Now this is the way to hold a reunion. This wasn't like the returns of some players or coaches that make you feel like there is an elephant in the room. It wasn't John Tortorella quietly walking onto the Canucks' bench at Madison Square Garden on Saturday. Daniel Alfredsson's return to Ottawa as a Detroit Red Wing after 17 years as a Senator was unmistakably affectionate. Fans cheered the familiar visitor as the Detroit bus pulled up in the parking lot. If there was an unwritten rule against fraternizing with opponents before games, don't tell that to Erik Karlsson, Ottawa's All-Star defenseman and Alfredsson's Swedish countryman who walked with him down the hallway and dropped him off at the visitors' dressing room before the game. And don't tell the 19,000 fans who roared and sometimes teared up during a five-minute video tribute to their former captain. How often do fans cheer when an opponent scores an empty-net goal? Alfredsson was wearing a visitors' jersey and recording two points in a 4-2 win for the enemy, but he was most certainly welcomed home.
Alfredsson's departure was so stunning because the captain of 13 years was so beloved. The Senators tried to bring him back. The Bruins were among teams that wooed him during the offseason, and there was understandable thought that Alfredsson might retire, since he will turn 41 on Dec. 11. But Alfredsson squabbled with management over dollars before inking a stunning one-year, $5.5 million deal with the Wings. Before the move was announced, Alfredsson took time to phone several Senator players so they could hear the news from him. Defenseman Chris Phillips said he was "in shock" when Alfredsson told him the news. The vagaries of financial and championship priorities left a question that was never quite answered: What's it all about, Alfie? Only the goodwill he built through years of exemplary comportment on and off the ice enabled an amicable split among players and fans.
With Ottawa, he had racked up numbers -- 1,178 games, 426 goals, 682 assists, 1,108 points -- that rank first in franchise history and will likely land him in the Hall of Fame some day. That isn't bad for a sixth-round draft choice who might have been ignored altogether if not for the foresight of John Ferguson, a member of the Senators' staff who was better known for scrapping than scoring during his playing career.
Alfredsson was named rookie of the year in 1996 and captured some of the league's secondary awards in recent years: The King Clancy Memorial Trophy in 2012 and the Mark Messier Leadership Award in 2013. He scored the first shootout goal in NHL history in 2005. He won an Olympic gold medal for Sweden at the Turin Games in 2006, amassing ten points in eight games, and captured two silvers and two bronzes in seven trips to the World Championships, a tournament he was only able to attend because for so many years the Senators were eliminated by the second round of the playoffs, when national teams fill the remaining spots on their tournament rosters.
But Alfredsson was still missing the game's ultimate prize, his name etched on the Stanley Cup. Even with the Senators improving, that was one of the reasons he departed for Detroit, a team that has reached the playoffs for 22 straight years and seemingly always has a chance for a title. In moving to Detroit, Alfredsson was perhaps trying to duplicate the swan song of Ray Bourque, the defenseman who built a Hall of Fame career in Boston but had to go to Colorado to win a Cup at the end of his career.
So far the move has been a success. Among Red Wings, only veterans Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have more points than Alfredsson's 21.On Friday, he recorded two goals and an assist in a 5-0 win against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum. His line with Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm accounted for four of the Wings' five goals that afternoon. It was his first three-point effort since Oct. 12, when he picked up three assists against Colorado, and his first two-goal game of the season. After the game, the discussion immediately turned to the impending game against Ottawa. "It's a very different situation from anything I've ever gone through before," he said. "So I don't know what to expect or what's going to happen." It's been a tough transition, too, for Alfredsson's family. Before the game against the Senators he had to explain to his four sons at a morning skate that it was no longer possible for them to jump into the whirlpool just off the arena's lower corridor because he was not playing for the home team any longer.
Then, after the U.S. and Canadian anthems on Sunday, a video tribute played on the overhead scoreboard to the song "It's a Beautiful Day" by U2. There were photos of Alfredsson with long hair and short hair, action shots of him breezing down the wing, delivering a hit, getting into a rare scrap, and the more familiar shot of him raising a stick in triumph after a Senators goal. There were pictures of him reaching out to the community: shaking hands with fans, meeting with kids, doing what a leader does. Fans in the stands raised Swedish and Canadian flags, side by side. One fan raised a banner that pleaded: "We love you and we miss you, Alfie. Come home." It was the prodigal son, returning to a familiar place. "I hope the puck drops soon, so I can focus on the game," he said in a pregame television interview. "It's humbling to be back meeting people. It's been a great relationship for me and my family."
Alfredsson actually recorded the game's first shot on goal, curling from the left side into the slot and flinging an off-balance shot off Robin Lehner, who knows Alfredsson's home better than anyone because, well, he purchased his house during the offseason. The official scorer gave Alfredsson a gift assist on Johan Franzen's goal that opened the scoring in the second period. He closed the scoring with an empty-netter from center ice with 1:03 to play, and received a stunning cheer from the fans, whose Senators have won only four home games in 14 tries this season. "It was extremely humbling," Alfredsson said later. "It's hard to understand just from playing hockey, you can effect people that way ... I don't think I played that well tonight. We gave up too many chances tonight. It got easier to play with the lead."
The Senators, meanwhile, seem to miss not only Alfredsson's leadership but his production as they sit in 12th place in the Eastern Conference and sixth in the Atlantic Division. Frustrated with his team's lackluster work during the first half of a power play on Sunday, coach Paul MacLean sent out Colin Greening, Zack Smith and Chris Neil, a physical line that had combined for 15 points and 114 penalty minutes this season.
On the other hand, Detroit is strong as always: third-best in the East, behind Boston and Pittsburgh, with 35 points for the season. The Wings are managing Alfredsson's minutes. He has played more than 20 just four times this season, with a high of 20:53 against Winnipeg on Nov. 12. The Wings have been without Datsyuk, their star two-way center who took an elbow to the chin from Ottawa's Jared Cowen when the Senators beat the Red Wings 4-2 in Detroit on on Nov. 23. Alfredsson missed that game with an injury and went scoreless against his former team in another home game on Oct. 23. But this game, the 1,200th of Alfredsson's distinguished career, will live as a highlight.
"It was pretty special," he said. "They gave me a night to remember."