hectic, so we kind of just decided to live as normal right now,” Alfredsson said. “When we have some time, we’ll get to the finishing touches. But everything is up and running. It feels like home now.”

[Watch: Mixed emotions for Daniel Alfredsson as he faces Sens for 1st time]

Alfredsson is starting to feel more comfortable on the ice, too. He has gone from the face of a franchise to a face in the crowd on a team with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and others. Sometimes it’s strange not to be the man anymore. He has bounced between the first, second and third lines when he can’t even remember the last time he wasn’t a first-line right winger. But sometimes it’s a relief, and he’s still on the point on the first power play unit. He has nine points in 10 games. He is excited and energized. He is 40 going on 41, with a birthday Dec. 11.

“Sometimes you need to challenge yourself,” Alfredsson said. “It might not be the thing you expect it to be – or it could be more than that – but you don’t know. That’s what a challenge is. I know I don’t have too many opportunities to do that, so the timing felt like, ‘It’s now or never.’ ”

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Why is he here? Alfredsson said when he signed he wanted the best shot at his first Stanley Cup. But clearly it wasn’t that simple – and it’s debatable which team would have given him the best shot, anyway. He doesn’t mention that anymore.

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The Red Wings pursued Alfredsson, but didn't pressure him. (USA Today)

When he signed his last contract with the Senators, it was a four-year deal that went from $7 million to $7 million to $4.5 million to $1 million. The final season lowered the salary-cap hit. He didn't expect to play it. Well, he played it, and because he played it, he played at far below market value.

He wanted a new contract that recognized what he had done, his value to the franchise and his value on the open market, even at his age. When agent J.P. Barry and Senators GM Bryan Murray talked money before free agency, Barry asked for $12 million over two years or $7 million for one, while Murray offered $4.5 million for one. Eventually Murray asked Barry to have Alfredsson name his price but received no response. Did Alfredsson feel taken for granted? Did he feel the Sens were taking advantage of him? Was he too proud to beg? He said he felt no resentment toward anyone, but he also said it was then he started thinking of leaving Ottawa for the first time.

Another factor: the new 48-hour window allowing teams and pending free agents to talk before the opening of the market. Alfredsson had the chance to explore his options and entertain the idea of trying something new. “I’m not sure if this had been any other year that Alfie would have been a Red Wing,” said Detroit GM Ken Holland.

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As Holland made phone calls to agents, Barry brought up Alfredsson and asked if the Wings were interested. “Absolutely,” Holland said, and so they set up a conference call. For maybe 45 minutes Holland and coach Mike Babcock made their pitch. The Wings were looking for more scoring in their top-six, help on the power play and a right-handed shot to complement their bevy of lefties. Alfie fit that description perfectly. He knew the system having played under Senators coach Paul MacLean, who had been Babcock’s assistant in Detroit, and he knew several Wings having played with them on Team Sweden. The Wings had never been afraid of age, either. They had a long history of older stars squeezing the most out of the ends of their careers in the Wings’ smart, skilled system.

“He had a lot of questions about family – ‘Where do you live? How far from the rink? Schools? Hockey?’ – which led me to believe that he was seriously considering leaving Ottawa,” Holland said. “I got a call a couple hours later from J.P. Barry saying that Alfie was very impressed.”

Barry told Holland that Alfredsson was considering leaving the Senators for two other teams – the other was the Boston Bruins – but Holland decided against the hard sell. He did not call Nicklas Lidstrom or Henrik Zetterberg or Niklas Kronwall or anyone else, did not ask them to recruit their fellow Swede. Alfie was a grown man, first of all, and second, he was thinking of leaving a place where he not only had a proud past, but potentially a long future. He could have gone into the front office. Already an Ottawa icon, he could have been a Senator for life.

“If we had to lobby him to come to Detroit, there’s the risk that you wake up in November and he’s saying, ‘What’d I do?’ ” Holland said. “In order to give it the best chance for success, it needed to happen on its own. He needed to do what he needed to do. He needed to talk to the people he needed to talk to.”

