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 win-less streak, and in the locker room afterward Bowness turned to his assistants and said, "I think starting the game short handed 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 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."