Vanilla Ice

May 18, 2003

There is not a surplus of nightlife in Ottawa, whose name derives
from the Algonquin otta ("open") and wa ("till 6 p.m."). Or so
I'd heard. Ottawa was the only major league city in North America
that I'd never actually visited. But it has a reputation--even by
Canadian standards--as subdued. Last spring the mayor of Toronto
used the common description of Ottawa as "the Town That Fun
Forgot," a clear instance of the pot calling the kettle beige.

More insulting still, the New Jersey Devils declined to stay in
Ottawa between Games 1 and 2 of their Stanley Cup semifinal
series against the Senators last week, flying home to spend 48
hours in the relative Babylon of East Rutherford. "If you look
around," New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur told reporters in
Ottawa on the eve of Game 1, "there's not much to do around
here."

In spite of this--or rather because of it--I have long indulged a
strange fascination with Ottawa, rekindled by each new Senators
highlight on SportsCenter. Its sobriety is intoxicating, its
obscurity intriguing, and so I was seized last week by a sudden
impulse to be at the center of this somnambulant city. And yet,
while flying inexorably toward Ottawa, to the terra incognita of
my sports world, a deep disquiet stole over me: I felt like
Marlow cruising up the Congo, to a hockey-addled Heart of
Darkness.

A river does run through Ottawa, but it's the fetching Rideau
Canal, a 125-mile waterway renowned in winter as the World's
Largest Skating Rink. Everywhere, Senators car flags snapped in
the breeze. "The whole city is behind us," Sens general manager
John Muckler said in my cabbie's copy of The Ottawa Sun. "I don't
think people in the States realize how important this all is to
Canadian people."

No? On the back of the Canadian five-dollar bill are four
children playing hockey, on what could well be the Rideau Canal.
Imagine replacing, on the U.S. twenty, Andrew Jackson with Reggie
Jackson, and you only begin to fathom the depth of feeling that
Canadians have for their national pastime.

In fact, for four hours on Friday night, the Stanley Cup, on
display at the Sears store in downtown Ottawa, was venerated by
several hundred pilgrims who snaked past menswear and spilled
into junior miss. Ottawa resident Magnus Janda, in a red Senators
road jersey, waited an eternity to touch the Holy Grail. Upon
doing so, he abruptly burst into tears.

He then abandoned the Stanley Cup and wailed for his sippy cup.
"Magnus," as his father pointed out, "is 18 months old."

But adults, too, were wetting their pants. Or very nearly so, for
their Senators had gone from insolvent to invincible in four
months. Indeed, this very morning a Canadian billionaire named
Eugene Melnyk had bought the team, whose previous owner, Rod
Bryden, had declared bankruptcy in January. Included in the deal
was the Senators' arena, improbably located on a vast empty plain
20 miles from downtown. In this exceedingly strange location the
Corel Centre appears to have fallen, Skylab-style, from outer
space, which only adds to the odd allure of greater Ottawa.

For hockey players Ottawa appears to be the anti-New York: a
great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit. City fathers
forgot to green-light a red-light district. And so, says Senators
right wing Daniel Alfredsson, "Ottawa is a great family city."

"I don't think there's a much better city from a family
perspective," concurs defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn, a dead ringer
for the Brawny paper towel man, while combing sparrows from his
breathtaking beard.

On Saturday afternoon families festooned in Senators jerseys ate
lunch in convivial pubs, petted llamas on the city's pedestrian
mall and strolled the becoming banks of the Rideau. Ottawa looked
nothing like the Town That Fun Forgot, but rather like the Town
Where Fun Settled When It Finally Had a Family.

As for Saturday night, when the Senators played the Devils in
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, Fun was far less
important than Victory. If this series--between two strong
defensive teams--should see the bland leading the bland, so be
it. But that was not the case in Game 1, when two buttoned-down
clubs produced, instead, a Thrilla in Vanilla.

Anaheim and Minnesota did the same earlier in the day, as the
Ducks beat the Wild 1-0 in two overtimes. Thus television
executives face the prospect of this ratings catastrophe: a
Stanley Cup final between teams from Ottawa and St. Paul. Or,
even more perverse, between East Rutherford and Anaheim:
Not-Quite-New York versus Not-Exactly-L.A.

Of course, most of us live in such places, the cities Sinatra
never sang about. Senators center Shaun Van Allen scored the
game-winning goal in overtime on Saturday night and said
afterward, "As a kid growing up playing road hockey in
Saskatchewan, you dream of scoring the game-winning goal in
overtime. This is one of the best feelings I've ever had in my
life."

It was also his daughter Hayley's seventh birthday. In that
moment, in that arena, the feeling was unmistakable: Ottawa,
Ontario, was the center of the universe.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

For hockey players Ottawa appears to be the anti-New York: a
great place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit.

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)