Sunday, March 17, 2013

Alfredsson a Senator with Staying Power

By Larry Wigge

There's something percolating inside Daniel Alfredsson, you might not see with the naked eye.

Call it a mental toughness. Backbone. Grit. Heart. Moxie. An intestinal fortitude that is hard to describe. 

Take a look at the Gothenberg, Sweden, native, you might see a 41-year-old man, graying with age. The two-time 40-goal scorer can't possibly live up to this past exploits, which have included more than 400 goals and 600-plus assists and is the only Senators player to achieve 1,000 points. His best year's may bse behind him -- and while this may be his last season -- there's still something an old dog can teach the youngster of the Ottawa Senators. 

A glut of ill-fortunes struck the Senators early in this lockout-shortened schedule: First, when they lost No. 1 center Jason Spezza with a back injury on January 27 that required surgery, then Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson with a severed Achilles tendon on February 13 and further when standout goaltender Craig Anderson suffered a sprained ankle February 21. 

But somehow, Ottawa's fortunes stayed afloat. 

Do not look past Alfredsson, who is the longest serving captain in the NHL, with 2012-13 marking his 13th consecutive season as Ottawa’s captain, following his appointment to the role in October of 1999.

On the weekend of March 16-17, for instance, the Sens captain was front and center in helping Ottawa run its record to 15-8-6.

In the front game of the doubleheader, Ottawa's 4-3 overtime victory over Buffalo was punctuated when a power-play pass by Alfredsson wound up on the stick of Kyle Turris 3:54 in sudden death. In the second game, the Senators won a 4-1 verdict over the Winnipeg Jets. Alfredsson ignited the offense when he drove for the net in the first period and the puck went in off teammate Guillaume Latendresse and the captain added a third-period assist.

"I don't fear retirement at all," Alfredsson said prior to this season. "Talking to a lot of people, if you retire too early ... you look back and say, 'Maybe I should have played another year or two.' "

Maybe we can't expect every goal Daniel Alfredsson scores to be like the 1-on-3 virtuoso overtime winner he scored against the Buffalo Sabres to put the Ottawa Senators into the Stanley Cup finals in 2007.

Maybe we shouldn't have been surprised or outraged but just marveled at the skill it took for Daniel Alfredsson to get in position to score the momentum-turning goal in Game 3's 5-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks, because Alfie is that good ... with foot or stick. 

And maybe, in retrospect, then-Senators GM John Muckler wasn't daft when he said before the Cup finals that he thought Daniel Alfredsson's leadership was the equal of Mark Messier, who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and a sixth with the New York Rangers. 

"I've coached some good leaders in the NHL," Muckler said. "We all know what a great leader Mark Messier was. And Daniel Alfredsson is leading this hockey club on a par with Mark." 

Alfredsson had been at the heart of criticism for every disappointing early playoff exit for the star-crossed Ottawa franchise. He was on the verge of poetic justice, when he was vying to become the first European captain to win the Stanley Cup (before Detroit's Nicklas Listrom accomplished the feat one year later). 

But then, Alfredsson has beaten the odds before. 

As a youngster, his skating wasn't the prettiest. In fact, Hasse, his dad and coach, thought soccer was Daniel's best sport. But the kid wanted to play hockey and worked and worked at his skating until ...  

"I got my big break when I was 17 and I went to try out to play in the Swedish Elite League with Frolunda," he said, recalling how he once was a plodding defenseman in Gothenburg, his hometown. "One of their best forwards disliked flying, so they invited me to travel with the team. That was my chance ... and I scored two goals." 

Ironically, that change of position also brought out the best of Alfredsson’s passion and grit for the game.

"I’ll never forget Mark Messier elbowing him in a game during the lockout in 1994," Muckler said. "And Alfie went right back at Mark, throwing an elbow of his own at Mess." 

It was only because of a hunch by John Ferguson, then-Senators director of player personnel, that the team used a fourth-round pick, 133rd overall, in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. The team raved about the selection of Radek Bonk with the third pick overall and others in that draft class, but Alfredsson has far outplayed them through the 17 seasons that have past since that day. 

"He's always competitive," said former Senators defenseman Wade Redden. "In golf, cards, whatever. He plays everything hard and straight. In cribbage he counts every point." 

When the veteran winger hears teammates talk about his competitive nature, he just laughs and say it's all because his dad wouldn't let him win when they played cards.   

"It teed me off that I couldn't beat him," said Alfredsson, laughing. "I could never get over how frustrated I was at losing every single time. I still don't like losing ... at anything."

Hard work. Drive. Passion. The will to win. That's what you see every night now with Daniel Alfredsson.

"He deserves every little bit of praise he's getting now," said center Jason Spezza. "He's our leader, he's been phenomenal. When he was criticized in the past, it upset us all." 

"He’s got a great personality," Muckler said. "He handles crisis on an even keel -- never gets too high, never gets too low. He's demanding of his teammates as well as he's demanding of himself. He sticks up for his teammates. That's everything you want in a leader."

And those around him say he’s playing with more of an edge than ever, that when he gets pushed he pushes back.

"I think that's what's made out whole team push back," Muckler said of the 5-11, 208-pound winger. "One of the things that was lacking in past years, was team toughness. Now we have that. We're still not an overly big team, but we're willing to compete ... and I credit a lot of that to Alfie."  

When Daniel Alfredsson was a kid who just turned in his soccer jersey, he also changed his fallback profession of wanting to be a carpenter because he couldn't work it into his schedule around hockey. He switched his schoolwork favorite to economics. And there was no hockey at the Alfredsson household until his homework was done. 

That was the rule set forth by Hasse and Margareta Alfredsson. Even for the oldest of the Alfredsson’s four boys.

There were never many frills for the Alfredsson boys, but they always had what they needed if they wanted to play hockey. Hasse was a hard-working head of the household. Everyone looked at life with compassion in his eyes, watching Margareta wage a daily battle with multiple sclerosis.

"We had our friends like any other kids growing up," Daniel recalled fondly. "We'd swim, play handball and hockey and soccer and ride our bikes just like the rest of the kids. 

"It was never my dream to play in the NHL. All the focus I had on hockey back then was on the Swedish league, the national team, the world championship. I mean, I was drafted so low it wasn't like Ottawa was calling me every day or week or month to come over here."

He was drafted at 18, but didn’t even consider the NHL until he was 21 -- and even then he came to North America thinking his visit would be brief. 

"Even if I made the team, I figured three or four years and I'll be done and go back to Sweden," Alfredsson laughed. "Funny how things work out, eh?" 

Lo and behold, Alfredsson had an assist in his first NHL game and netted his first goal a couple of games later. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1995-96, leading the Senators in goals (26), assists (35) and points (61) -- the only rookie to lead his team in scoring that season. 

A quiet guy, Daniel never takes anything on the ice for granted. And that's what makes him such a popular captain. He leads by example, something he credits his dad and mom with.

"My dad always had a great work ethic whatever he did," Alfredsson said proudly. "And my stubbornness and willpower definitely comes from what my mom has gone through." 

Upon further review, the Senators couldn't be in better hands than having the ultra-competitive Daniel Alfredsson as their captain.  

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