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Battle Of Ontario The raucous, old-fashioned rivalry between Ottawa and Toronto heats up the stretch run to the playoffs and incites fans in both cities

March 29, 2004
March 29, 2004

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March 29, 2004

Battle Of Ontario The raucous, old-fashioned rivalry between Ottawa and Toronto heats up the stretch run to the playoffs and incites fans in both cities

Ottawa Mayor Bob Chiarelli, who attends maybe 20 Senators games a
year, is an owlish, earnest man with a liberal bent. He is so
progressive, in fact, that he swears he would not object if any
of his five daughters, all single and between the ages of 18 and
35, married a Toronto Maple Leaf--assuming, of course, the player
could pass a politeness test, which he sorely doubts. Chiarelli
seems as if he would be the last man to restrict a person's
freedom, but in fact he was the last man to restrict a person's
freedom. On March 16 he introduced a motion to the city council
that would ban Maple Leafs jerseys in Ottawa's Corel Centre.

This is an article from the March 29, 2004 issue

The tongue-in-cheek proposal is a stark contrast to the
fist-in-face rivalry that is personified by the central villain,
Maple Leafs enforcer Tie Domi. His punching bags have included
meek winger Magnus Arvedson, who last season was sucker punched
by Domi after he had hit Domi in the crotch with his stick (Domi
received a three-game suspension), and center Shaun Van Allen,
who was wearing a full face shield to protect a broken jaw when
Domi pummeled him on Jan. 31. "I thought what Domi did [to Van
Allen] was embarrassing to the league," said Senators captain
Daniel Alfredsson. After that game, in which Toronto took 22
penalties and left three Ottawa players injured, Senators
defenseman Shane Hnidy (since traded to Nashville) reportedly
went looking for Leafs wing Nathan Perrott outside the Toronto
locker room, furious that Perrott had pulled him off Domi during
the ruckus. These are just a few of the items on a laundry list
of Ottawa grievances against Toronto, the most damning of which
took place in March 2003, when center Darcy Tucker went after
Chris Neil on the Senators' bench, touching off a free-for-all
that earned him 42 penalty minutes and a five-game suspension.

As much as Ottawa loathes Toronto, Maple Leaf Nation is just as
chafed at the Senators. Toronto contends that Van Allen deserved
his comeuppance after continually cheap-shotting Leafs captain
Mats Sundin and that Alfredsson had no business whining about it,
not after drawing a kneeing penalty against Sundin in the final
minutes of that game. Toronto still hasn't forgiven Alfredsson
for low-bridging Tucker in Game 5 of their 2002 second-round
playoff series, knocking him out of the postseason with a
shoulder injury.

After Toronto won that seven-game classic--rallying from a 2-0
first-period deficit in Game 6 by scoring twice on a five-minute
power play after Domi had been cross-checked and fell facefirst
into the boards--Alfredsson said, "[The Leafs] would have been
eliminated if only Tie Domi could keep his balance." Alfredsson
is a world-class button pusher. After breaking his stick during a
7-1 Ottawa win in Toronto on Jan. 8, he made a motion as if he
were going to fling it into the stands before dropping it on the
ice. The pantomime was aimed at Sundin, who was serving a
one-game suspension that night for having tossed a broken stick
into the crowd during the Leafs' previous game. From the Leafs'
bench, Domi glowered.

With the fallout of the Todd Bertuzzi incident (SI, March 22)
lingering over the NHL like a bad smell, and with a labor lockout
looming, a made-to-order rivalry between Stanley Cup contenders
such as skilled Ottawa (39-21-9-6 through Sunday) versus
tenacious Toronto (41-23-9-3) is the best thing the NHL has going
for it. The Battle of Ontario resumes this Saturday in Toronto
followed by a return match in Ottawa on April 3, the last day of
the regular season. Unlike the ugliness of the Detroit Red
Wings-Colorado Avalanche feud in the 1990s, and the unseemly
Colorado-Vancouver Canucks war that has marred this season,
Toronto-Ottawa is an old-fashioned rivalry that goes beyond the
rough stuff and payback.

The proximity of the two cities (279 miles apart) and their
relative social and political roles (Ottawa may be the capital,
but Toronto is the locomotive that drives the nation) provide a
formula for friction as old as Athens versus Sparta. Of course
this rivalry has been whipped into an impressive froth by playoff
encounters in three of the past four seasons (Toronto won all
three), rabid media coverage and the odd provocation by partisans
such as Chiarelli, who accused Hockey Night in Canada of slanted
coverage of the Leafs-Senators playoff series in 2000, prompting
normally nonchalant analyst Harry Neale to suggest that the mayor
could bite his derriere.

With all that as prelude, the NHL has wisely acted to keep the
rivalry from escalating into a blood sport. On Feb. 5, the same
night the Red Wings and the Avalanche met for the first time this
season, the league dispatched its most respected referees, Bill
McCreary and Kerry Fraser, to handle the Maple Leafs-Senators
game in Ottawa. "It takes just one dirty play and it all starts,
everybody playing harder, getting involved more and more," says
Senators defenseman Zdeno Chara. "The fans get into it, pushing
it even more. It's like a circus."

