Search

ICE FOLLIES THE ONCE BUMBLING OTTAWA SENATORS EARNED A PLACE IN HOCKEY HISTORY AS THE WORST EXPANSION TEAM EVER

Nov. 25, 1996
Nov. 25, 1996

Table of Contents
Nov. 25, 1996

Faces In The Crowd

ICE FOLLIES THE ONCE BUMBLING OTTAWA SENATORS EARNED A PLACE IN HOCKEY HISTORY AS THE WORST EXPANSION TEAM EVER

It sounded like a joke. Did you hear the one about the Ottawa
Senators offering their fans a money-back guarantee? The
proposal, though, was for real. The Senators, the NHL's most
embarrassing franchise, had offered its 8,167 season-ticket
holders a cash refund if they weren't satisfied by Ottawa's
performance in the preseason and in its home opener on Oct. 9.
The Senators and their fans surprised everyone. Not only did
Ottawa score two late goals to tie the New York Islanders 3-3 in
that opener, but also just five folks took advantage of the
guarantee. And damned if the Senators didn't reward their
faithful by going undefeated in their next five home games. At
week's end Ottawa had a 6-7-5 record, which in the benevolent
welfare system that is the NHL, had them contending for a
playoff spot. On the ice the 1996-97 Senators are brilliantly
mediocre, and off the ice they are, as one local newspaper
recently reported, "refreshingly boring."

This is an article from the Nov. 25, 1996 issue Original Layout

That is breaking news in Ottawa. Just ask Senators general
manager Pierre Gauthier, who fearlessly signed on last December
in an attempt to restore dignity to the woeful franchise. "When
I took the job, this was a team overwhelmed by controversy,"
Gauthier says. "It was a soap opera."

Indeed. Only in Ottawa can you find a hockey team accused of
throwing a game ... on Fan Appreciation Night. Or a team
incurring a penalty because it put the wrong players on the ice.
Only in Ottawa can the newspaper dispatch a reporter to write an
on-the-scene column about rookie training camp and have the
scribe wind up as the camp's best player.

Only in Ottawa can you find someone like Ken Hammond. During the
1992-93 season Hammond, an Ottawa Senators defenseman, made a
pass out of his own zone that was intercepted by Pittsburgh
Penguins forward Kevin Stevens, who flipped the puck to wing
Joey Mullen for a goal in a 6-1 Pittsburgh win. When Hammond was
asked to analyze the play afterward, he said, "Look, if I'd
known Mullen was open, I never would've passed it to Stevens."

Only in Ottawa can the team's All-Star Game representative be
someone like former goaltender Peter Sidorkiewicz, whose record
when he suited up for that 1993 game was 3-30-3. Another former
Senators goalie, Don Beaupre, once summed up playing for Ottawa
by saying, "Hockey isn't fun anymore." It's no wonder that in an
interview last January, shortly after current Senators netminder
Damian Rhodes learned he had been traded to Ottawa from the
Toronto Maple Leafs, he broke down and wept.

The Senators arrived in the NHL as an expansion team in the
1992-93 season with the slogan REDEFINING EXCITEMENT. Sure
enough, Ottawa has already earned a place in the record book. It
owns the NHL marks for consecutive home games without a win (17)
and consecutive road games without a win (38). Twice it has lost
a game by 10 goals. In four seasons it has amassed 125 points,
which is fewer than the Detroit Red Wings had last season. Yes,
the Senators have aged like fine wine--lying down and in the
cellar.

There may have been sports franchises with worse winning
percentages, more ham-handed executives or a higher propensity
for the absurd, but none has ever combined those ingredients
into one eyesore quite as ugly as the Senators, the worst
expansion team in history.

Dust off some old scrapbooks and you'll discover that the
original Ottawa Senators, who played in the NHL from 1917-18 to
1933-34, won four Stanley Cups before folding because of
financial woes. In the summer of '92 the Senators reintroduced
themselves to the league--not with evocations of their glorious
predecessors but with two pathetic, prophetic words: Ottawa
apologizes.

The expansion Senators' first general manager, Mel Bridgman, a
former NHL player with a business degree from the Wharton
School, and his staff spent months preparing for the expansion
draft in the Montreal Forum. Alas, the electrical outlet at
Ottawa's table wasn't working, and, darn the luck, nobody
brought batteries for the laptop in which all the Senators'
draft information was stored. Thus the aforementioned apology,
which embarrassed Ottawa officials made over and over as they
drafted ineligible players. The hallmarks of that day would
become a metaphor for the team: a lack of energy, all the wrong
players and excuses galore.

