Scanlan: Fans, despite being called out, brave elements in name of hockey history

 

 
 
 
 
Jean-Gabriel Pageau celebrates his second-period goal with the bench during the NHL100 Classic on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.
 

Jean-Gabriel Pageau celebrates his second-period goal with the bench during the NHL100 Classic on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen

From the department of extreme fandom, we bring you the NHL100 Classic.

It’s a place where folks are willing to freeze their extremities in the name of outdoor sporting spectacle, and pay up to $400 for the privilege. TD Place Stadium (rebranded by Scotiabank for the weekend) was full to bursting with hockey fans in a football setting, braving temperatures in the -15 C range, with a windchill of -22, the second-coldest modern outdoor game on record after the Edmonton meat locker of 2003.

As if freezing in an outdoor setting, at inflated prices weren’t sacrifice enough, those same fans had to suffer the indignity of being called out by their owner prior to this spectacle for not buying enough tickets to those other, more mundane home games of the NHL regular season.

In just the latest example of Eugene Melnyk being oblivious to established corporate instincts, the Senators owner outdid himself by hinting at moving the franchise or slashing his payroll, perhaps even finding an arena location around town that is NOT LeBreton Flats.

The owner thinks out loud and the results are frightening. Great way to sell tickets, boss.

The ill-timed rant served to diminish the spectacle of the outdoor classic which Melnyk often boasted of, a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the NHL’s first scheduled games.

Matching the visible vapour of their breath was steam pouring from fans’ ears. Throughout the day Saturday, the hashtag #MelnykOut was making the rounds on social media. One young fan named Nick Dunne penned a heartfelt open letter to Melnyk imploring him to abandon ownership and sell the franchise for its own sake.

“On behalf of the city I love and call my home, we implore you to move on from this team . . .”

The young fan surely expressed the thoughts of many caught up in an expletive-charged anti-owner chant from the stands.

Credit the fan base, and the Senators and Montreal Canadiens. Despite the owner’s sour song, the show did go on. Fans were engaged — frozen but engaged. They danced for warmth and exploded with joy when that noted Habs slayer, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, scored the game’s first goal.

The hockey itself nearly always suffers from these outdoor spectacles, the NHL game so finely tuned it can’t quickly adapt to quickie-outdoor ice and weather whims. Players like their temps controlled, the ice just so, none of which is a fit for an outdoor sheet. The wonder is that more players don’t get hurt.

Fans aren’t well served by these events, either. Beyond the cold, there is the issue of sight lines — closer to fright lines in some cases. Sit too low and the boards block views of the puck. From on high, up in the corners of the stands, the game is pretty much a rumour, the rink taking up a fraction of the football field dimensions.

And little things, like the Habs in white and blue colours that looked so Maple Leaf-life. The puck, hard to pick up visually on that greyish sheet of ice. Pucks bouncing. Frozen mitts struggling to control it.

In the past decade, the NHL has done outdoor games ad nauseam, but Ottawa survived its first event, and likely won’t mind if it doesn’t return for a while.

Now, back to business as unusual, as we say in the nation’s capital.

Oddly, this idea that sport gets bogged down with owners, managers and the business of selling tickets, and signing players to satisfactory contracts is hardly new.

Ottawa hockey historian Paul Kitchen will tell you that the original NHL game here 100 years ago — Dec. 19, 1917 — at Dey’s Arena “in sub-zero temperatures” was sidetracked by a contract dispute between the Senators and two of their star players, defenceman Hamby Shore and winger Jack Darragh. Seems the Senators had to start the game minus these two holdouts, huddled underneath the stands trying to get deals done. By the time the two were signed and inserted into the game, the Canadiens had a sizable lead and coasted to a 7-4 victory.

Kitchen’s book, Win, Tie or Wrangle: The Inside Story of the old Ottawa Senators 1883-1935 also makes note of the newly decked-out arena inside the Aberdeen Pavilion in 1904, just a wrist shot away from Saturday’s ice surface at Lansdowne. That early Ottawa team defended the Stanley Cup in a challenge from the Winnipeg Rowing Club, a Lansdowne series so rough the Manitobans worried about finding enough healthy bodies to ice a roster, so many players were brutalized in Game 1.

“The Winnipeggers were no angels, but it was clear even to Ottawa supporters, who booed and hissed their own team, that the Ottawas were looking for trouble,” Kitchen wrote.

Luckily, Chris Neil lived to play in a different era, when pulverizing an opponent could make a guy a local hero.

The anti-hero on Sunday was an owner who chose the grandest occasion of the season to throw his fans under the bus — the same fans who risked frostbite for the sake of the club.

wscanlan@postmedia.com

twitter/@hockeyscanner

 
 
 
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Jean-Gabriel Pageau celebrates his second-period goal with the bench during the NHL100 Classic on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.
 

Jean-Gabriel Pageau celebrates his second-period goal with the bench during the NHL100 Classic on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017.

Photograph by: Wayne Cuddington, Ottawa Citizen

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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