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The Eh team strikes back

Ottawa, birthplace of Stanley Cup, is a hockey town in truest sense. With Senators resurgent in finals, the city is gaga and Canada is rallying to cause

June 04, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

OTTAWA — Down by Chinatown, a plump woman dresses her two dogs in miniature Ottawa Senators shirts for their morning walk.

Farther along the boulevard, at an open-air market, a vendor sticks a red-and-gold flag among baskets of fresh strawberries.

Try walking two blocks in this capital without finding some reminder that the home team has reached the Stanley Cup finals. Try ignoring giant banners hung from office buildings near the highway and placards taped in windshields of taxicabs.

Over and over, the signs urge "Go Sens Go" and "Alfie! Alfie!" for captain Daniel Alfredsson. Or, more simply, "We want the Cup."

"Ottawa is a government town, very buttoned-down, very reserved," said Cameron Bishop, an executive for a local charity. "We have a reputation as the town that fun forgot ... but what you're seeing now is real passion."

A victory over the Ducks in Game 3 on Saturday only fed that emotion with a record crowd at Scotiabank Place and thousands more jamming a downtown strip of restaurants and bars. The next morning, the Ottawa Sun devoted its cover to a photograph of players hugging on the ice with the headline: "Home Sweet Home."

"I don't think we've ever experienced anything like it," said Joe Hachey, a 51-year-old contractor who has joined the crowds at recent public rallies.

The Ducks can match any team in the league for ardent followers, a howling contingent that packs the Honda Center night after night. But in terms of mass support, the game's place in community life, Ottawa is operating at a different level from Orange County.

This is what a hockey town looks and feels like.

In an obvious sense, the Senators dominate civic consciousness because hockey is the national pastime and the only big league game around. They also have a rich -- if bittersweet -- history.

The Stanley Cup originated in Ottawa when Lord Stanley of Preston, the Governor General, proposed a national trophy in 1892. The Senators won the Cup 11 times before succumbing to financial struggles, moving to St. Louis in 1934 and ultimately disbanding.

The once-proud franchise was resurrected in 1992 and, despite building a winner, continued to suffer money woes. In 2003, ownership declared bankruptcy amid rumors the team might once again move.

"It was hard times, no question," Alfredsson recalled. "For us players, we talked about it quite a bit."

Salvation came in the form of a new owner, pharmaceutical magnate Eugene Melnyk, and a playoff run this spring.

On the day Ottawa defeated the Buffalo Sabres for the Eastern Conference title, an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 fans flooded the restaurants and bars of Elgin Street, then marched to Parliament Hill.

"The city exploded," Hachey said. "Totally exploded."

The contractor, who converted his rec room into a team shrine, is among a number of die-hards showing their loyalty in a fashion more permanent than mere shirts and hats.

Before the playoffs, he visited the Ink Spot, where artist Greg Belanger reports filling half a dozen requests for Senators tattoos. Hachey got the team and NHL logos on his right biceps, then added a rival Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender bound and tied.

Another customer at the Ink Spot, Kyle Stenfert, wears the Ottawa mark on his calf.

It seems that revenge plays a role in such fervor. Ottawa occupies center stage for national politics with its Gothic federal buildings -- all sandstone, copper roofs and high leaded-glass windows -- perched on a hill beside the river. But for the last decade or so, it has been relegated to a lower rung in the pecking order of Canadian hockey, situated between more established franchises in Toronto and Montreal.

"They've been around forever," Stenfert said. "We needed to get our respect."

The Senators appear to have earned their due and a little more. Given that no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, much of the nation has joined to root for Ottawa against the Ducks.

This weekend, fans drove from hours away and stayed in local hotels to attend the game. By Saturday afternoon, city streets were awash in red.

"The support in this community is phenomenal," center Jason Spezza said. "We can't speak enough for the way people have rallied behind us."

Bishop, the charity executive, helped spearhead a grass-roots effort to turn Elgin Street into "Sens Mile," quickly drawing government support. He said his website started with three members and grew to 14,000.

"That's how true hockey fans are," he said. "There's not a lot of that in the States because you have other things, other sports, and that's fine.

"Up here, it's hockey. Hockey is part of who we are, part of what makes us Canadian."

So every other car flies a Senators flag and local debate has turned from politics to the forearm shiver delivered by Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger on Saturday night.

Over on the west end, the Cube gallery is showing several hockey-inspired pieces, including a dramatic red-and-white painting -- an abstract rendering of a hockey rink -- by Alex McMahon.

The artwork is titled "1903," an homage to abstract expressionist Mark Rothko and also a reference to the Senators' first Stanley Cup victory.

"It's more than just a game because it brings the city together," McMahon said. "You don't have to be a meathead jock to love hockey."

david.wharton@latimes.com

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