At the Senators' first rookie camp Larry Skinner, a 36-year-old
Ottawa Sun circulation manager and freelance writer, showed up
to do a story about the fledgling Senators. He was invited to
skate with the players one day, and again the next day, and it
quickly became clear that he was one of the better performers on
the ice. He finished the rookie camp as one of Ottawa's leading
scorers before he went back to the newspaper business.

Despite that inauspicious start, the Senators won their first
regular-season game, 5-3 over the storied Montreal Canadiens.
The following morning The Ottawa Citizen ran a front-page photo
of Hammond with his arms raised beneath the headline MAYBE ROME
WAS BUILT IN A DAY.

Since that magical night, this Rome has looked more like
Pompeii. Staging their own separatist movement from the rest of
the NHL, the Senators went on to a 10-70-4 record in 1992-93 and
a .210 winning percentage for their first four years in the
league. Ottawa was so bad the first year that when thieves broke
in and ransacked the Senators' video room, the only stuff they
left behind were Ottawa game tapes. Said E.J. McGuire, then an
assistant coach, "The crooks showed some taste."

The perpetrators missed out on some classic blooper footage,
such as the clip of Ottawa scoring a goal in the waning seconds
to tie a game against the Boston Bruins. Unfortunately for the
Senators, they had eight players on the ice at the time, two
more than is legal. Not only was the goal disallowed, but Ottawa
was also assessed a penalty.

Then there was the night on the road in April, against the
Islanders, when coach Rick Bowness shook up the lineup of the
Senators, who were mired in their record-setting away winless
streak, a skein that had earned them the nickname Road Kill.
Though Bowness planned to start some new faces, he
absentmindedly handed in his usual lineup to the officials
before the game. When Bowness's revised starting six took the
ice, the Senators were assessed a two-minute penalty for illegal
substitution at the first stoppage in play. Ottawa nevertheless
won the game 5-3, ending the winless streak, and in the locker
room afterward Bowness turned to his assistants and said, "I
think starting the game shorthanded is the secret. Why didn't we
think of this in October?"

Not everybody was amused with Ottawa's halting progress. When
Senators majority owner Rod Bryden was interviewed on local
television between periods of the final game of that first
season he gave Bridgman a vote of confidence. Then he invited
Bridgman to breakfast the next morning and axed him.

Toward the end of the next season the Citizen reported that
Bruce Firestone, another of the team's owners, had discussed
with one of the paper's writers the possibility of the Senators'
throwing games, including the one on Fan Appreciation Night, so
that Ottawa would be assured of having the league's worst record
and thus the first pick in the 1993 draft. An NHL investigation
followed and turned up what many Ottawans feared most--that the
Senators hadn't tried to lose; rather, they just stank.

Many of Ottawa's difficulties can be traced to the
tightfistedness and lack of expertise of the Senators'
management. "For years they had business people making hockey
decisions," says Bowness, who is now an associate coach with the
Islanders. "They were doomed to fail." Indeed, Bridgman was
succeeded in the second season by Randy Sexton, another of the
founding owners, who had an MBA but no hockey experience after
college.

Like most expansion teams, Ottawa had a small budget; the
Senators' $6 million payroll for 1992-93 roughly equaled what
the Penguins paid star Mario Lemieux that season. But to make
matters worse, during Sexton's tenure Ottawa's financial
priorities were out of order. The Senators' mascot, Spartacat,
made nearly $100,000 and had a company car.

The Senators also have had difficulty with their draftees.
Center Alexei Yashin, the player chosen second overall in 1992,
missed the first 36 games in 1995-96 because of a contract
holdout. Center Radek Bonk, the third player picked in '94,
scored a goal on his first NHL shot but has tallied only 19 in
130 games since. Defenseman Bryan Berard, the No. 1 selection in
the '95 draft, forced a trade, to the Islanders, after vowing
that he would never play on a team as sorry as Ottawa. And in
'93 center Alexandre Daigle, the ballyhooed top choice, was
handed a five-year, $12.5 million contract and then flopped so
badly that before home games last year the crowd cheered when
his name was announced as a scratch. "When you go into a game
knowing there's a 90 percent chance you will lose, it is tough
to motivate yourself," said Daigle last season, trying to
account for his subpar play. "You start to expect to lose."

"It's incredible to admit, but we were just trying to save face,
to not lose too badly," says former Senators center Dan Quinn,
looking back on the half season he spent with Ottawa before
being traded to the Philadelphia Flyers last January. "You're
just embarrassed to be a part of it."

Team management believed the Senators' fortunes would change
when they began play at the Corel Centre, Ottawa's glorious new
$190 million rink, which opened last Jan. 17. But even the arena
has seemed cursed. At its debut, which drew a capacity crowd of
18,500, a hitch in the hydraulics caused the line raising the
original Senators' Stanley Cup banners to jam while the banners
were midway to the rafters, leading spectators in the upper deck
to chant, "We can't see! We can't see!" Fans at rinkside
eventually envied those with a limited view, as Ottawa was shut
out by Montreal 3-0.

