I'm writing this short post in response to an article by Sean McIndoe (a.k.a. Down Goes Brown), which offers an awesome overview of the Battle of Ontario. If you haven't already, I highly recommend that you give it a read regardless of which Ontario team you back. He also discusses the emerging Habs-Sens rivalry. (Check it out by clicking here.)
With Sens fans in celebratory mode right now, I thought I'd share my own take on the Battle of Ontario in hopes that some criticism mixed with praise for Ottawa's team will be received well after their undeniably hard-fought and well-deserved victory over Montreal.
When I moved to Ottawa with my partner years ago, we wanted to support the Sens while remaining Leafs fans. We figured that we could root for the Sens except when they played the Leafs (76 out of 82 games in the season ain't bad). Since the Leafs had been sucking for quite a while at this point with little reason to think they'd turn it around suddenly, there probably wasn't going to be another Leafs-Sens match-up in the playoffs while we were there.
Our plans to support the Sens, however, were spoiled by the Ottawa fanbase's general hatred of the Leafs. For example, we once saw the Sens play the Flyers in April. By this point we had become accustomed to hearing the "Leafs suck" chant in every game (even when the Leafs weren't playing) and seeing signs and jerseys (the old "losers since 67" ones) that mocked Toronto.
The thing that finally broke the back of our efforts to support both teams came when the crowd cheered on the scoreboard when it showed that another team in the Eastern Conference had just won a game (mind you, not against the Leafs who weren't playing on that night) that would mathematically eliminate the Leafs from the postseason. Furious cheers followed the screen shot as fans (without being reminded of the standings) knew what that game's outcome meant. So the fans had committed that game to memory just to celebrate the Leafs' playoff hopes being crushed.
Also, when fans noticed that we were distraught by their schadenfreude, they hurled popcorn and derogatory insults at us.
It's not that we started to hate the Sens from that point on, but we couldn't reconcile cheering for a team that took such joy in the Leafs' misery.
That said, I think I can understand where the franchise and its fans are coming from. As supporters of the second newest Canadian NHL franchise, Sens fans probably feel the need to differentiate themselves aggressively from other teams in order to assert the autonomy and distinct identity of theirs. In some ways it's probably necessary to take a hostile stance toward other fans in order to shore up and then expand the Senators' fanbase. Indeed, it’s politically astute as I’ll describe below in reference to Machiavelli.
Unlike the Jets, the Sens don't enjoy the geographical isolation that grants Canada's newest team a built-in fanbase. Winnipeg doesn't have any rival Canadian markets nearby whereas the Sens have the unenviable lot of being wedged between the Original Six's two greatest teams in terms of popularity and past success. (While the Leafs' 0 cups since 1967 is sad, let's not forget that the Habs' cup drought just hit the 20-year mark.)
In The Prince, Machiavelli wrote that a new ruler has to take an antagonistic position against its more powerful neighbours until he or she has consolidated power or else his or her territory will be subsumed into that greater state’s sphere of influence. Fighting a two-front war against larger and more profitable fanbases, it's understandable that Sens fans militantly defend and aggressively try to expand their fanbase by encouraging new residents of Ottawa to assimilate themselves into acolytes of the city’s athletes.
At some point, however, I think that the fans will see that no one seriously questions the viability or integrity of their team (if outsiders ever really did do so before). The Sens can then scale back hostilities with other teams with the knowledge that they’d like but they don't need to take in another team's fans in order to sustain their franchise. Sure, there will still be rivalries when teams meet, but Sens fans may see that they don't need to make hatred of another team central to their own identity.
Personally, I'm hoping that last night's series-clinching rout of the Habs in their own building offers Sens fans assurance that they are a team in their own right, and so they can tolerate other fans in living in Ottawa--while, of course, giving them some sporting jibes for their poor life choices.