We'd seen the Senators play on the road plenty, but we'd never actually been to Ottawa until last weekend's draft. We had only heard stories of what a hockey crazy town it is, lots and lots of stories. It started to seem like the Land of Make Believe (turns out, that's in Jersey). Even though the other nation's capital has its quirks, we were shocked to find that the streets weren't paved with yellow bricks and populated by people skating around in igloos, and that it actually exists somewhere other than our collective imagination. But the fact that Ottawa is a real, tangible place only makes what we've learned there that much more incredible. In fact, Ottawa isn't so unlike the NHL itself: totally accessible, slightly underrated and dependent on the U.S. for survival! In exchange for a few (rapidly devaluing) U.S. Dollars, here's what we learned during our weekend not so far abroad.
1. They don't write in English. Yes, street signs have French labels on them too, but Canadian (or should we say Canadien) English ain't like ours. Everything is spelled out in a literal rendering of the way the word is actually pronounced. Oh, and in shorthand, America is collectively known as The States, i.e., we overheard one mom tell her son "those are the girls from a magazine in THE STATES." Only she said "The States" in an oddly hushed tone, like she was telling him one of us had a "social disease". We'd explain it better but we'd rather have the jewellery king of Ottawa, Jason Spezza, come to his language's defence. In his honour, the rest of this column will be written in Canadien.
2. The Southeast Division is going to take over hockey. Ok, maybe not entirely, but they get two top prospects with killer personality. The main photo of this post is No. 1 pick Steven Stamkos celebrating with Elena several hours after being drafted. Yes, he is still in his jersey. Yes, that is awesome. (BTW, is there anything on Earth less likely than David Stern allowing this to happen after the NBA Draft? If Derrick Rose partied wearing his actual Chicago Bulls jersey the night of, we're pretty sure Stern would try to have his citizenship revoked and ship him to Euroleague.) And defenceman Zach Bogosian (No. 3) will hotdog it in Atlanta under new head coach John Anderson. Anderson and (Tampa Bay's new skipper) Barry Melrose just so happen to be best friends with Washington coach and Jack Adams Award winner Bruce Boudreau, who coaches that Ovechkin kid. Seriously, that division is going to be fun. We're super jealous of our Atlanta-based espn.com colleague, Scott Burnside (who went to university in Ottawa).
3. The Southeast Division will never take over hockey. In fact, "The States" don't have a chance of ever appreciating or caring about any sport in the way Canadiens, especially Ottawans, care about hockey. We have the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, MLB, college football, college hoops and a million other niche sports to support. Canadiens put hockey players on the money. Seriously. Can you imagine if our $5 had Brett Favre on it? Or the $10 had Yogi Berra? (Wait, that's kind of a great idea.) You can start to grasp the hockey's enormity by seeing a game in Montreal, Calgary or Ottawa, for sure—that half-french, half-bizarro english "O Canada" is a helluva way to start a game—but experiencing the excitement around the draft was something different.
4. Canadiens are obsessed with food from the states. We ate at places like Montana Grill, Boston Pizza (huh?) and Baton Rouge, where you can find menu items such as a chicken sandwich served with "blackened" mayonnaise or any number of "cajun" pastas. It's like they actually don't fully regret the Great Expulsion, as long as some good dishes came out of it. We were also in town for a big barbecue festival where places from Memphis and North Carolina were competing. After a couple days, we were desperate for something authentic. Luckily, we found poutine. And we ate a lot of it.
5. Chris Phillips is Mother Theresa. Or he's in an abusive relationship with the Sens PR department. Jury's still out. In any event, the Sens' top pick in the 1996 draft and one of their current assistant captains was everywhere from prospects camp to dinners out on the town with his Ottawa-born wife to even filling in for a teammate as honorary chair of the Ottawa Dragon Boat Race Festival (the largest such race in North America). He's a heck of a guy.
