By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
OTTAWA – They stood in the tunnel together Saturday night at Scotiabank Place, the 21-year-old phenom, the 39-year-old captain. Erik Karlsson received yet another piece of advice from Daniel Alfredsson.Enjoy this. Take it all in.
"I was telling some other guys that as well," Alfredsson said, "because it can go pretty fast. I know that. These moments are special. They've done a lot to deserve this, and sometimes when you're young, you think this is going to happen all the time. It might, and it might not."
Karlsson skated out to a huge ovation. He stopped at center ice with the music pumping and the spotlight shining down upon him. Then, before he even joined the lineup of NHL all-stars, the fans rose to their feet and started chanting.
There was one more player to introduce.
This was not the biggest moment of Alfredsson's career, not even close. This is his 16th season in Ottawa, his 12th as captain of the Senators. He has played many important games, including the 2007 Stanley Cup final. He has heard his nickname chanted many times.
But this might have been his most enjoyable moment. This was only the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, so this was a rare chance to step onto the ice in full uniform in front of a full house, free to relax and soak up the applause without trying to focus on a game. This was at home, and the timing was perfect.
Alfredsson had built up so many accomplishments and so much goodwill for so long. He had stuck with the Senators – his team, Team Alfredsson – and they were the surprising success story of the league. The fans had voted him in as a starter, his peers had picked him as a captain, and now here he was leading another Team Alfredsson for Sunday's NHL All-Star Game.
The crowd roared.
"Everybody gave him every opportunity to be as happy as he possibly can be, and I think that's what he is right now," Karlsson said. "It's nice to see that everybody here really appreciates what he's done for the team, the organization and this city as well."
In sports, there are good guys and bad guys. There are heroes and villains. There is us vs. them. We draw the lines for our entertainment, and we erase them and rewrite them as easily as teams trade assets and players leave for free-agent dollars.
But every so often an athlete creates a deeper bond with his fans, going from good guy to hero to truly one of "us." It's not just about winning. It's about identifying with each other. It's about the shared experience of striving over a number of years.
Alfredsson was born in Sweden, not Canada, but he became an understated leader in the understated capital of a proud, hockey-loving country. He worked in the community as well as in the arena, and he became a part of it.
"I've had an amazing run with this team and this city, and they've been through it all," Alfredsson said. "They've seen me coming in from not being really expected to do anything to a good player and then struggle and then come back. I've been faced with a lot of adversity, and they've been through that with me. They respect me for what I've done and what I've put into this game. It's really humbling."
Alfredsson came from humble beginnings. He was a sixth-round draft pick in 1994, a year after he wasn't drafted at all, and didn't know the Senators had selected him until agents called asking if he had representation. He didn't have any. He wasn't sure he could play in the NHL, and then he considered going home to Sweden during his first season because the Sens had changed coaches and he was frustrated. He didn't leave.
He won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's rookie of the year amid a tumultuous season for the team. He had some great seasons, peaking at 103 points in 2005-06, and so did the Senators, advancing to that Cup final in 2007. He never won the Cup, but he kept trying, even as his body broke down – hip, knee, back – even as the team broke down, too.
Last season was a disaster. Coach Cory Clouston created a toxic environment. The Senators plummeted in the standings. General manager Bryan Murray cleared out several veterans and brought in new blood, and Alfredsson could have chosen to go the Ray Bourque route – leaving his beloved team for a chance at a championship somewhere else. Murray had too much respect for him to even ask.
Alfredsson wants to win, but he wants to win in Ottawa. He is woven into the fabric of the franchise and the city. He and his family plan to live here after he retires. He might have a role in management.
When will that day come? Will this season be his last?
It might, and it might not.
Something funny has happened. New coach Paul MacLean, a communicator with a sense of humor, has cleared the air. The Senators, who entered the season as a leading contender to finish last in the East, are contending for the playoffs in sixth place in the East. The old blood is mixing well with the new.
Karlsson often comes over to Alfredsson's house and helps with his four sons, ages 8 to 18 months. Karlsson watches how Alfredsson works at the rink. It's no coincidence that Karlsson leads NHL defensemen in scoring with 47 points.
"The kind of guy he is, even off the ice, it's pretty remarkable and something I can only wish to be when I'm his age," Karlsson said. "The things he's been through and his experience has made me maybe mature a little bit faster, and it's making me realize some of the things that I need to do to be successful here."
Alfredsson has 17 goals and 38 points. He ranks third on the team in scoring. He might not be done.
"I'd love to play next year, but I'll make that decision after the season depending on my health more than anything," Alfredsson said. "Can I handle another summer of hard training and an 82-game schedule? If I feel that, then definitely I'll play."
Murray said he knows Alfredsson won't play if he doesn't feel he can contribute, but Alfredsson probably could play at a good level for a couple more years. He has as much left in the tank as he wants to have left.
"I think he's having fun, and he's obviously really producing and one of the front players on our team still," Murray said. "His leadership and character – especially with a couple of young kids coming from Sweden – he may want to stay around and help groom them as well."
After the skills competition Saturday night, Alfredsson stood in front of his spot in the Senators' dressing room. His student, Karlsson, sat off to his right. One of his sons sat on the bench behind him, wearing an Alfredsson all-star sweater, sized small.
He said he was following his own advice, taking it all in. But he said he felt awkward, even though there was nothing awkward about it.
"Do I really deserve this?" he asked.
This time, the captain should listen to the kid.
Said Karlsson: “It’s something that’s very well deserved.”