Ottawa pluses as easy to count as 1-2-3-4

Phil Jackman

January 25, 1993|By Phil Jackman

All things considered, it's generally a formidable task to work up any compassion for professional athletes what with their often abhorrent behavior and attitude in the face of fantasy lifestyles.

Pity comes easy, though, when the subject is the Ottawa hockey team, aptly named the Senators. Apt because of the link with their late, lamented baseball namesakes, who used to hang out in Washington, religiously living up to the motto, "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League."

The Sen-Sens were in town to play the Washington Capitals Saturday night and, although beaten, they gave a grand account of themselves before succumbing, 6-4. But, seemingly, this is a group of men that is literally not allowed to think positive about themselves. Ever.

It starts when the team arrives in town. No sooner did the Ottawans step off their bus at the hotel and move to the newsstand in the lobby Friday when they were greeted with a battery of stories detailing their faults, weaknesses, ineptitudes and transgressions.

Bad enough they were about to absorb their 24th straight setback on the road. In the past several cities the team has visited, Minneapolis, Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, name 'em, they have been the object and subject of strikingly similar prose.

Hey, gang, the circus is in town, let's go watch the parade and laugh at the clowns.

OK, so if you're a player, you avoid the newspaper, unless you're interested in whom President Clinton is going to nominate for Attorney General next, the funnies, the crossword puzzle, your horoscope or the weather in the next city on the trip.

But it's the same thing on radio and television. "Ottawa," gasped one sportscaster, "is a team that has won just four of 50 games. That's four. FOUR." That's for you folks who can't read the standings.

To a man, the Senators knew this maiden voyage wasn't going to be a cruise on the good ship Lollipop. All they had to do is look around at some of the names atop the lockers of teammates during training camp: Boschman, Rumble, Osiecki, Smail . . . hmmm, not a Lemieux or a Gretzky in the lot.

Chances are each of the men had been on at least one team that couldn't win for losing, perhaps in high school, college, the juniors or the minor leagues. So now they're learning the advantages of a collective experience, right?

It's when the guys arrive at the arena that one final attempt is made to strip away any remaining vestige of pride the team may be harboring. See, players in all sports, glory in reading the game notes and statistics because, no matter how sorry the situation, a good stat man can always find a positive and run with it.

For example, several years ago, the Orioles were in the midst of a particularly trying season and much the worst for it was center fielder Paul Blair, whose batting average approximated his weight (170).

Strapped for a positive to report, the message board at Memorial Stadium proudly heralded, "Paul Blair led the Orioles basketball team in scoring last winter."

But, remember, game notes on the road are pumped out by the opposing team and, usually, they just stick with the facts. Like "Ottawa is coming off its sixth consecutive loss, has lost all 23 road games this season and is 1-9-0 in its past 10 games."

As might be expected for a team that has a 4-44-3 record, negatives abound. And waiting at every turn, breathlessly, is a media ready to scrutinize and expose every embarrassing tidbit, no matter how inconsequential.

Yes, the Senators are last among 24 NHL teams in power-play effectiveness and, yes, they're 24th when it comes to stopping the enemy from capitalizing on the man-advantage situation, too.

While surrendering 245 goals, a yield of nearly five goals per game, the Sens have scored 112, just more than two a game. While being outscored on the power play, 71-33, the Senators are behind on short-handed goals, 9-2, and, so far at least, their chances of winning if trailing after two periods is one in 40.

It's all the poor player can do to give cursory glance to such numbers before heading out to the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune of being selected by an expansion team.

Afterward, they come in with the stat sheet for the game and that can provide some support and positive reinforcement if read correctly.

While it's true there have been only four victories, Ottawa has been in 10 one-goal contests, and it has played six overtime games, losing three and tying the others. In their past three games against Washington, the Senators have lost, 6-5, 4-3, and 6-4, and the Caps are an upper-echelon NHL team.

These little sprigs of hope and ability combined with the fact no one has yet accused the Sens of not giving their all every night perhaps bodes well for the future. Although the players aren't apt to be reading that very often, particularly in the out-of-town papers.

Meanwhile, there is a sentence in the notes before every game, home and away, that no doubt lightens the hearts and recalls fond memories for the masses: "Ottawa has defeated Montreal (opening night), Philadelphia, New Jersey and San Jose."

As the song goes, " . . . they can't take that away from me [us]."

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