Reforming the Senators
The first time, it was amusing. The second time, slightly annoying. But the third time during the 1992 expansion draft that Ottawa Senator General Manger Mel Bridgman chose a player who wasn’t eligible, his peers were outraged.
“Ottawa apologizes,” Bridgman told the assembled NHL dignitaries.
The Senators have been a sorry bunch ever since.
They haven’t been bad in nearly four seasons of existence, they’ve been monumentally awful.
They’ve set or tied five NHL team records for futility and they’re at the bottom of the heap again with only 15 victories--enough for them to set a club record for most victories in a season.
Bridgman’s gaffes were the first in an ugly series. In 1993, Bruce Firestone, the Senators’ founding owner, allegedly told reporters the team threw games late in the season in order to get the top pick in the entry draft and select standout junior center Alexandre Daigle. Firestone was fined $100,000 by the NHL, which later instituted a draft lottery to avoid potential improprieties.
After all that, Daigle turned out to be something of a bust. When he finally began to show signs of productivity, he broke his arm in four places in February and is out for the rest of the season.
Also this year, defenseman Bryan Berard, the first overall pick in the 1995 draft, refused to sign with the Senators. He never said why but hinted he wanted no part of such depressing surroundings. Skillful center Alexei Yashin, the Senators’ top scorer last season, went home to Russia rather than play for them again. After opening with a 6-5 record, they went from Nov. 4 through Dec. 5 without winning, which cost Coach Rick Bowness his job.
All of which was ample reason to question Pierre Gauthier’s sanity when he left a comfortable position as assistant general manager of the Mighty Ducks in December to become general manager of the Senators.
Gauthier’s mission is to turn Ottawa’s ugly ducklings into . . . well, less-ugly ducklings. Transforming them into swans might be too much to ask even of Gauthier, who won wide respect as a scout with the Quebec Nordiques before he joined the Ducks for their first 2 1/2 seasons.
“We all have this disease called ambition,” Gauthier said of his decision to leave Anaheim for Ottawa. “It makes you have crazy dreams.”
In past discussions of the Senators, the word “dream” was usually preceded by “bad.”
Several goaltenders were ruined after playing behind a defense that abandoned them to barrages of shots. Darrin Madeley, who was 4-23-5 with a 4.36 goals-against average in three seasons, hyperventilated during a game and wondered if he would survive the stress. “I have a wife and kids to think about,” he said.
Players on opposing teams went to great lengths to avoid being traded to the Senators. Early this season, Buffalo Sabre goalie Dominik Hasek volunteered to restructure his contract in return for a promise he wouldn’t be traded here. Detroit Red Wing center Steve Yzerman, who is from Ottawa and owns a home here, said he wouldn’t report if he were sent here.
Perhaps the best example of players’ contempt comes from a story in the Ottawa Sun. According to that newspaper, a Senator player told a friend on another team the Senators were interested in acquiring him. The Sun, which didn’t identify the two, said the friend pleaded with the Ottawa player to quash the deal. “Tell them I have a drug problem,” the friend said.
Fantasyland, it wasn’t. But Gauthier knew that coming in.
“We’re in a league where you’ve got to earn respect, and that’s fine,” he said. “I can live with that, and I do live with that. Improving a team is a process that takes 365 days a year and more. And nights.”
At least he has some progress to show for those late nights and those new dark circles beneath his eyes.
Since he was hired to replace Randy Sexton, Gauthier has been operating at a whirlwind pace. His first major move was to fire Coach Dave Allison, whom Sexton had appointed to succeed Bowness despite Allison’s lack of NHL experience. Gauthier’s choice was Jacques Martin, who brought knowledge of the league and credibility as a former coach of the St. Louis Blues and an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche.
“I’ve seen a complete change since Jacques and Pierre got here. It’s like night and day,” veteran defenseman Steve Duchesne said. “We finally got people with experience, and the players respect them. We’re not going to make the playoffs, but there’s a feeling we’re getting better. Within two years this team is going to do well.”
Gauthier also lured Yashin back with a four-year, $13.5-million contract, and the mercurial center has responded by scoring 32 points in 38 games. “I think he is a very professional guy and I trust what he is doing,” Yashin said of Gauthier. “I can see lots of changes in the team. It is lots better now. We have a good atmosphere and that’s very important for me.”
In another bold move, Gauthier resolved the Berard mess by trading him to the New York Islanders for the second overall pick, Wade Redden, as part of a three-way deal that also brought goalie Damian Rhodes to Ottawa. Rhodes has been sensational, compiling a 2.71 goals-against average with a .909 save percentage, creating an atmosphere of hope where despair used to reign.
“Before I came here everyone was telling me, ‘You’ll get a lot of shots and get tested.’ But there’s been a lot of games we’ve kept the other team under 30 shots. It’s been kind of what people didn’t expect,” Rhodes said. “It’s a very young team, and sometimes with a lot of young players, it takes time to mature. Hopefully, we’ll start to mature.
“I was sad at first [about being traded to the Senators], but now that I’m here I’m very happy. Pierre and Jacques are good and they know what they’re doing.”
They also know they have much work to do. But Gauthier has a plan. It sounds simple, but it’s a first for the Senators.
“You talk to media and [they say], ‘They’ve lost five games in a row but they were close games.’ It’s frustrating when that happens, but at least it’s like there’s no more controversy. Everything has been put into its place,” said Gauthier, who this week was appointed general manager of Team Canada for the upcoming World Championships. “The focus is on the right things. The end result is the focus is on winning and losing, and I thought that should be the objective of every organization. That’s something that probably in the past wasn’t happening. You don’t have anybody screaming, ‘I want to leave Ottawa.’
“Sure, we’re still losing more than we’re winning, but you take one little step at a time. Our confidence is much better than it was. The fans are more confident. The atmosphere in the building is unbelievable. We’re on the right track. There’s a lot of positive feeling.”
Among the lessons he learned in Anaheim and is applying in Ottawa is the foolishness of trading talented kids for veterans who provide short-term benefits. He intends to hold onto Yashin, Rhodes, left wing Radek Bonk and right wing Daniel Alfredsson, a rookie-of-the-year candidate.
“I can make all the trades I want and sign all the free agents I want but you can’t forget that people can improve. When you have young guys, and the team’s most talented players are the young guys, that becomes your priority, to improve from within,” he said. “With a nucleus of young people and a lot of good veterans around them, it’s one little step at a time.
“These are growing pains right now, but there’s no panic situation. We’re just going to grow and see where we go.”