A Senators Christmas Carol

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

by Chet Sellers


It was three days before Christmas, and I was in a foul mood. The Senators had dropped their third in a row, this time to the Phoenix Coyotes, and that night I decided I had finally had enough.

“I’m done with this team,” I muttered, as I brushed potato chips off my futon and tucked myself in. I glanced across my rented room at a Patrick Lalime jersey, draped on the back of a folding chair I’d stolen. “You’re not my pajamas anymore,” I said bitterly. “And you,” my voice rising now, as I pointed at a Jason Spezza poster covering cracks in the plaster, “there’s fewer holes in the wall than in your defensive game right now. Tomorrow you’re coming down, and then you’re gonna be captain of the garbage.”

And with that, I turned off the light.

At some point I heard a noise. I tried to ignore it, assuming it was just another late-night rehearsal by the Springsteen cover band upstairs. But then I heard it again, more distinctly. A howling noise, followed by a rattling. It sounded like chains. And then a voice.

“Chyet,” I heard. “Chyet, wake up.”

I sat up. It was Alexei Kovalev, as pale an apparition as when he played in Ottawa. He was covered in chains.

“What are you doing here?”

“Chyet, I have come to warn you. Do not give up on the Ottawa Senators. Do not make the mistake I did. There is still time for you.”

“Why shouldn’t I give up? The Senators are terrible. Besides, you didn’t seem to do so badly after being traded for a conditional seventh-round pick.”

“I want to spare you my fate, Chyet. I play in Switzerland now, surrounded by models and my millions of dollars.”

“Well, what’s so bad about that?”

“First I had to play for the Panthers for a while.”

A chill ran down my back.

“Chyet, I am only a messenger. Tonight you will be visited by three spirits. They will show you your past, present, and future with the Ottawa Senators. It will not be pretty. But you must stick with the team! Or you will end up like Kovalev!” He rattled his chains at me.

“Why do you have those, anyway?”

“These are for my tires. This snow in Ottawa is terrible, man. I thought Russia was bad.” He rattled them again.

"The way you dangle some of those chains is amazing. I wish you’d dangled like that more often in Ottawa.”

“I get that a lot. Enough! You! Three spirits! Tonight! Shazamakov!” And he was gone.

I got out of bed and checked the front door. The lock had been broken for months, but the cinderblock was still planted firmly in front of the door frame. There was no way Kovalev would have bothered to get around that kind of defensive pressure. As I stared at the empty bottles of Old Grand-Dad littered around my futon, I assured myself it had to be a dream.

Sleep came fitfully after that. I listened for every bump and creak, still trying to tell myself there were no such things as spirits. And then, just as I began to drift off, the room lit up in brilliant light. As I squinted I could see a figure walking toward me, dressed all in white.

"Chet, it's me, the Ghost of Senators Past."

"Are you . . . Alexandre Daigle?"

"I am."

"And is that . . . a nurse's uniform?"

"It is. Chet, I want you to come with me," said Daigle. "I want to take you back in time and show you how much you used to love the Senators. Don't worry about putting pants on - just stick close to me, I'm invisible."

"Oh, so we're going to the playoffs?"

There was a flash of light, and suddenly we were in my childhood home. I saw myself as a young boy at the kitchen table, poring over NHL scores in the afternoon Citizen. The sexy fireman calendar my mother had hung on the wall told me it was January, 1993.

"Another loss!" I heard my younger self say excitedly. "And the Lightning won, too! We're gonna get that #1 pick for sure! I love hockey!"

"You see, Chet?" said Daigle. "The Senators have been part of your life from the very beginning. Look how happy you are."

"This is a happy moment?" I asked. "When I got into this mess at an early age? When I learned to follow hockey by celebrating losing? When I never learned that living through disappointment only sets you up for future disappointment?" I glared at him.

"God, what a drama queen you are," said Daigle. "You need to relax and be more like me! The Daigler!" He pointed at himself with both thumbs. "Eh, buddy? Eh?"

Another flash of light. I saw myself as a teenager sitting on the couch in my parents' basement, a girl sitting next to me. A quick look at the television we were watching and I knew exactly what year it was, as an overtime Sabres goal beat Ron Tugnutt in game 7 of a playoff series. It was 1997.

"Well, tough luck there," I heard myself say. "But no worries. This is just the start of a long string of success. We'll have a Cup in two, three years tops." The girl said nothing.

"I don't know about you," the young me continued, "but I think this date is going pretty well. Plus I heard that cottage party was going to have beer, which I'm pretty sure is against the law." The girl still said nothing.

"Idiot," I said.

"I don't see an idiot," responded Daigle, putting his arm around my shoulder. "I see an optimist. Nice bowl cut. Anyway, I'm starting to lose interest in this. Let's speed it up a little."

