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.
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 tarring 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 [ Toronto-Ottawa] 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."