OTTAWA – Not only is the NHL All-Star Game a celebration of the sport and its biggest stars (whether you actually enjoy the game is another story), but this year’s edition has a certain taste for the hometown fans.
It's sweet in the sense that the Ottawa Senators are blowing up predictions with more force than Gonzaga basketball teams during March Madness; that captain Daniel Alfredsson is playing host to the world’s best; and that Erik Karlsson is quickly emerging as a significant point-producing, Norris Trophy candidate…with charisma to boot.
But mention the names Brian Elliott and, especially, Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara, and that sweetness becomes at least a little bitter.
It wasn’t all that long ago the Senators were a league powerhouse expected to make a run at the Cup each season. In Hossa’s last two years in Canada’s capital (2002-03 and 2003-04) the Senators scored more goals than the Sedin-led Canucks from last year and allowed fewer goals than the Tim Thomas-backstopped Boston Bruins.
Hossa was only 26 years old and had led the Senators in scoring two years in a row when he was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers, along with Greg de Vries, for Dany Heatley. The Slovak had recently signed a three-year, $18 million deal with Ottawa with the intention of continuing towards the Cup with a burgeoning team, which made the trade to the decrepit Thrashers all the more surprising and painful for him.
“It was tough back then, but now it’s behind me so it made me stronger,” Hossa said. “I didn’t like how the deal was handled, but now I’m happy where I am.”
Chara, now with the Bruins, left town on a different note. ‘Big Z’ stayed with the Sens for one post-lockout season before the new salary cap put the expensive Ottawa team in a pinch and forced them to make a choice – one that ended with Chara in a rival Northeast jersey.
“It was very sad,” Chara said. “I wanted to stay and play for Ottawa. It’s just unfortunate. Things like that happen in sport and you just can’t blame anybody. At that time it was a choice between myself and Wade (Redden) and I’m not saying they made a wrong decision, Wade is a great player and he was very effective for the team, there was just not room for me and I had to find a new job.”
Chara may not say it was a wrong decision, but I will. In fact, any reasonable onlooker would laugh at the decisions to trade Hossa and let Chara go in hindsight. Sure, the Sens finally got to the final in the first year without either of them, but they haven’t finished atop the division nor have they been considered a threat on the same level since then (and really could have used Chara against the big, bad Ducks).
And that appearance in the final is a moot point anyway when you consider the fact both players return to Ottawa as all-stars with Stanley Cup rings, while the Senators have still been shutout in the modern era. Chara is a year-in, year-out Norris candidate with a sizzling shot that attracts all sorts of attention at the skills competition. Meanwhile Hossa, so often overlooked because he’s never been “the guy” on a team, sits a silent third overall in NHL scoring and on pace for his best season since his Atlanta years.
Elliott is a more recent loss and his return as an all-star was much less likely, but stings all the same. While he had shown signs of strong play and was developing properly when he was named an AHL all-star, Elliott had a miserable season last year that ended up with him being traded to Colorado for Ottawa’s current starter, Craig Anderson. And while Anderson has been good, Elliott has been great, and Senators fans and players would like to have seen what he could have done with this year’s team.
“‘Ells’ got a bit of a tough ride here,” said Jason Spezza. “We talked about it a little bit and ‘Alffy’ wanted to make a point to make sure he took ‘Ells’ on our team. ‘Ells’ is a classy guy and never once complained when he was getting a rough ride here. We didn’t play very well in front of him.”
But with Chara and Hossa especially you can’t help but wonder, what if? Sure, Ottawa ended up with Milan Michalek, an all-star himself, in exchange for the player (Heatley) the team got for Hossa - and the team’s general decline after 2006 directly led to the drafting of Karlsson, so perhaps it all worked out for the best.
Still, as we often say around The Hockey News office in a quote stolen directly from Alex Ovechkin, “Cups is Cups.”
“We talk about it, all the great teams we had in Ottawa,” Hossa said. “Rob Zamuner, he’s working for the PA, and we sat down today and talked about how we had such great teams back then and we couldn’t win it – we had a little bit of bad luck.”
Noted Chara: “We had a great team, but just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Sens fans are hoping this new surprising collection of players can figure out how to get over the hump someday and bring Lord Stanley back to Canada’s capital for the first time since 1927, when William Lyon Mackenzie King was prime minister.
Until then, any success enjoyed by former Sens from the early-2000s will be a little unsettling, even if the present is promising.