The intensity of their games also offers a blueprint for an
improved league, one being championed by Chicago Blackhawks
general manager Bob Pulford. Instead of tarting up the product
with rule changes, Pulford wants to put more emphasis on what
made the game great to begin with. A bloated 30-team NHL will
never replicate the wondrously harsh feelings of the Original Six
era, when teams met 14 times a season--in the 1960s and '70s
former Rangers general manager Emile Francis used to fine his
players $100 for simply talking to someone on another club--but
rivalries would heat up if schedules were packed with more
intradivisional games and back-to-back, home-and-home series.
(There were just 39 of the latter scheduled in 2003-04.) Ottawa
goalie Patrick Lalime even favors back-to-back games in the same
city. As Leafs center Joe Nieuwendyk says, "There are a lot of
ways to get more scoring in the game, but when you have those
rivalries and the quality of those games, it makes for exciting
hockey no matter what the score is. If they can figure out a way
to do that, it benefits everybody."

Nieuwendyk's perspective was formed in Calgary during the Battle
of Alberta in the late 1980s, when the Flames and the five-time
champion Edmonton Oilers formed the fiercest rivalry since the
NHL expanded in 1967. The Flames and the Oilers were arguably the
two best teams of their generation--one or the other reached the
final every season from 1982-83 through 1989-90 and together they
won six of the eight Stanley Cups in that span--and their games
would produce periods so surrealistically wonderful that they
seemed to have leaped out of a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch.
Generally the outcome could be predicted by the length of the
game. If it went three-plus hours, replete with line brawls, face
washes and jawing in face-off circles, the Flames had a
reasonable shot. A shorter game meant the match would be straight
hockey, and Edmonton would usually win.

Those Oilers teams were blessed with tough guys who could play,
like Mark Messier; enforcers like Marty McSorley; and sublime
skill players like Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri.
Calgary had similar elements but in more modest supply. Neither
Toronto nor Ottawa is quite that good or that physical. "In this
era [TorontoOttawa] is great, but I don't think the games are as
intense as those Flames-Oilers matches were," says Toronto's
37-year-old left wing Gary Roberts, who was a teammate of
Nieuwendyk's in Calgary. "The only way our rivalry gets to the
next level is if [former Oilers roughneck Dave] Semenko and
McSorley make a comeback, and that's not happening. Now half our
team is European, and half of Ottawa is European."

That is hockey code for a lack of grit, a sentiment indirectly
aimed not at his own club--Toronto is the NHL's
second-most-penalized team--but the Senators'. In that Jan. 31
game, a 5-1 Ottawa loss during which Toronto goalie Ed Belfour
all but carved his initials into the backs of the legs of the
Senators who got near his crease, Ottawa was "embarrassed," G.M.
John Muckler says. "We didn't show up."

Questions about the Senators' intestinal fortitude were raised
again five nights later, this time by a flu bug. "I looked over,
and there were only like four guys on their bench," says Roberts.
Ottawa grabbed a 4-0 lead but lost 5-4 in overtime when nearly
half its players were back in the locker room, either hooked up
to IVs or heaving. Said Leafs right wing Owen Nolan after the
game, "Boo hoo."

Muckler toughened his lineup by trading for Anaheim Mighty Ducks
veteran defenseman Todd Simpson, who arrived in Ottawa on the eve
of the flu game. When asked if he hated Toronto, the Vancouver
native laughed and said, "Doesn't everybody?" Like many
Canadians, he resents the national fuss over the Leafs and the
center-of-the-universe snootiness of the city. Simpson was
acquired as an additional blue line stopper and backup for
cruiserweight Chris Neil. Eight days later the Senators added a
bona fide Domi antidote when Muckler talked right wing-pugilist
Rob Ray out of retirement. (Ray would turn out to be one of the
principals in the Senators' wild swingfest with the Philadelphia
Flyers on March 6 that resulted in an NHL-record 419 penalty
minutes.) Judging by the response of Toronto fans who flooded the
phone lines of Ottawa sports-talk shows the day of the trade,
Maple Leaf Nation was suitably unimpressed.

If the hockey gods smile, the coming two matches between the
Leafs and the Senators will be a precursor to an eagerly
anticipated playoff meeting. Forget goal totals. The most telling
number will be the decibel count.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ANDREW WALLACE/REUTERS LAST HURDLE Marian Hossa's dash for the net was interrupted by Toronto defensemen Tomas Kaberle (left) and Karel Pilar during the Jan. 31 game in which Ottawa took a beating in more ways than one.COLOR PHOTO: JIM YOUNG/REUTERS (TOP) RAKING LEAFS Van Allen (22) and the Senators don't usually play a physical game--unless they're taking on Toronto.COLOR PHOTO: BOB LEVERONE/TSN/ICON SMI (QUINN) BENCH MARKS Coaches Pat Quinn (left) and Jacques Martin get into the act too.COLOR PHOTO: DAVE SANDFORD/GETTY IMAGES/NHLI [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: FRANK GUNN/AP (TOP) RAISING THE STAKES With the No. 1 seed in the East up for grabs, the battles around the nets will be even more intense.COLOR PHOTO: J.P. MOCZULSKI/CP (LEAFS FAN) TURNING THE HEAT UP Passionate backers of the Leafs and Senators stoke the rivalry.COLOR PHOTO: PHILLIP MACCALLUM/FREESTYLE/OSHC [See caption above]
"It takes just ONE DIRTY PLAY, and it all starts, everybody
playing harder, getting involved more," says Ottawa's Chara.
"It's like a circus."
The proximity of the two cities and their relative social and
political roles provide a formula for friction as old as ATHENS
VERSUS SPARTA.