Images raced by. I saw myself getting jerseyed by a group of Leafs fans in the Corel Centre parking lot. I saw my wedding night, ruined by an overtime loss to the Panthers. I saw myself getting a HEATLEY 4EVA tattoo, and I saw myself putting our life savings on the Senators to win the Cup final against the Ducks.  I saw my wife leaving with a suitcase as I called Team 1200 to complain about Ryan Shannon's ice time. I saw myself telling my boss that I needed a month off to really figure out what was wrong with Brian Elliott, and my boss telling me I'd be getting all the time I needed. I saw myself having a pleasant conversation with the woman from the bank about whether there'd be any more lifetime Senators after Daniel Alfredsson, once we got the mortgage foreclosure discussion out of the way.

"This team," I mumbled. "Everything that's gone wrong in my life is because of this team. How is this supposed to bring my spirit back?"

"Yeah, I don't know," said Daigle. "Something about the seeds of hope growing in the dirt of failure; to be honest, I didn't pay a lot of attention during training." He stretched and yawned. "I think I'm just gonna take off for Switzerland again; Kovalev told me Latendresse needs a roommate. Daigler out!"

"Wait!" I shouted. "Aren't there two more spirits coming?"

"Probably, I don't know. I don't remember who comes after me."

And with that I was back on my futon. I was shaken up, but if Daigle thought that little display was going to bring back my Senators spirit, he was grossly mistaken. As I reflected on it, though, I did have to chuckle a little about how crazy I'd been. No matter how often the Senators let me down, I never gave up. So silly.

My thoughts were interrupted by what sounded like a Greyhound bus pulling up outside. I dragged the cinderblock from the door and poked my head out to see a figure disembarking. He wore a large, green, fur-trimmed robe, with a laurel wreath on his head. As he approached I realized exactly who it was.

"Jim O'Brien!"

He pulled out a card and started reading in a monotone. "Hello Chet. I am the Ghost of Senators Present."

"Hmm, that's a little on the nose."

"What did you say about my nose?" He went back to the card. "I am here to show you what you are giving up if you give up on the Sentadors . . . Senators. On the Senators. Come with me."

Another flash of light. We were on a bus. It was dark, and fields of snow stretched around us for what seemed like miles in every direction. The bus was packed with people huddled together in parkas, their faces obscured.

"Where are we?" I asked. "Why are these people being forced to travel like this, through this horrible wasteland? Is this Moldova? Belarus? Kazakhstan?"

"Kanata," O'Brien answered. "These people are taking OC Transpo to the game. They are making a dangerous journey of great length to watch their hockey team play. Because they care."

I couldn't believe it. "Why do they do it? Why not just give up, faced with such depressing hardship?"

"They believe," O'Brien said, reading from his card again. "They believe the way you once believed, Chet. And if you give up on the Senators, there will be less belief for all of us to share. Others will give up. The team will move to Milwaukee and become the Wisconsin Cower Play. You're not just giving up on yourself, Chet. You're giving up on all these people."

"I guess I never thought of it that way, Jim O'Brien. But having fans that care isn't enough. We can't make the team better."

"But I know someone who can," said O'Brien. We reappeared in Bryan Murray's office. He was on the phone with someone.

"Alright Craig, so we're agreed - we send you O'Brien, you send us Hemsky and you fill my soda machine for a year."

"Wait a minute," said O'Brien, dropping his card.

Murray looked across the room at his nephew Tim. "Get Melnyk on the phone. Tell him I've got Hemsky. It'll put us over the top but I need money."

"I don't want to go to Edmonton," said O'Brien.

Tim was listening on the other phone now. He mouthed the word "no".

"Tell him I'll pay for Hemsky, then. And when I re-sign him next year and sell him for double to the Rangers, I'm keeping the money."

"I DON'T WANT TO GO TO EDMONTON!" O'Brien yelled.

Tim picked up the phone again. "Mr. Melnyk, Bryan says - wait, he already hung up."

Murray sighed audibly. "Alright, let's keep trying. Get the Jets on the line 2."

"You see, Chet?" said O'Brien finally. "Bryan Murray's still trying. He's doing everything he can to make this team better, even though I think he's got some terrible ideas. And he does it because he believes he has the support of fans like you. Without you, why would he even bother?"

"So we're agreed," Murray said in the background, "O'Brien for Kane, a year's worth of soda, and you guys cover the salary difference. Let me call my owner and we'll have O'Brien on the first flight to Winnipeg."

"Aw crap," said O'Brien.

"I guess you're right," I said. "Maybe Bryan Murray cares. But the players don't care, the way they've been playing this year. And without the players, this team is just going to keep disappointing fans forever."

