OTTAWA — Politics, like hockey, has its unwritten rules — and on Friday, Justin Trudeau broke one of them, daring to suggest the country should jump on the bandwagon of the only Canadian team left in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Ottawa Senators, who will face the Pittsburgh Penguins beginning Saturday to decide the top team in the Eastern Conference, were left standing alone after the Edmonton Oilers suffered a narrow Game 7 loss earlier this week to the Anaheim Ducks.
The prime minister has temporarily set aside his allegiance to his beloved Montreal Canadiens to back the Senators, and is urging fellow hockey fans to join him.
“I think all Canadians will be rooting for the final Canadian team in the Stanley Cup playoffs,” Trudeau said during a news conference in Brampton, Ont.
“We’re all happy to support Ottawa right now,” Trudeau said. ”Even Torontonians and Montrealers can agree on this particular one.”
Or not, if the reaction on social media is any indication.
“This should be grounds to trigger an election,” one tweeted. Another wrote: “I’ll cheer when the Senators start golfing.”
Added a third: “U.S.: Our leader says something bonkers every day. Trudeau: Hold my hair gel.”
Muted enthusiasm for the Senators is fitting, perhaps, considering Ottawa’s reputation as a place long jokingly derided by detractors as “the city that fun forgot.”
At first glance, the city itself seems underwhelmed by the strongest Senators playoff run in a decade — at least compared to the rabid enthusiasm that tends to accompany hockey success in Canada’s better-known markets.
Turnout at John Couse’s pub — the Lieutenant’s Pump, on a strip the city has dubbed “Sens Mile” — was smaller than expected for the first three playoff games. And the team’s first-round series against the Boston Bruins was marked by empty seats at home, prompting questions about the city’s relationship with its hockey team.
That, said Couse, is all about to change.
“It really didn’t feel like we normally do for playoff hockey,” he said of the early games. “Now that we’re in the thick of it and the Sens have proven that they are a legitimate playoff team, I think everyone is paying attention.”
Few in this city expect to see a multitude of fans getting rowdy or sporting face paint like Oakland Raiders fans.
It’s just not the mentality of the capital, said Eric MacIntosh, an associate professor in the school of human kinetics at the University of Ottawa, whose research includes fan behaviour.
It’s simply that fans here are more subdued, and excitement for the team has been slow to build, he suggested.
“The appetite for hockey is considerable amongst the avid fan base,” MacIntosh said.
“I would put Ottawa’s fan base up against any one of those cities (Toronto and Montreal), any day of the week in terms of knowledge of the game and interest in the game. It’s just that I think some cities have more of those (avid) fans than Ottawa.”
After the Senators ousted the New York Rangers, some of those fans danced in the streets along Sens Mile; others gathered at the airport in the middle of the night to welcome the team home.
“You see the clip of the fans dancing in the street when the light is green. In Ottawa, we’re so nice when the light gets red, we (usually) get out of the way,” Senators general manager Pierre Dorion said during the team’s off-day on Thursday.
The Senators have been a part of the city since 1992, inserting themselves into a region previously divided primarily between Toronto and Montreal fans. The Senators have neither the history that the Maple Leafs have with the city of Toronto, nor cultural connections like the Canadiens, who are woven into the fabric of French Canadian society.
The transient nature of Ottawa’s population — which includes civil servants, political staffers and students — further complicates the team’s local reach, since those who come from away bring their own allegiances that don’t suddenly change to Senators red, despite Trudeau’s light-hearted suggestion.
It’s a similar situation in Washington, D.C., where the city is defined by being the capital and not by the Capitals themselves.
“Regions where the identity of the team is very closely tied to the identity of the region are more likely to have ostentatious displays of team support,” says Eric Simons, author of “The Secret Lives of Sports Fans.”
“If you asked someone to name a thing about Cleveland, the teams are among the first few things to come up, versus a place like San Francisco or New York where the sports teams are an important — but nonetheless fractional — part of city life.”
There are myriad other issues that are cited for why the Sens don’t seem to be top of mind in the city, including their suburban arena, the price of tickets, repeated playoff efforts that fizzled — even the Phoenix pay system fiasco, which left some federal civil servants underpaid or not paid at all and unable to pay for a game.
There is also what TSN Radio Ottawa host Ian Mendes calls a mix of apathy and anger simmering under the surface. It’s hard to explain, he says, but it ties into the complexities of the local market.
“It’s something really hard to put your finger on because if there was one clear answer or smoking-gun reason for the attendance issues this season, I believe the hockey club would have addressed it.”
Ross Arnold, 26, found that he became more public in his allegiance to the Senators after he left Ottawa. He says he started following Senators’ blogs once surrounded by Leafs fans when he went to the University of Waterloo as a way to tap into the social connections that drive many people to support a specific team.
“The Sens fans outside of Ottawa have to be more vocal about it,” said Arnold, managing editor of the sports site SilverSevenSens.com.
“You need other people to share with. In Ottawa, if you assume that most people are at least casually interested in the Sens or at least would rather have the Sens win than have them lose, it’s not as important.”
Dedicated fans see that changing. Dorion tipped his cap to the team’s avid fans this week, adding that anyone who wants to jump on the bandwagon is more than welcome.
— With files from Lisa Wallace in Ottawa and Colin Perkel in Brampton, Ont.