The Ottawa Senators have hosted six games so far this season at the Canadian Tire Centre and not one of them has sold out. By comparison, the other NHL teams based in Canada have combined for 1,662 home games since the 2004-05 lockout and not one of them has had an empty seat.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the good people of Ottawa, perhaps more than any other city in Canada, are doers rather than watchers. Second, whatever they’re calling the arena this week is 18 miles from downtown with no rapid transit system in place. Third, both the tech and government sectors, two of the biggest drivers of the Ottawa economy, have taken a beating in recent years, which has created a drag on both ticket sales and corporate sponsorship.
But none of those could have prepared these eyes for what they saw – or didn’t see – in Canada’s capital Friday night. With the New York Islanders in town, the Senators drew an announced crowd of just 15,589, but there were at least 5,000 empty seats in the 19,153-seat building. Some press box observers said it was the smallest crowd they had ever seen in Ottawa, although there have been documented games where fewer people have showed up.
Worse, though, the game had all the buzz and atmosphere of a Tuesday night in Hartford. There was almost no excitement in the building and if not for Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov being so difficult to hit, the Senators would have been destroyed. They gave up 57 shots to the Islanders, blew two two-goal leads and ultimately lost in a shootout. It was not the least bit pretty.
The Senators apparently have a season-ticket base of 12,000, which means their walk-up crowd on Friday night, and many others, is dismal. Even corporate discounts and attempts to paper the house have proved unsuccessful. The Senators are finding out early that their strategy to have five Friday night games and an additional five Sunday afternoon games might require a rethink.
But most of all, there is a palpable post-Daniel Alfredsson pall hanging over the Senators. The Senators are not a very good team at the moment – they give up more shots than any other team in the NHL and have looked lost in their own end at times this season – and perhaps even Alfredsson would not have made them much better. But losing the captain could end up costing the Senators far more than what they saved by not giving him the money he wanted to stay and finish his career. The Red Wings will pay Alfredsson $5.5 million this season, but they wisely made $2 million of it performance bonus money. And what did Alfredsson have to do to earn that bonus? Play 10 games. And the beauty of it is that the Red Wings are only charged $3.5 million of that against the cap this season, with the remainder being deferred to next season when the cap is sure to go up again. (Good thing the NHL closed all those loopholes that allowed for legal salary cap circumvention.)
The Senators, though, thought they’d be able to convince Alfredsson to take a hometown discount and their strategy blew up in their faces. By the time owner Eugene Melnyk directed GM Bryan Murray to give Alfredsson a blank check, too many hard feelings had been created and Alfredsson had seen that teams he thought had a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup had already showed lots of interest. The fact that Alfredsson is playing very well in Detroit and is scoring at close to a point-per-game clip only emphasizes the notion that the Senators misjudged the Alfredsson situation even more.
Truth be told, the Senators are an organization that isn’t exactly flush with promise these days. The decision to allow Alfredsson to sign elsewhere wasn’t even prompted by cap issues, since the Senators are one of the lowest spending teams in the league this season. They have more than $8 million in cap space in a season when the cap went down and are 26th in the NHL in spending. A number of their younger players – Erik Condra, Eric Gryba, Colin Greening and Jared Cowen – have not progressed the way the organization projected they would. They have no first-round pick in a draft that, if it were held today, would have them in the No. 9 slot. They traded that away for Bobby Ryan last summer, a move Melnyk at the time claimed the Senators would not have made had they caved to Alfredsson’s contract demands.
And as far as the front office is concerned, where exactly are the Senators going with that? GM Bryan Murray will be 71 in December and is in the last year of his contract. There have apparently been no talks on an extension for him yet. If Murray is not the GM of the Senators next season, unlike Alfredsson, he won’t be going anywhere else. But like Alfredsson, he’ll be leaving behind a team that is searching for an identity.