when a captain walks away
Ottawa lost more than a great player when Daniel Alfredsson left—they lost the only player who mattered. It hurt. And it’ll hurt for a while.
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I sent my husband, Geoff, a text on the way to work on July 5: “I’m getting very anxious about the Alfie thing for some reason. I dreamed about it: He told us he was leaving and we all lined up, sobbing, to hug him. Then there was a tornado.” The dream unsettled me, but I was mostly laughing at my pre-emptively heartbroken subconscious. Everyone knew Daniel Alfredsson wasn’t going anywhere. He was a Senator for life—that was his story. That was Ottawa’s story.

Less than an hour later came reports that the longest-serving captain in the league, the walking embodiment of Senators history, was leaving the only NHL team he’d ever known and the city that didn’t know how to have a hockey team without him. At first, I dismissed it as another ridiculous rumour gaining traction in the Twitter echo chamber. But the reports piled up, and my denial started to sound desperate inside my head. Then it was brutally official: Daniel Alfredsson belonged to Detroit. Just like that, what made him special— and by extension, what made the Senators special—was gone.

When he was drafted 133rd overall in 1994, as a 22-year-old no one had ever heard of, the Senators were a small-market franchise in their second year of laughably terrible existence. Since then, the team and the player they named captain in 1999 have grown up together. Alfredsson’s hockey history and Ottawa’s are one and the same. Every Senators memory is an Alfie memory. But Alfredsson had come to mean more in Ottawa than all his contributions on the ice.

As the team declined following its 2007 Stanley Cup Final appearance, the clock ticking on the captain’s career got a little louder. It became obvious that the Sens wouldn’t be ready to get him within reach of hockey’s Holy Grail again before his joints or his will to sweat through a summer of pre-season training burned out. And that’s where the legend of Daniel Alfredsson was burnished to near-sainthood: He wouldn’t walk away.

In Ottawa, we don’t have a long and glorious history of Stanley Cup wins to point to and justify our love for our team. What we had was a humble, thoughtful, hard-working Swede whose loyalty ran so deep he would never leave us, even if it meant he’d never get another shot at the most beautiful trophy in sports. In a league where so few play their final game wearing the same sweater they slipped over their nervous rookie shoulders, we had this noble, 40-year-old anachronism to call our own. Ottawa never had to worry about losing our captain, because he was ours—he told us so, over and over, because we asked, over and over—and he wasn’t going anywhere. He was different. Now he’s not. Now, no matter what happens (one mistaken year in Detroit, followed by a return to Ottawa for one last season is a fantasy I haven’t been able to let go of yet), both his story and ours have changed forever.

It genuinely surprised me how much this hurt, and it took a while to realize what felt so unpleasantly familiar about it. There was the initial disbelief, the punch to the gut when reality settled in, the gnawing, hollow feeling that was somehow worse on the second day, the endless hours analyzing every aspect of the situation until it lost all sense. Then I placed it: This was a breakup.

I’m not angry with Alfredsson—I can’t be. In spite of how this ended, he gave the Ottawa fan base its heartbeat and years of joy, heroics and loyalty. How could we demand he stay with us and give up on the Cup dream he wants to chase before his time runs out? That’s not what you do to someone you love.

Just as in love, the price of admission in sports is pain—and not just for those who play. If you’re going to believe in heroes, if you’re going to ride the screaming, leaping, fist-pumping highs, if you’re going to name your dog or your kid after an athlete who makes you feel seven years old again in the best possible way, you’re signing an invisible contract acknowledging they might break your heart. You just have to hope that when you look at it all later, the price of the ticket was worth the ride.

Now that it’s done, on one side there’s the sadness that wouldn’t even let me look closely at the front page of the Ottawa Citizen the day after the announcement: that No. 11 sweater all by itself, alongside the banner headline “Hej då, Alfie” (“Goodbye, Alfie” in Swedish). But on the other side of the ledger it is still May 19, 2007, when Alfredsson slipped the puck past Ryan Miller in overtime to send the Sens to the Stanley Cup Final. It took three seconds for me to scream and jump and high-five my friends, and by the time I turned around, Elgin Street was jammed with thousands of red-clad, chanting, bouncing fans who seemed to have poured out of the brickwork. Without a doubt, it was worth it—but that’s also why it hurts so much right now. Daniel Alfredsson’s story was never supposed to end like this. He was supposed to always be here, always be ours. It’s who he was, and it’s who we were.

Take care of our captain, Detroit. It really doesn’t feel that way right now, but he will always belong to Ottawa.