The Senators are facing perhaps the biggest challenge they will face all season: How to move forward after the tragic death of Daron Richardson.
Only a week ago, the team was on a roll, having climbed out of the league basement after winning seven of their last nine games.
And then the unthinkable happened.
Hours after hearing of the suicide of assistant coach Luke Richardson's 14-year-old daughter, the teams initial reaction was to win one for her dad in an intense and perfectly played 2-0 win over the divisional rival Bruins last Saturday night.
The next two games however would see the Senators outscored 12-2, losing first to the Flyers in a 5-1 game and then to the Hurricanes on Wednesday in an empty 7-1 defeat that clearly demonstrated that the players hearts and minds were elsewhere.
And who can blame them?
Instead of heading straight to Raleigh after their game in Philadelphia, the Senators chose to fly back to Ottawa to support the Richardsons and attend the highly emotional memorial service held at Scotiabank Place that saw thousands of family, friends and fans attend. Catching a chartered flight that afternoon, the Senators landed in Raleigh just two hours before the game was to start.
"It's trying to support Luke and (wife) Stephanie and the family as much as we can and being able to be there," said captain Daniel Alfredsson, a long-time supporter of the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health. "We felt it's the right thing to do and something we wanted to do, obviously. We play hockey for a living. It's our job, but this is more important."
"It's very tough," coach Cory Clouston added. "Not much time goes by that it doesn't enter your mind. You can try and guard against that, but sometimes ... They're not robots. They care about Luke and his family."
Center Mike Fisher, a deeply religious man, confirms that the team has been deeply affected by the tragedy. "Guys are shaken up. There are guys with kids and it makes you think about how precious life is and your own situation or whatever you're going through doesn't seem so big anymore."
After their loss that evening to the Hurricanes, center Jason Spezza summed up the team's mental state: "We wanted to play really well due to the circumstances, but we didn't. It's a terrible end to a terrible day."
Where does the team go from here?
Can they find a way to pull together to deal with the grief and mourning?
Clouston briefly considered cancelling Thursday's practice in St. Louis to give the players a chance to grieve and regroup. But in the end he realized that it could take some time for feelings to fade and that perhaps being on the ice together would create a sense of normalcy that the team needed.
“We just have to move forward,” said Clouston. "Today we dealt with what we have today. Tomorrow, we’ll deal with what we have tomorrow."
After a long and difficult six days, the Senators now face the taunting task of getting their heads and hearts back on the game.
Spezza has no illusions that it will be easy: "As professional athletes, you try and separate yourself once you get into the game, but you learn that there's a lot more to life than just hockey."
“You just try to move on,” said Alfredsson. “It’s a process, but I’m sure it will stick with us for a long time, especially the guys with families. It will always be there."
Christopher Smith runs senspedia.com, an Ottawa Senators fan site.
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