The biggest game on this week’s NHL schedule will be one of the last: Sunday night’s matchup between the Senators and Red Wings in Ottawa. While there will probably be better contests, there won’t be a more emotional one, as the game will mark the first time that longtime Senator captain Daniel Alfredsson will play in Ottawa since signing with Detroit in the offseason.
That signing was a shock at the time, and it has led to an ugly divorce between Alfredsson and the Senators, with both sides accusing the other of putting money ahead of loyalty. All of which leads to the inevitable question: What kind of reception will Alfredsson get from Ottawa fans?
In an era when fewer and fewer players spend their entire career with one team, Alfredsson’s situation is far from unique. In just the past decade alone, we’ve seen several high-profile stars return to the city where they made their name. Some got a hero’s welcome. Others got something very different.
What should Alfredsson expect? Let’s look at five possibilities, as helpfully demonstrated by other stars from recent years.
Option 1: We hate you! (i.e., the Dany Heatley)
The backstory: Alfredsson won’t be the first player that Ottawa fans get to welcome back under less-than-ideal circumstances. Whether it’s Alexandre Daigle, Alexei Yashin, Marian Hossa, or Bryan Berard, there’s something about the Senators franchise that tends to lead to ugly breakups.
Heatley's may have been the ugliest. He’d established himself as one of the best players in Senators history, recording back-to-back 50-goal seasons in the first two years after the lockout. But after the 2008-09 season, Heatley told the Senators that he wanted to be traded. To this day, he has never explained exactly why he wanted out, though a personality conflict with then-coach Cory Clouston is the main suspect.
To make matters worse, Heatley used his no-trade clause to block a deal to the Oilers that the Senators liked better than San Jose’s eventual offer — delaying a move long enough to force Ottawa to cough up a $4 million roster bonus.
The return: The Sharks weren’t scheduled to visit Ottawa during the 2009-10 season, so Heatley’s first game back didn’t come until well more than a year after the trade. If he was hoping that time would heal some wounds, he underestimated Senator fans.
The last laugh: At first, it seemed to be all Heatley’s. He played well in his first year in San Jose, while Clouston was out of the NHL by 2011. But Heatley’s play gradually dropped, and the Sharks dealt him to the Wild after only two seasons. These days, he’s been seeing fourth-line duty in Minnesota.
Meanwhile, the main piece the Senators got back in the trade — winger Milan Michalek — is still in the Ottawa lineup and has been more productive than Heatley since the deal.
(Other examples: Chris Pronger returning to Edmonton, Phil Kessel returning to Boston, and Ilya Kovalchuk returning to Atlanta.)
Chances it happen to Alfredsson: Better than you’d think — there’s a surprisingly strong number of Sens fans who feel that their former captain stabbed them in the back, and who have no desire to forgive and forget. The “should Alfredsson get a ‘welcome back’ scoreboard video” debate has been going strong in Ottawa for weeks, and emotions are running so high this week that there have been reports of people getting their coworkers’ Tim Hortons order wrong without apologizing quite as profusely as normal.