Alfredsson did talk to Zetterberg, though it’s unclear who called whom. Zetterberg had long admired Alfredsson, had played with him on Team Sweden – and had figured he was the last Swede he would play with on a club team. Asked if he recruited Alfie, Zetterberg just smiled.

“Obviously he asked how it was in Detroit,” Zetterberg said. “I told him, ‘I’ve been here for 10 years, and it’s become my home.’ ”

Soon afterward, Alfredsson signed a one-year contract, with $3.5 million in salary and $2 million in bonuses. It was done.

“It was a very quick process,” Alfredsson said, “and here we are.”

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In some ways, it wasn’t so bad. Spending the summer in Sweden made moving from Ottawa to Detroit feel less abrupt. Practicing under Babcock felt like practicing under MacLean. “He said in training camp right away, ‘Well, I’m used to this drill,’ ” Zetterberg said.

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Alfredsson spent 17 seasons in Ottawa, 13 as team captain. (Getty)

In other ways, it was difficult – or just odd. Alfredsson was a rich man, but he had never lived in the United States, had no American credit score and had trouble simply getting a cell phone with an international plan. While dealing with the details of moving, he dealt with minor injuries. He played only one exhibition game. Then the season opened, and he felt like he had to prove himself again. Zetterberg said he seemed “a little overwhelmed.”

“You’re trying to do too much,” Alfredsson said. “You want to be everywhere, and you’re nowhere.”

But now the family is settled, and he has settled down, too, even though he has bounced from line to line as the Wings have tried to find the right combinations. He can skate for a 40-year-old. He still has his hands and hockey sense. He has a goal and eight assists – and four or five of those assists were Grade A playmaking. He had eight points in four games as the Wings went on a four-game winning streak from Oct. 12-17. Though he has no points in his past two games, he had perhaps the Wings’ two best scoring chances Monday night in a 1-0 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks, slipping into position, ready for a pass.

“We saw that with Brett Hull,” Zetterberg said. “He’d always find the right spot, but maybe he didn’t work as hard to get there as other players had to do. Alfie’s the same way. He’s been around for so long, he knows where to be on the ice.”

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The question isn’t about the past anymore. It isn’t about the present as much, either. It’s about the future.

How will this season turn out? “He might have asked himself, ‘What the heck have I done?’ I don’t know,” Babcock said. “In the end, depending on how good we become, I think he has a chance to be real happy here. But we’re a long way from being good enough for him to get what he wants.”

Will he return to Detroit next season? “We all hope … My expectation is, this isn’t … If it all goes well, let’s do it all over again,” Holland said.

Whenever he retires, will this have been worth it? Whatever the reasons – ego, pride, money, miscommunication, curiosity – will he regret letting them come between him and a place he loved, a place where he was beloved?

Alfredsson reminded reporters he had done this once before. He was born in Gothenburg, Sweden. He lived the first 22 years of his life there. It was hard for him to leave. A sixth-round pick in the 1994 NHL draft, he didn’t know the Senators had selected him until agents called asking if he had representation. He wasn’t sure he could play in the NHL, didn’t speak English well and felt uneasy moving to a new continent. It was hard for him to adjust. He considered going home during his first season because the Sens changed coaches and he was frustrated.

Look how that turned out. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1995-96, and that was just the beginning in Ottawa: 17 seasons, the last 13 as captain; 1,178 games, 426 goals, 682 assists and 1,108 points, all club records; one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, in 2007; one All-Star Game on home ice, in 2012, in which he led Team Alfredsson and received so much love for who he was as a player and person; years growing a family and making a home in what was once a foreign land.

“When I decided to come over to Ottawa in ’95, they were the same emotions,” Alfredsson said. “Both Gothenburg and Ottawa are still there and gonna be there, and that’s a very comforting feeling. … If I look back at my life right now, I don’t think I would have been the person I am if I hadn’t taken that chance. This is another stepping stone for me and my family to grow and experience new adventures.”

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