"Us players care a lot!" said O'Brien defensively. "Right now, I care about not going to Winnipeg. But you don't believe me? Watch this."

O'Brien snapped his fingers and all of a sudden we were standing in a driveway, snow up to our knees with hail and sleet swirling around us. Ten feet away stood Bobby Ryan in board shorts and flip-flops, trying to chisel an inch of ice off the windshield of his truck.

"Oh God," I whispered. "He must hate it here."

"Shhhhh," said O'Brien. "Watch."

A woman came out of the front door, wrapped in a blanket. "Why are you even bothering?" she shouted through the wind. "It's 74 degrees in Anaheim right now! Come inside and demand a trade before you lose a toe!"

Ryan gritted his teeth. "Not while my fans need me. This city traded for me. They believe in me. And once I get this ice off, I'm going straight to the rink, and then again tomorrow, and every day for the next ten years." He paused for effect. "Feels like a goal night."

The door slammed shut and Ryan returned to his chiseling. As much as the wind was howling, I could swear I heard him softly humming the Senators theme.

"You see?" said O'Brien. "It's the circle of life. You believe in us and we believe in you. Without that belief, the whole system falls apart, and then you're the Panthers." I shuddered again, involuntarily.

"Anyway," he continued, "I hope you figure it out. I'm outta here. I have to go yell at my agent for a while." He scratched his nose. "Oh, and one more thing - you've still got one spirit to go, and I gotta warn you, he's a bit of a downer. HAMR OUT!"

And with another flash of light, I was back on my futon again. I didn't know what to think now. Did it really matter if I stopped believing in the Senators? With so many other fans still out there? I did feel a little bad about letting Bobby Ryan down, though. On the other hand, I told myself that having blind faith in a team is just giving them an excuse to disappoint you every year, since they know you'll never leave. I was more confused than ever.

I looked up at the Spezza poster again. "What would you do?"

The Spezza poster fluttered and fell off the wall. "Drop pass, got it."

Just then there was a tremor, first a small one, and then a much larger one that knocked over my folding chair. Then the lights cut out. I staggered around in the dark for a candle. When I finally lit one, I found myself looking at a figure in a black robe, with no face to be seen.

I was terrified. "Are . . . are you the Ghost of Senators Future?"

The spirit gave no answer.

"Do you speak?" Again, no answer.

"Are you . . . are you the 2014 first-round pick we traded to Anaheim?"

The spirit nodded, and I screamed and passed out.

When I came to we were standing in a graveyard. A group of mourners was standing around a small tombstone. I recognized my brother, my sister, and my ex-wife, her arms around a man who looked a lot like Bobby Butler.

"Oh no," I said. "Tell me that's not my grave."

The spirit only pointed for me to go and look. As I approached, I heard them talking.

"I can't believe it," said my sister. "Even though he said he gave up on the Senators, all the life seemed to drain out of him after they became the Cower Play."

"I know," said my brother. "And I wish I'd been more specific when I ordered his tombstone. They asked me if there should be a picture engraved on it, and all I could think to say was that he was a hockey fan, but that he hated the Senators. And they took it from there, unfortunately."

I drew closer and nervously set my eyes upon the tombstone. It was mine, alright. CHET SELLERS, in big capital letters. And directly above my name, an engraved Toronto Maple Leafs logo.

"NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" I screamed, falling to my knees. I pounded the ground and wailed. "Why? WHY GOD, WHY?"

I grabbed at the hem of the spirit's robe. "Don't let this happen to me!" I screamed. "Don't let me die like this! I believe! I believe! I BELIEVE IN THE OTTAWA SENATORS!"

Suddenly I heard a pounding on the wall, and a voice. "SHADDAP ABOUT THE SENATORS!" It was the guy running the meth lab next door, and I was back in bed. I was back in bed! Had I ever left? Had it all been a dream?

It didn't matter - it was real enough to me, and I prayed it wasn't too late to turn things around. I rushed to the front door, tripping over the cinderblock, and then I threw the door open and ran out, naked, into the street. "I believe in the Senators!" I yelled over a chorus of car alarms. "I'm not going to let them leave!" Spying two women nearby, I ran over to them in a frenzy. "You there, ladies! Are the Senators still here? Have you ever heard of the Wisconsin Cower Play?"

"Whatever that is, it's extra," one of them said.

I laughed and clapped my hands. "So I've still got time! When's the next game?"

"Tomorrow," said the other. "Pittsburgh, dummy."

"Pittsburgh!" I started running down the middle of the street. "Pittsburgh! WE'RE GONNA WIN!"

And yet as I ran through the street, the ice and broken glass grinding my bare feet into burger, I knew it didn't matter if we won or not. I had already won - I still believed in the Ottawa Senators. And the best game they would ever play would always be the next one.

Enjoy your holidays, everybody!