Former Senators leave bitterness in the past

All three of them left Ottawa under circumstances that either saddened, surprised or stunned them, and the memories of their partings stir deep feelings, even to this day.

But for one-time Ottawa Senators Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, and Brian Elliott, this homecoming for the NHL’s annual All-Star Game is not a time to pick at scabs, or even play a game of “What if?” or “I told you so.”

It’s a time to celebrate the place where their hockey careers, in the case of Hossa and Elliott, began, and, in the case of Chara, blossomed.

As much as they are honoured to be playing in the All-Star Game, the three former Senators are also excited and delighted to be back in Ottawa.

And, for a change, not as opponents of the Senators.

“I had five really great years here,” said Boston captain Zdeno Chara, who was a Senator from 2000-01 until 2005-06.

“We had really good teams. We just couldn’t get over the hump, but this city, this team, really helped develop me as a player and it’s nice to be back. I spent some great time here.”

Chara arrived in what might have been the most stunning trade of the decade and forever secured Mike Milbury’s nickname as Mad Mike.

Somehow, then-Ottawa general manager Marshall Johnston convinced Milbury, then the New York Islanders general manager, to trade him Chara, Bill Muckalt, and the second pick in 2001, which turned out to be Jason Spezza, for Alexei Yashin.

It should have been the trade to give Ottawa two cornerstones for the next decade: Chara and Spezza.

But five years later, it came undone when the Senators, with not enough money for both defencemen, cast their lot with Wade Redden. Chara felt unloved, but not for long. The Bruins quickly signed him to a five-year, $37.5-million contract.

Since then, it has been blue skies for Chara, who signed a seven-year extension at the beginning of the 2010-11 season and then led the Bruins to the Stanley Cup.

But even today, Chara, now 34, says he would have rather stayed here, even if he is often greeted with boos on his return visits with the Bruins.

“It was very sad,” he said. “I really wanted to stay. I wanted to play with Ottawa.

“It was just very unfortunate. Things like that do happen in sport and you can’t really blame anybody.

“At that time, it was a choice between myself and Wade. I’m not saying they made the wrong decision. Wade’s a great player and and he was very effective for the team.

“There just wasn’t room for me and I had to find a new job.

“It was kind of sad how it was (portrayed) later when I left. But I found my new team and new home and that’s just the way it is.

“But I’ll never forget the chance I got in Ottawa and the way the fans were really supportive.”

Now 33, Hossa is on his fifth NHL team, which makes it a little difficult to remember the skinny 18-year-old kid who was taken 12th overall in 1997.

After another year with the Portland Winter Hawks, where he won the Memorial Cup, he would become a cornerstone on those very-good-but-not-quite-good enough Ottawa teams in the early 2000’s.

There was no reason to think he wouldn’t play his entire career in Ottawa – until he signed a three-year, $18-million deal at the start of the 2005-06 season and was traded that afternoon to the Atlanta Thrashers for Dany Heatley.

Hossa felt betrayed by then general manager John Muckler. He thought the deal meant his future in Ottawa was secure. Instead, it merely hardened his view of hockey as simply a business.

“I was shocked,” he said.

“I didn’t want to leave, but it happened so quick and back then I didn’t have a choice.

“But it’s behind me. It basically made me stronger.

“I didn’t like how the deal was handled, but it’s a few years after that and I’m happy where I am.”

Over the last few days here, Hossa has sat with Chara and Rob Zamuner, who now works for the NHLPA, and talked about the teams they had in there days here.

“We had such great teams then and we could have won it with a bit of luck,” said Hossa.

“But just coming back brings great memories.

“It means more to me than other places I’ve been to, because this is where it started for me. “There are still lots of people I know, so it’s always nice to come back.”

But while Hossa and Chara have been perennial all-stars since their days with the Senators, and it’s not surprising they’re here, Elliott is a surprise – perhaps as big a surprise this season as his former team.

Drafted in the ninth round (291st overall) in 2003, he had some very good moments with the Senators, such as the 15-game winning streak he had in 2009-10. That was the winning streak that pushed them into the playoffs.

But as the team sunk deeper and deeper last season, Elliott became the whipping boy until he was traded to Colorado, where he played just as poorly and wasn’t offered a contract when the season ended.

He looked like he was going to have a tough time finding a job until the Blues finally offered him a two-way contract.

With a better team in front of him, Elliott is now 15-5-2 with a .938 save percentage, a 1.69 goals-against average, and five shutouts.

There were moments of doubt after last season, he said. But he just had to get back to reminding himself of what he had done to make it to the NHL in the first place.

He wasn’t sure how he’d be greeted in Ottawa, but when he heard his name applauded at Thursday’s all-star draft, he smiled, even if he was a “little” surprised.

“It’s a great hockey city and they appreciate everyone,” he said

“I was happy to get a new opportunity in Colorado. Obviously they were on a slide, as well.

“But I don’t think I was treated unfairly or anything. (General manager) Bryan Murray and the organization, they were great. I didn’t have any problems with them.

“It’s always hard to leave an organization when you get drafted by them, and it comes to an end all in one day.

“But not many guys play their whole career on one team.”

On Friday, with so many microphones and cameras in his face, Elliott was tempted to pinch himself, to see if he was indeed here at the all-star game. That’s when he realized he better start enjoying it, before it faded.

“Right now, I didn’t realize it before, but it’s starting to sink in that this is really special,” he said.

“Not many guys get to do this, especially in my situation. So I just have to kind of soak it in right now, and when the game and the skills competition come, just try to soak that in as much as I can.

“Then after that it’s time to go back to work and keep proving yourself, because that’s what you have to do everyday.”

2 Responses to “Former Senators leave bitterness in the past”

  1. Dave C
    January 28, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    I’m always saddened when I hear the boo birds razz some of our ex players.
    Well, maybe guys like Yashin, or Heatley deserve it.
    I hated to lose Chara and Hossa. I’m happy for Brian Elliots success in St Louis.
    So many other ex Sens around the league I still like to see them succeed in their careers.
    These guys did their best for the team while they were here. Why not welcome them back? I think most folks do.

  2. RecalSentrant
    January 28, 2012 at 4:17 pm #

    Why would they be sad? They discovered, like so many fomer Senators, that you have a better chance winning the Stanley Cup outside this city than inside.

    Message needs to be sent to all our guys;
    “You’re not going to win here under Bryan Murray, but if you like a nice, no-pressure lifestyle where the media will coddle you, settle in and enjoy.”

    Don’t hold anything against Heatley either, he was in that crappy locker room where Emery was getting into fights, gongshow of coach changes and so on…I don’t blame him for skipping town!

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