Since the opener, attendance at the Corel Centre has lagged.
Federal layoffs have impoverished many residents of Canada's
capital, and even well-heeled Senators fans seem increasingly
reluctant to pay an average of $48 per ticket to witness a
pitiful team.

Whatever its other failings, the Ottawa brass hasn't sat idly by
as the Senators floundered. In 1995-96 Ottawa went through three
coaches and two general managers. Last season Bryden sent
Bowness a fancy tie pin commemorating the opening of the new
rink and a note saying that Bowness would be the coach for the
long term. Five days later Bowness was fired. (See: Bridgman,
Mel.)

"I remember [former Islanders general manager and current
Florida Panthers president] Bill Torrey once told me that with
an expansion team you've got to be prepared to be sick to your
stomach 82 nights a year," Sexton said after a loss to the
Panthers in October 1995. "I've consumed my share of Maalox, but
I've never viewed this team through rose-colored glasses. Our
focus is on a seven-year plan." Seven weeks later, Sexton was
fired.

Even the high-priced mascot has embarrassed the franchise. In
1993 Spartacat was canned. In a fit of pique Spartacat swiped
the company car and fled across the border to the U.S. The car
was eventually found in New Jersey and returned to Ottawa with
only a few dents.

For those who have suffered with them the longest, the Senators
have become an addiction. Among the diehards in the stands
during last season's final home games was the exiled Sexton, who
sat alone with his thoughts, dressed in a suit and tie, making
notes as if he had never been fired. "I don't live and die over
every shift anymore," Sexton says. "But I was there when the
child was conceived. I was there when the child was born. I may
have fallen into a custody battle, but I believe it's a good kid
and I still want to see it succeed, to see it have a nice life.
We suffered through a lot together, but it was always exciting."

Talk about redefining excitement.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH A torrent of dumb moves and bad luck has kept Ottawa skating for cover. [Drawing of hockey players shielding themselves from barrage of hockey pucks]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH The five-year-old Senators have aged like fine wine--lying down and always in the cellar. [Drawing of man carrying bottle in wine cellar]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH Ottawa was doomed from Day One, when the team's financial people started to call the shots. [Drawing of men with computer printouts riding on shoulders of hockey players]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH [Drawing of hockey puck flying towards hockey player's face]

THE WORST OF THE WORST

Ottawa isn't the only expansion franchise that has been an
embarrassment. Here are 10 others and some of their forgettable
moments.

NEW YORK METS

Were 9 1/2 games out of first after playing just nine games in
their first season, 1962; finished with baseball's worst
single-season record (40-120) since the 1916 Philadelphia
Athletics (36-117).

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Ten minutes into first-ever practice, in 1967, equipment
managers realized they hadn't ordered footballs; team went on to
have streak of 20 straight nonwinning seasons.

MINNESOTA NORTH STARS

With North Stars trailing Pittsburgh Penguins 8-1 after two
periods in a game during inaugural season, 1967-68, disgusted
coach Wren Blair sat in utility closet next to dressing room--he
didn't want to mingle with his players--and got locked in. He
missed third period and was finally found by a Minnesota trainer
after the game.

DALLAS CHAPARRALS

To save money, owner Roland Speth traveled alone to the ABA
expansion draft in New York in 1967 and chose players according
to a list provided by Chaps scouts. Speth didn't realize players
were listed in alphabetical order, not by talent.

OAKLAND SEALS

In nine NHL seasons, beginning with inaugural season of 1967-68,
Seals had seven owners and seven coaches; traded No. 1 overall
pick in 1971 to Canadiens, who chose future Hall of Famer Guy
Lafleur.

SAN DIEGO CONQUISTADORS

Wilt Chamberlain, coach during team's second season, 1973-74,
skipped three games, one so he could attend a book signing for
his autobiography and two for unknown reasons.

BIRMINGHAM AMERICANS

In a league that folded in its second year, Americans won WFL's
only title but were plagued by financial woes; after '74
championship game, sheriff's deputies repossessed the team's
uniforms.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS

In their first season, 1974-75, Caps were 1-39 on the road and
finished with the worst record (8-67-5) in NHL history.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Went 0-14 in first season, 1976. All told, lost first 26 games,
11 by shutout.

LAS VEGAS POSSE

Posse, one of four U.S.-based CFL teams, folded after first
season, 1994. Practiced in parking lot of hotel; during one
game, sent cheerleaders running through opponents' bench area to
distract players--but lost game anyway.