As he approaches a major milestone, Alfredsson opens up


The Alfredsson family from left to right: Bibi, Fenix, Hugo, Daniel and Loui.

The Alfredsson family from left to right: Bibi, Fenix, Hugo, Daniel and Loui.

Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen

Daniel Alfredsson is feeling a mixture of anxiousness and awkwardness as the Ottawa Senators prepare to toast him next Saturday at Scotiabank Place.

In one sense, Alfredsson can hardly wait for the celebration of playing 1,000 games with the franchise, knowing 15 years of memories will come flooding back.  

He was there for the team’s first playoff appearance, the first post-season victory and the ride to the Stanley Cup finals. He also suffered through one of the worst seasons in National Hockey League history and has survived six general managers, seven head coaches and four playoff losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Yet even though he’s “the face of the franchise,” in the words of teammate Chris Phillips, the Senators captain has never been comfortable opening up about himself or talking about his statistics.

He’s also not that keen to reflect because he’s not ready to say goodbye. He could have one, two, maybe even three seasons left, providing that his 37-year-old hips and groin can hold up to the grind of the schedule and he can stand the travel away from his three boys, Hugo, Loui and Fenix.

And while the Senators best chance to win the Stanley Cup appeared to have flown out the window a few years back, he’s still in search of that crowning achievement.

“It is all very hard to talk about,” Alfredsson says, sitting in a coffee shop, conducting one of countless interviews in recent weeks on the subject of himself. “I don’t try to think about all of that. I never have.”

When he’s pressed for highlights, there’s no mention of winning the Calder Trophy as rookie-of-the year in 1995-96. Nor is it about scoring 43 goals and 103 points in 2005-06, being named to five All-Star teams, or his four-goal game and seven-point night.

The first playoff appearance in 1997 and first post-season victory over New Jersey in 1998 stick with him. Scoring the series-winning overtime goal against Buffalo in Game 5 to win the Eastern Conference title in 2007 was big at the time, but was balanced out weeks later by the crushing loss to the Anaheim Ducks in the finals.

So, what, then, is he most proud of?

“What I’m thinking about is not any one thing, it’s more about effort,” he says. “We play so many games, it’s easy to just go through the motions sometimes. What I think is that when I do retire, I will know that every time I went on the ice, I tried to give it everything I had.

"And that has been something I had to learn to manage as well, because that can work against you. You want to do so much. Where is that line? That’s something with experience, you’re able to learn and handle better.”

Of course, Alfredsson has his critics. There was a backlash in 2006 when Buffalo’s Jason Pominville skated around him and scored a series-clinching overtime goal to defeat the most talented Senators roster ever. A few months later, there were loud cries for him to be traded away when the club stumbled early.

He was guilty of trying to do the jobs of others early in his career. He’s deemed too quiet a leader for some tastes, an approach which leans more towards Steve Yzerman’s leading-by-example style than Mark Messier’s bold and bullish talk.

Alfredsson says he's always learning, “but you can’t change who you are. I don’t look at myself and say ‘I have to do this or that.’ If I do or say something, it’s because it’s the right thing to do.”

He says he learned by watching Randy Cunneyworth, his first NHL captain. He bit his tongue during the me-first captaincy of Alexei Yashin. Since taking over as captain in 1999, he has chosen diplomacy over controversy, at least publicly, in dealing with dressing room issues.

Trainers marvel at his quick recovery from minor and major injuries and he has become a mentor for every young player who arrives in the dressing room. That includes rookie defenceman Erik Karlsson, a fellow Swede and future star who lived with Alfredsson in the first months of the season.

Respect comes from opponents, as well. Philadelphia Flyers centre Daniel Briere, who grew up in Gatineau, says Alfredsson was “always a guy I looked up to” because of his competitiveness and perseverence.

“He’s not a guy who came in with superstar power. He has really hard to to work his way to the top and to become the player that he has been. I love the way he plays. When I think about the Ottawa Senators, he’s the first thing that comes to mind. It’s his team. He has done so much for the organization.”

Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff calls Alfredsson a “difference-maker on both sides of the puck, which is a special, special gift. If you look at all of the players in the East that I’ve coached against, I would probably have him right at the top.”

Senators general manager Bryan Murray says Alfredsson’s leadership skills were always evident. As the former GM of the Florida Panthers, Murray didn’t like playing against him.

“I hated him. He tried too hard, played too hard. When he plays for you, you admire everything he does. When he’s against you, you don’t like him very much because he’s one of those people that beat you in a variety of ways.”

While neither Yzerman or Alfredsson are screamers, Murray says, “they lead because they care and they work hard and people feed off them.”

His personality fits the city like a glove. Most fans feel some sort of connection with the captain, which is rare in a salary cap system with its constant turnover of players. For Alfredsson, it’s a two-way relationship. There’s an appreciation for the people who pay to watch, something which couldn’t always be said about Yashin, Dany Heatley and others.

“I don’t think (Yashin) was able to establish a connection with the fans because of the choices he made in his contract situation,” Alfredsson says. “He didn’t honour that. We make a lot of money. That would have been fine in Russia maybe, but this is a different culture.

"Sometimes, you’ve got to relate to the people. If you do that and you play great, everything is forgiven. Once you start struggling, fans remember and they’re not on your side.”

He offers a similar view about Heatley and the sniper's demand for a trade last summer.

“The fans here feel that they did a lot for him,” he says. “They gave him a new team, a chance to start over from what happened in Atlanta and then he decides he doesn’t want to be here, without explaining himself. He can do what he wants, but fans are going to get frustrated.”

Throughout his career, playing with a cast of players including Yashin, Marian Hossa, Martin Havlat, Jason Spezza, Heatley and Alex Kovalev, Alfredsson has rarely been the most naturally gifted player on the team. A late bloomer, he didn’t make Sweden’s world junior team as a teenager. He was so content playing in the Swedish Elite League and on the national team that he wasn’t aware he had been chosen by the Senators in the 1994 entry draft until the following day, when he was called by an agent.

He had been selected 133rd overall, several hours after the fuss made over top five selections: Ed Jovanovski, Oleg Tverdovsky, Bonk, Jason Bonsignore and Jeff O’Neill. Alfredsson has since played more games, scored more goals and registered more points than anyone chosen in his draft.

He came to North America after the 1995 world championships, which included his overtime winning goal to eliminate Canada in the semifinals.

His plans were modest. So was his salary. Alfredsson, then 22, was guaranteed a $70,000 payday for each of two seasons — a $40,000 signing bonus per year and a minor league salary of $30,000. If he made the NHL, his salary would be $285,000 for each season.

“I thought when I came over I would play a few years and then I would go back to Sweden. No question,” Alfredsson says. “That’s where I grew up, that’s where all my friends were, that’s where my whole life was.”

Funny how life works out. Alfredsson arrived to a Senators team in disarray. Money was tight. Yashin was starting his first contract holdout. Bryan Berard, the club’s first overall draft selection that June, walked out of rookie camp in pursuit of a contract.

Alfredsson, meanwhile, was handed the No. 63 sweater for training camp. Nice number for an offensive lineman, not for a first-line NHL right winger.

The original plan called for Alfredsson to start in the American Hockey League with the P.E.I. Senators, but he turned heads immediately. Original Senators coach Rick Bowness says Alfredsson’s maturity was evident from the start, reminding him of former Winnipeg Jets star Thomas Steen.

“The kid could skate and was fearless,” recalls Bowness. "You go into a training camp thinking, ‘He’s a guy coming from Europe, maybe he needs a little experience.' But once we saw him play, we knew he had to stay.”

After he made the team, Alfredsson was given a choice of sweater numbers. Well, sort of. It wasn’t based on any number he wore as a child.

“I had 5 growing up, I had 55 for one year in Division I and then 24,” he says, with a laugh. “The equipment guy, Ed Georgica, asked me, ‘11 or 22?’. He let me pick before (fellow rookie) Antti Tormanen. He got 22 because I took 11.”

