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OTTAWA — The most emotional moment came after the one-day contract, the press conference and the final warm-up in full uniform with the Ottawa Senators. Daniel Alfredsson took a victory lap with his stick raised, the arena darkened, the spotlight shining on him and the fans chanting his nickname.
He skated to center ice as if to end it, but it wouldn’t end. No one wanted it to end. He stood alone, awkward. No one came out for the ceremonial faceoff. The public-address announcer kept quiet. The players tapped their sticks. The fans continued to cheer.
You could see his face on the huge high-definition screen hanging above him. You could feel him trying to hold it together.
Was it harder than he thought it would be?
“Yes,” he told a pool reporter afterward. “It’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to comprehend almost. It gives you goosebumps.”
Was it what he expected?
“It was better than I expected,” he said. “I didn’t expect me retiring would be this big a deal. The way I’ve been welcomed back has been almost surreal.”
The Senators had to make this a big deal Thursday night. They had to welcome back Alfredsson after a contract squabble sent him to the Detroit Red Wings for a season. They had to make this right, as much for them as for him.
Understand what Alfredsson means to this team and this city.
The only Stanley Cup banners hanging at the Canadian Tire Center are from the early 20th century. The only retired number in the rafters is Frank Finnigan’s No. 8. He played for the old Senators from 1924-34.
The modern Senators have been in Ottawa for 22 seasons. Alfredsson played in 17 and was captain for 13. He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1995-96. He led the Senators to the Presidents’ Trophy in 2002-03 and the Cup final in 2007. He captained Team Alfredsson when the Senators hosted the All-Star Game in 2012. He holds the team records for games played (1,178), goals (426), assists (682) and points (1,108). He connected with the community with a gracious persona and charity work.
As team owner Eugene Melnyk declared in the press conference, as the team declared on the scoreboard screen, Alfredsson is the greatest Senator of all-time.
“He’s really the first true star franchise player that organization’s had,” said Jason Spezza, who spent 11 seasons with Alfredsson in Ottawa, succeeded him as captain last season and went to the Dallas Stars in a trade over the summer. “There’s not really a lot of history there. … This is the first guy that they have to really start building a tradition there.”
Why did Alfredsson leave Ottawa? It’s a long, well-documented story – a mix of money and miscommunication, pride and curiosity. Cut through the spin on both sides, and there was a rift between the franchise and the franchise player. Alfredsson wondered what life would be like elsewhere.
Alfredsson came to Detroit with mixed emotions but seemed genuinely energized by a new challenge, and he played pretty well as he turned 41. He tied for the Red Wings’ lead in scoring last season with 49 points. Even now he will tell you he wouldn’t change his decision. The only problem was, his back began to break down.
Melnyk said the Senators wanted to sign Alfredsson this summer – that they told him they would be happy with 80 percent, he wouldn’t give them anything less than 100 percent and “that just speaks to the leadership qualities.” But that’s disingenuous. The truth is, he was never going to play in Ottawa this season at any percentage.
“I committed to play in Detroit if I would have played,” he said.
Alfredsson and his family came back to Detroit. He tried to rehab his back but couldn’t get healthy enough to play, let alone healthy enough to convince himself and the Wings he could excel through a full season. He suffered a setback before camp. He took a cortisone shot. He pushed himself again. He suffered another setback. He waited and waited. September turned to October, and October turned to November.
“It kind of happened gradually,” Alfredsson said. “That was hard mentally.”
About three weeks ago, Alfredsson finally accepted it was time to retire. The only question was how he would do it. He had spoken with general manager Bryan Murray over the summer after Murray received a cancer diagnosis. When the Senators were in Detroit on Nov. 24, he took Murray on a long car ride through the suburb of Birmingham, where Murray lived when he worked in Detroit, where Alfredsson lives now. They had a long talk, more reconnecting and reminiscing than making plans.
“I have great respect for Daniel,” Murray said. “I know he had great respect for the Senators and what happened here.”
Soon afterward, with the blessing of Red Wings general manager Ken Holland, it was decided Alfredsson would retire a Senator. It was best for everyone. It just made sense. Eventually, the Senators will retire Alfredsson’s No. 11. Eventually, they will talk about a front-office job.
“Our door is always open,” Melnyk said. “He certainly can contribute in many, many ways. But it’s up to him what he wants to do.”
Whatever hard feelings there were, they seemed to fade away Thursday night. The theme was "welcome home." The players came down the tunnel for warm-ups and formed a gauntlet on the ice. Alfredsson’s close friend and protege, captain Erik Karlsson, came last – without the ‘C’ on his sweater. Then came Alfredsson, wearing the same sweater he wore in his final home game as a Senator, wearing the ‘C’ one last time.
Alfredsson walked through the gauntlet and raised his stick, then went for one last skate with the boys, stickhandling and shooting as the fans chanted and cheered. He scored three goals. He tapped one of his old teammates on the butt. The music blared.
One more time … We’re gonna celebrate.
There goes my hero … Watch him as he goes.
It’s something unpredictable, but in the end is right. … I hope you had the time of your life.
How hard it must have been to go through that and not play.
“Oh, my god,” Alfredsson told the pool reporter. “That could have been one of my best skates ever, knowing that this is the last time I get to experience this in this atmosphere. I couldn’t have played. I’m not in good enough shape. But skate a couple laps, and you feel like, ‘Maybe a few shifts.’ It gets your juices flowing. The energy that’s in the rink, it’s incredible.”
Finally, the victory lap, the most emotional moment and a speech. He took the microphone, nervous. He said he forgot a couple of lines, but he thanked the fans for “all the great times and all the beautiful memories." He told them he needed some time with his family, but he also said: “Let’s not say goodbye.”
His four young sons – all wearing Karlsson sweaters – dropped pucks for the ceremonial faceoff between Dad and Karlsson. As he skated off the ice, Alfredsson even bumped forearms with Melnyk.
Did Alfredsson feel part of the team and the city again?
“Very much so,” he said. “It’s as good an ending as anyone can hope for.”
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