It sounded like a joke. Did you hear the one about the Ottawa Senators offering their fans a money-back guarantee? The proposal, though, was for real. The Senators, the NHL's most embarrassing franchise, had offered its 8,167 season-ticket holders a cash refund if they weren't satisfied by Ottawa's performance in the preseason and in its home opener on Oct. 9. The Senators and their fans surprised everyone. Not only did Ottawa score two late goals to tie the New York Islanders 3-3 in that opener, but also just five folks took advantage of the guarantee. And damned if the Senators didn't reward their faithful by going undefeated in their next five home games. At week's end Ottawa had a 6-7-5 record, which in the benevolent welfare system that is the NHL, had them contending for a playoff spot. On the ice the 1996-97 Senators are brilliantly mediocre, and off the ice they are, as one local newspaper recently reported, "refreshingly boring."
That is breaking news in Ottawa. Just ask Senators general manager Pierre Gauthier, who fearlessly signed on last December in an attempt to restore dignity to the woeful franchise. "When I took the job, this was a team overwhelmed by controversy," Gauthier says. "It was a soap opera."
Indeed. Only in Ottawa can you find a hockey team accused of throwing a game...on Fan Appreciation Night. Or a team incurring a penalty because it put the wrong players on the ice. Only in Ottawa can the newspaper dispatch a reporter to write an on-the-scene column about rookie training camp and have the scribe wind up as the camp's best player.
Only in Ottawa can you find someone like Ken Hammond. During the 1992-93 season Hammond, an Ottawa Senators defense-man, made a pass out of his own zone that was intercepted by Pittsburgh Penguins forward Kevin Stevens, who flipped the puck to wing Joey Mullen for a goal in a 6-1 Pittsburgh win. When Hammond was asked to analyze the play afterward, he said, "Look, if I'd known Mullen was open, I never would've passed it to Stevens."
Only in Ottawa can the team's All-Star Game representative be someone like former goaltender Peter Sidorkiewicz, whose record when he suited up for that 1993 game was 3-30-3. Another former Senators goalie, Don Beaupre, once summed up playing for Ottawa by saying, "Hockey isn't fun anymore." It's no wonder that in an interview last January, shortly after current Senators net-minder Damian Rhodes learned he had been traded to Ottawa from the Toronto Maple Leafs, he broke down and wept.
The Senators arrived in the NHL as an expansion team in the 1992-93 season with the slogan REDEFINING EXCITEMENT. Sure enough, Ottawa has already earned a place in the record book. It owns the NHL marks for consecutive home games without a win (17) and consecutive road games without a win (38). Twice it has lost a game by 10 goals. In four seasons it has amassed 125 points, which is fewer than the Detroit Red Wings had last season. Yes, the Senators have aged like fine wine—lying down and in the cellar.
There may have been sports franchises with worse winning percentages, more ham-handed executives or a higher propensity for the absurd, but none has ever combined those ingredients into one eyesore quite as ugly as the Senators, the worst expansion team in history.
Dust off some old scrapbooks and you'll discover that the original Ottawa Senators, who played in the NHL from 1917-18 to 1933-34, won four Stanley Cups before folding because of financial woes. In the summer of '92 the Senators reintroduced themselves to the league—not with evocations of their glorious predecessors but with two pathetic, prophetic words: Ottawa apologizes.
The expansion Senators' first general manager, Mel Bridgman, a former NHL player with a business degree from the Wharton School, and his staff spent months preparing for the expansion draft in the Montreal Forum. Alas, the electrical outlet at Ottawa's table wasn't working, and, darn the luck, nobody brought batteries for the laptop in which all the Senators' draft information was stored. Thus the aforementioned apology, which embarrassed Ottawa officials made over and over as they drafted ineligible players. The hallmarks of that day would become a metaphor for the team: a lack of energy, all the wrong players and excuses galore.
At the Senators' first rookie camp Larry Skinner, a 36-year-old Ottawa Sun circulation manager and freelance writer, showed up to do a story about the fledgling Senators. He was invited to skate with the players one day, and again the next day, and it quickly became clear that he was one of the better performers on the ice. He finished the rookie camp as one of Ottawa's leading scorers before he went back to the newspaper business.