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The Battle of Ontario is on the rebound—thankfully

I won't even try to talk about the “original” Ottawa Senators.  I believe they played in the 1920’s or ‘30s but I don’t really know anything about the first NHL team in the Canadian capital.  Many fine hockey historians out there have produced pieces on the city’s history in the NHL that I can’t possibly duplicate.

On the eve/day of the big game this weekend between the Leafs and the Senators, my thoughts are on some much more recent history—the short-lived but still memorable “Battle of Ontario” that gripped both cities (and yes, much of hockey-mad Ontario, in just about every corner of the province) during the early 2000s.

If we’re honest, like most expansion teams, the Senators were far from competitive in their early years in the 1990s.  They had some fine character guys like ex-Flame and Maple Leaf Brad Marsh but it takes a while to build through the draft.  After a few management hiccups (and an unfair burden placed on first overall choice Alexandre Daigle) they built the franchise slowly and well.  They had the usual assortment of high draft picks and by and large seemed to make some pretty solid selections.  They kept getting better and better and eventually, as we all recall, became more than just sort of competitive.  They were really good.  We can criticize Jacques Martin and his boring, Hitchcock-esque approach to coaching his teams toward success (and their opponents into numbing submission).   But the guy did indeed have success.  In fact, unless I’m mis-remembering (as a famous former pitcher once said), the Senators started handing us our hat pretty regularly in the late ‘90s and the early part of the last decade.  They had some explosive offensive talent, despite Martin's penchant for a tight defensive game.

But I think most of us would acknowledge that the turning point of, well...let’s call it our “relationship” with the Sens and their own very devoted and passionate fans really turned the corner because we kept meeting those guys in the playoffs.  I’m guessing there were young kids who were Leaf “fans” a decade ago who, perhaps unaware of some of the intricacies of how the playoff structure worked, just assumed the Leafs and the Senators played in a venom-filled series every spring because they just disliked each other so much that they had to get it out of their systems. 

Even for us adults, it sure felt that way.

For me personally, those four Leafs/Sens playoff series (it was four, right?) all kind of morph into one.  The Senators had built with Chara, Redden, Alfie, Hossa, Bonk and some fine pluggers.  As I said, more often than not, my memory suggests that they were the better team in the regular-season most years, not just in terms of the standings, but when they played us.  I’m going to say (but will gladly be corrected!) that they must have been the so-called favorites in at least three of the four series heading into the match-ups.

Yet, in each series, the Leafs somehow managed to get by the seemingly more talented, younger, faster and certainly more explosive Ottawa teams. The Leafs survived every time, and lived to fight another day.  For the Sens and Martin, it eventually cost him his job, though he had excelled in every other respect in bringing out the best in the Senators.

Like the series themselves, a lot of the specific memories kind of blend together as well for me.  I remember Cujo’s play in the early years, but it was Belfour the last time around, right?  There was Sundin’s OT winner.  Cory Cross scored a big one as well.  Gary Roberts scored in triple (?) overtime the year that, if the Senators win that game, they likely go on to sweep the series.  (Here’s a true personal memory I've never mentioned to anyone:  I was so nervous during that game, knowing the Leafs could be facing certain playoff extinction, that I watched the overtime all the way through with no sound.  I wanted to watch alone, in silence.  I didn't need to hear what Harry Neale was saying.  And if Ottawa scored, I did not want to hear Bob Cole's voice call the goal and hear that pitched sound of excitement. I was simply prepared to accept our fate, turn off the TV and go to bed.)

There were Nieuwendyk’s two goals in the first period of the last Game 7 the two sides played in the playoffs.  There was Alfredsson’s hit from behind on Tucker (which would get him suspended now, but did not even draw a penalty at the time…)  Of course, we all remember the seemingly endless interviews of Senators players while riding their bicycles post-game...

And those are just a few snapshot moments that jump off the top of my head, and as I mentioned, if I had to put the puzzle together and place those events in chronological order for you, I couldn’t do it.  (Sometimes I have a better memory for what happened 45 years ago than I do something that happened a few years back…such are the vagaries of advancing age.)

If you have a second, by all means shed some light on things that stand out for you in recalling those great spring-time series.  Until then, let’s face it, there was no “rivalry” between the two NHL teams.  The Sens were just a lousy expansion team.  But like all little brothers, they got bigger real quick, and in some cases, the little brothers get better and stronger than the older brother.  That was pretty much happening for the Sens in those days—until they hit the playoffs.

Why did the Leafs earn those playoff series wins?  Was it their goaltending?  Grit?  It certainly was that, for sure.  And I think Pat Quinn’s coaching had a lot to do with all those playoff victories that the Leafs earned from 1999 through 2004.  I remember Gretzky saying that Quinn was absolutely the best bench coach in the NHL.  It had to have some effect.

But for today, let’s focus on those series with the Senators.  Good times for Leaf fans.  Frustration- and unfinished business- for Sens’ fans.

As the current Leafs and Senators both continue to build young, fast, hard-working teams, we may just get another great Eastern Conference playoff match-up before we know it (this coming April, maybe?).

But in the meantime, what comes to mind for you from a decade ago?


  1. Let's hope the battle is indeed alive! Some memories for me...Alex Mogilny being the voice of reason when Tucker flew the white flag from his stick; Cujo wrestling the ref; Shayne Corson leaving the team in mid-playoffs; Lalime flubbing those 2 Nieuwendyk shots; and not in playoffs, but in a reg. season game where the entire Sens team had the flu, the Leafs came back from a big deficit and Nolan scored in OT and made the famous "boo hoo" statement. Those are just a few!


  2. As a Leafs fan in Ottawa, I was right in the middle of most of those series. The Sens were indeed the favourite, mostly because they always killed the Leafs in the regular season. But, then, there's just something about playoff hockey that's different. The Sens definitely weren't as gritty - they still had Hossa, Havlat and co - and their goaltending stunk. I agree it was probably those two factors that did it, along with the fact that the Sens were a relatively young team and the Leafs had a lot of veterans.

    That said, those four series are the reason why so many Sens fans boo the Leafs more than they cheer for their own team, even now. That's the part I don't understand - the Leafs could end world hunger and Sens fans would still boo. Personally, I'd rather save my voice to cheer for my own team!

  3. I had forgotten about the Nolan "boo hoo" comment...brings back fond memories, Caedmon...

    Thanks for the Ottawa "angle" on this, Adam. Well said.

  4. Don't think I've ever shared this story here. Back in 2000 or so, I took a friend from Kanata on a casual date to the "Irish" pub in the Kanata mall just east of the arena at the start of hockey season. The place was jammed, and upon entering, the pretty but vapid hostess brightly handed me something and asked "would you like a chance to win Senators tickets?" I didn't hesitate for a split second and replied "why in the hell would I be interested in tickets for that team??? I'm a Leafs fan" and flipped the entry back onto the hostess stand. The shocked look on her face along with the one on the bouncer's right beside her is a memory I'll cherish forever. My friend snorted as she knew better and we went out to the patio.

  5. My favorite memory is the way the team played in 2004. Nolan was out for the series, and Sundin was out for the final three games. Inspired by Roberts, Nieuwendyk et al, they just gritted their way to victory. Talk about muckulence! From the celebration up Yonge Steet, you'd think we'd won the Cup - and the Olympics! Sundin returned after that series, as I recall, and the team just wasn't the same - for whatever reason - and the Flyers (I think) took us out. Let's hope tonight's a sign we're on our way back!

  6. Thanks Gerund O' I said, some of those years blend for me...specific memories are hard to pull out in terms of when they actually occurred! But Roberts and heart, that I remember.