6. Tyler Myers was this draft's Brady Quinn. He was ranked No. 4 and slipped all the way to No. 12 and the Buffalo Sabres. This is an obvious case of discrimination—Myers is 6'7" and from Texas. If he makes the jump to the NHL right away, he'll be the second-tallest guy in the league. Can you pick him out?
7. Hockey players are boring dressers. Everything fits correctly! Who's idea was that? NHL players opt for Hugo Boss—which on a normal day is a very good thing—while MLBers hit Men's Warehouse, and NBA and NFL guys get those 12-button gems custom made. That 6'7" Myers fella bought his draft day suit off-the-rack. So forget the "Sean Avery Rule". What the league really needs is a healthy dose of Gloria James. Yup, LeBron's mom (who matched her suit to LeBron's all-white number on draft night). Come on, kids, it's the biggest day of your lives.
8. Each pick in the draft should be made by someone famous. Yes, scouting departments work all year long for this day. And yes, scouting is often a thankless job. However, the NHL is a league in need of growth, and star power goes a long way. The highlights of the draft were when Phoenix coach (and, you know, Great One) Wayne Gretzky and Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson (Lennon to Fisher's McCartney) went on stage to make their teams' first selections. Gretzky's standing ovation lasted longer than Gary Bettman's razzing—which, if you follow hockey you know, lasts forever. In 2007 Ovechkin announced Nicklas Backstrom as the Caps' first pick and now they're linemates. That's cool, eh? Vincent Lecavalier should have been on hand to greet Stamkos. Let's make this a requirement.
9. If it weren't for silly trades, the draft would last 10 minutes. The first round took 90 million hours, because GMs insisted on brushing by tables like a chesty cocktail waitress. The Islanders traded down twice before actually ponying up for Josh Bailey (No. 9) at the podium. At one point Buffalo and Anaheim swapped the 12th and 13th picks, which stalled things for 15 minutes. Here's a thought. You're all sitting next to each other. Can't you just lean your chair back and agree not to take the other team's guy? In theory, the conversation should've gone like this: "Hey, you're not taking Myers, right?" "Not if you've got five of my Molsons later." "Done." How has Gary Bettman not hired us yet?
10. We need to start calling ourselves The Worldwide Leader, Except in Canada. No one knows what ESPN is in Ottawa. We had to tell people we were "the TSN of America." They probably thought we were making it up to meet Mike Fisher.
11. Canadiens are nice to everyone—except Ray Emery. The Sens' decision to place Ray Emery on waivers during the draft kind of soured things for us. It's no secret he's not the best teammate or driver, and that his anger management was becoming a big problem. But we see problematic athletes all the time here, and they're given innumerable chances to bounce back. The Sens, and the rest of the hockey world, were just fine with Emery's antics when he was playing well. He even suggested that he got into more trouble during the Sens' Finals run than he did this year. But the only non-draft coverage in Canada focused on how desperate the Sens were to get rid of Emery, who became the poster child for their embarrassing slide. At least Emery wasn't afraid to shake things up with his suits.
12. A good mullet will always have a place in hockey. Welcome back, Barry! And now Allow us to introduce you to the wonder that is Phoenix's top pick, Mikkel Boedker.
13. Canadiens are much more fit than we are. All that hockey and shoveling snow does a body good.
14. ByWard Market is a lot of fun. We're not ready to anoint Ottawa the nightlife capital of anywhere, but there are a lot of good spots to check out in The Market. We'll go back. Well, at least Sarah will. Elena would rather go hear some hip-hop in Montreal. Has anyone ever uttered that line? Well, it's true.
15. Canadiens are much better at pronouncing our last names. Outside of our hometowns (New Orleans and St. Louis), there aren't too many francophiles taking dinner reservations here in The States which results in a lot of "Burgerman, for 2" comments. But in Canada, hostesses, receptionists, desk clerks, etc. always pronounce it perfectly. And in some cases, better than we do.