Winning by Losing

It's clear after revelations that the Ottawa Senators considered tanking a game to clinch the No. 1 draft pick that the NHL needs a lottery
August 29, 1993

The 1992-93 Ottawa Senators were plenty bad during their maiden season in the NHL. With only 10 wins in 84 games, they were almost unprecedentedly bad. But worse yet, their management considered taking extra measures to be certain that the Senators were bad enough to secure the No. 1 pick in the June entry draft—the pick with which they ultimately chose highly regarded center Alexandre Daigle, whose francophone pedigree and photogenic looks promise to help sell the team to fans across the Ottawa River in the province of Quebec.

When allegations that the Senators may have lost games on purpose surfaced last week in the Canadian capital, the news left coach Rick Bowness angry, his players shocked and embittered and the Senators' founding owner, Ottawa developer Bruce Firestone, painstakingly trying to clarify what he acknowledged to be "intemperate remarks" made after consuming "eight, maybe nine beers." And it provided a rare glimpse into the psychology of a professional team caught in the all-too-familiar predicament in which its obligation to do its best clashes with the temptation to do less than its best to acquire a potential star.

At issue was a story last week in The Ottawa Citizen written by columnist Roy MacGregor. The article contended that after the Senators' final game of the season—a 4-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on April 14 that allowed Ottawa to finish with one victory fewer than the San Jose Sharks and thus clinch the right to draft first—Firestone had cryptically mentioned to MacGregor a secret plan to assure that the Senators would pick No. 1. MacGregor further contended that on June 26, in an off-the-record bull session with four other reporters in a Quebec City nightclub following the draft, he had asked Firestone to elaborate on his remark of 10 weeks earlier. According to MacGregor, Firestone said that the Senators were prepared to pull their goalie to make sure Boston won; that it had been difficult "keeping the restraints" on Bowness over the final weeks of the season; and that Firestone himself had had a plan to guarantee four players roster spots for next season if those players helped assure a loss to the Bruins. "It is no coincidence," MacGregor said Firestone told him, "that those four players will be back with the team next season." None of the other reporters in attendance that night have publicly challenged the gist of MacGregor's account.

Firestone had sold his interest in the Senators two days before the story broke, but he contended that the timing was coincidental; the sale, he said, was prompted by his desire to spend more time with his family. But he acknowledges that he wrestled with the ethics of Ottawa's losing its way to prosperity. He said that four players had individually approached him of their own volition to ask if management felt that getting the first pick was in the team's best interest over the long run. Firestone said he had replied, "Sure"—and left it at that.

He also said that the team's hierarchy considered fielding a weaker team for the Senators' final two games if Ottawa's opponents, the Quebec Nordiques and the Bruins, who had already clinched playoff positions, did the same. But Firestone insisted that any plan to pull the goalie had been designed to help the Senators win, not lose—an absurd strategy under these circumstances—and that in any case the plan had been abandoned when management realized the move could be construed as an attempt to lose. Further, Firestone said that while he had made mention in MacGregor's presence of four players who would return the following season, he had not done so in the context of a quid pro quo for throwing a game. "Any allegation that four players were promised preferential treatment to play less than their best is false," said Firestone. "Having said that, I regret that the juxtaposition of certain remarks could lead some there to conclude otherwise."

Asked if such a plan were even considered, Firestone said this: "We're all human beings. To say that the importance of drafting first—the question—had not entered my mind is untrue. But you think about these things, and you reject improper behavior. What was important is that like all people of integrity, we decided not to do it."

Perhaps no team so inept at scoring goals has ever been as goal-oriented as the expansion Senators. Before the season Firestone announced that Ottawa wanted to earn at least 22 points—to avoid a place in the record books with the '74-75 Washington Capitals, who hold the league mark for fewest points in a season, with 21. The Citizen monitored the Senators' progress with a regular box headed CAPITAL PUNISHMENT. On Feb. 28, the night his team beat Quebec to move past the Capitals, Firestone declared, "There will be only two teams who'll achieve all their goals at the end of this season: the Ottawa Senators and the winner of the Stanley Cup."

With the Senators' stated goal met, however, an unstated goal came to dominate public debate in Ottawa, a city locals call "the biggest village in the world." The Citizen replaced CAPITAL PUNISHMENT with THE RACE FOR DAIGLE, in which the Senators' record was compared with that of the similarly feckless Sharks. The paper canvassed nearly 1,000 fans, the majority of whom believed that, yes, Daigle was worth trying to finish last for, and ran a column in which the case for taking a dive was made unflinchingly by none other than MacGregor.

The issue so consumed the city that the Senators' management cobbled together a proposal in February that Ottawa and San Jose agree "to turn the turtle derby into a horse race," in Firestone's words, meaning that whichever of the two clubs finished the season with more points would be rewarded with the No. 1 pick. But the Sharks turned down the offer. "We knew as the season went on," says Senator defenseman Brad Shaw, "that if management had its druthers, we'd lose the rest of our games. But we had a lot of pride, and it was a kind of incentive. All year long we'd say, 'Let's make the scouts work!' "

No one, MacGregor included, believes that any player gave less than his best effort. "On a team that bad, your job is on the line every day," says former Ottawa center Jamie Baker, who signed last week as a free agent with San Jose. "No one says, 'Let's go get Daigle for three years from now.' " Indeed, after a practice in late March former Ottawa captain Laurie Boschman, whose contract was not renewed after the season, called the team together at center ice and, declaring that the front office had "given up on us," urged his teammates to fight on. Two weeks later the Senators beat the New York Islanders for their first road win—and lone victory in the last six weeks of the season.

The suspicions that coursed through the league last week are woefully familiar. Eric Lindros's autobiography, Fire on Ice, includes an account that says then Quebec coach Dave Chambers—whose team chose Lindros with the first pick in the 1991 draft—had been told late in that season to go with the players he had and not to worry about wins and losses. In 1984 the Pittsburgh Penguins outdueled the New Jersey Devils for the rights to the Daigle of his day, a Quebecois prodigy named Mario Lemieux, and the Penguins' late-season efforts gave off a similarly fishy smell.

Nothing was done to rectify even the appearance of impropriety in either of these cases under former president John Ziegler's philosophy of neglect. Even before the NBA's decision in 1985 to adopt a draft lottery, after questions arose about the late-season efforts of the Houston Rockets in their quest for Ralph Sampson, pro basketball at least forced the two worst finishers to flip a coin to see who picked first. In other words, you could only tank your way into a 50-50 chance at the No. 1 choice. The NHL, by contrast, has never instituted any safeguard—no lottery, no coin flip, no nothing. Firestone himself says he would have welcomed a draft lottery. And on Sunday, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was the NBA's general counsel when that league introduced its lottery system, acknowledged with epic understatement that "the issues concerning a lottery have been brought to the forefront."

That's why the NHL sorely needs to remedy a bad situation. Lotteries don't usually have more than one jackpot winner, but in this case everyone in the sport would come out on top.

PHOTOS. LEVY/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOSFirestone said he made "intemperate remarks" after eight or nine beers. PHOTOBRUCE BENNETT/BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOSThe Senators had many goals for the season—as did their foes against Peter Sidorkiewicz.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)