That'll be a story worth remembering when the Senators eventually hang his sweater from the rafters at Scotiabank Place.

Remember this one, too: Alfredsson almost went home for good following his tumultuous inaugural season which included Dave Allison’s two-win stint as coach.

“After Christmas, I remember talking to my Dad and saying, ‘I don’t know if I can keep doing this,’” Alfredsson says. “It wasn’t fun at all. (Allison) wasn’t an NHL coach. I couldn’t understand his reasoning ... his philosophy and everything just didn’t make sense to me at all.”

Alfredsson’s mood brightened with the arrival of Jacques Martin as coach in early 1996. Martin brought structure and the team actually won once in awhile. Against all odds, the Senators made the playoffs for the first time in 1996-97. They won their first playoff series the following year, defeating Martin’s model franchise, the New Jersey Devils, an emotional series because the Senators defeated the Devils at their own game.

In many ways, Alfredsson says, it was a sign of things to come in the NHL.

“Now, all four lines play structured,” he says. “Everybody plays the system. It used to be the third and fourth lines had to follow the system and the other two lines, it was sort of, ‘Just score more goals than the other team.' New Jersey started that, we copied that. He (Martin) understood that for us to be successful, we weren’t the most skilled team, we had to play more as a team.”

Eventually, the Senators reaped the rewards of good drafting and the team was soon ripe with talent. That skill, however, could never get past the Maple Leafs when it mattered, losing all four playoff series.

It has been six years since the last defeat, but fans of the blue-and-white won’t let Alfredsson forget. When the Maple Leafs arrive at Scotiabank Place, the Senators captain is booed as much as cheered because of the loud Toronto fans in the crowd.

“I respect that,” Alfredsson says. “If you get booed for being a bad player, it’s no fun. But when you are playing a team that you desperately want to win against and they boo you, I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. They just want ... me to get crushed every game.

"Obviously, because we have the rivalry with them, when I get booed on home ice, it becomes a big deal to a lot of people. And I understand that, too. It should create anger amongst our fans.”

If the defeats to the Maple Leafs marked the lowlights of the years leading up to the 2004-05 lockout, Alfredsson also can’t wonder what might have been if the Senators had answered back to the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup finals in 2007.

After losing the first two games in Anaheim, the Senators won Game 3 at Scotiabank Place and were on the verge of tying the series in Game 4 when the Ducks rallied. The Ducks eventually won Game 5 in Anaheim to win the Cup.

“We totally dominated the first period and then just play a really, really bad second period,” he recalls. “After that second period, I’ve never been as frustrated as a player. That’s when you kind of felt it slip away. If we win Game 4, it’s a best of 3 and then we’re right back in it.”

Naturally, Alfredsson wants another crack at winning it all and he’s not allowing himself to think time is running out on his career. While he has opted not to practice much since the Olympics, he says he feels good physically and mentally.

“You retire for a reason, because you don’t feel you can do the things you want to do,” he says. “It’s hard, I find, especially lately to be away from the family. The kids are on March break, I’m not home. They go on their first skate, or whatever ... you miss a lot of stuff. That could be a factor maybe, more than just how I feel physically and mentally.

“Our whole life is here. My wife has been with me the whole time and we’re coming up on 15 years. We have three kids, one in school. Ottawa has become home in a way nobody could have imagined. We’ve talked about what we would do when I retire from playing. We don’t know. But the further it goes, we’re probably going to end up staying here, in Ottawa."

As much as Alfredsson is trying to stay low key about Saturday’s celebration, he believes the impact of the occasion at Scotiabank Place will also hit home.

“When I talk about it now, it’s just a number, but I believe that night will be very special, because you share it with so many people who have seen me play for all these years,” he says. “They’ll be there to show appreciation for me and I’m sure it will be more emotional than I care to admit.”

The Alfredsson family from left to right: Bibi, Fenix, Hugo, Daniel and Loui.

The Alfredsson family from left to right: Bibi, Fenix, Hugo, Daniel and Loui.

Photograph by: Bruno Schlumberger, The Ottawa Citizen

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