Dion Phaneuf should have counted himself lucky Saturday night when he heard the expected jeers from Ottawa fans and repeated boos whenever the puck met his stick.
The Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, often taunted by Senators fans during visits to Scotiabank Place, got off lightly.
Ottawa fans are planning a harsher reception for Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke, who pays a visit Monday night for the first time since his skate blade cut Senators star defenceman Erik Karlsson’s left Achilles tendon during a Feb. 13 game in Pittsburgh.
Red Scarf Union, a Senators fan group determined to change the way fans support the team, is leading the charge. At least 60 of RSU’s membership, which numbers between 1,500 and 2,000, will gather at The Senate Sports Tavern and Eatery in the Byward Market in Ottawa at 4 p.m. to finalize plans for the Matt Cooke Hatefest.
"Absolutely, Cooke is our No. 1 public enemy. But don’t get us wrong. The Leafs, in our books, continue to suck, big-time," joked Denis-Paul Cloutier, a Day 1 RSU member from 2007 when the group called itself Real Sens Army.
"We’ve seen some nasty hits against our guys, but none have savagely attacked one of our most cherished players and lacerated his Achilles tendon."
After the pre-game party, Cloutier and RSU will shuttle to Scotiabank Place in nearby Kanata, where they will be seated in section 303. Prior to faceoff, they will unveil a 5½-foot by 3½-foot "Wanted" poster, designed by RSU member Michael Burns. At the top, the poster reads: "Wanted: For robbing Karlsson of his second Norris trophy." In the middle is a mug shot of Cooke above the words: "Matt ‘the dirtiest player in the NHL’ Cooke. Punishment by Kasassination."
"There will be quite a few of us carrying that [poster] around," said RSU member David Kerr, 24. "I’m also printing some in the 2½-foot range. We’ve been advocating for people to make their own signs but at the pre-game party there will be a station with Bristol board, stencils and markers to make your own sign.
"You can chant and everyone hears that, but if some of our signs can get caught on TV, then the message is clearly seen."
Signs, signs, everywhere a sign
The loyal RSU members will also deliver two other messages through signage, with one person responsible for holding a papered letter sized about one-and-a-half feet by one foot. The messages will read: "Mess with 65, mess with the Sens Army," and "Cooke, karma will get you. If not, we will."
Cloutier, 44, said RSU has another pre-game activity planned but didn’t offer details, saying the group is "still firming up some of our chants" and will be building on three other ideas over the weekend and perhaps until the pre-game party.
"This is stuff we want to do more regularly," Cloutier said, "bringing people together and starting to take control of our arena. Being louder, being prouder, not afraid of speaking our mind, not afraid of being seen."
On Dec. 2, 2010, RSU held the Dany Heatley Hatefest when the former Senators left-winger returned to Ottawa for the first time since being traded to San Jose 15 months earlier. An unhappy Heatley had requested the move, citing a diminished role with the team.
The Heatley Hatefest event included a dart game with his face as the target and a lemon toss in which participants threw lemons at a life-size Dany Heatley cut-out, with his missing front tooth serving as the target.
At the game, where Heatley was loudly booed, prompting chants of "Traitor, Traitor," RSU displayed multiple banners and 50 hand-held "Heatley Sucks" signs.
"The Cooke Hatefest will be a memorable one," said Cloutier, "although different from the Heatley Hatefest. Our members are pumped and itching to let Cooke know that we not only dislike him, we hate him!"
The NHL chose not to discipline Cooke for cutting Karlsson, who suffered a 70 per cent cut to his Achilles, but there’s a reason the Penguins agitator has been considered one of the most disliked players in recent years. Consider:
- His 17-game suspension in March 2011 for a hit to the head of New York Rangers defenceman Ryan McDonagh.
- A four-game suspension for driving Columbus defenceman Fedor Tyutin into the boards from behind.
- Cooke’s upending of Alex Ovechkin with a knee-on-knee hit in a Feb. 6, 2011 contest.
- And who could forget his blindside hit to Boston’s Marc Savard on March 7, 2010. Savard dealt with concussion symptoms and depression for some time and probably will never play another NHL game
"I think [Cooke skates] around recklessly and as a result that’s why [incidents like this] happen," Kerr said. "I don’t understand how this man is still in the NHL.
"I don’t think he went into [the corner] with the intent of ‘I’m going to stomp on [Karlsson’s] heel and try and slice his Achilles tendon.’ There’s no way. I think he just went in there recklessly, slammed his skate down and a little by accident it landed where it did."
Karlsson joined his teammates at practice Friday after skating on his own for about the past three weeks. The Senators haven’t ruled out a return to game action in the playoffs.
That would likely thrill team owner Eugene Melnyk, who recently told a Toronto sports radio station that he’s conducting a forensic study to prove that Cooke injured Karlsson on purpose.
"There was quite a bit of pride from within RSU when [Melnyk] said he was doing a forensic study," said Cloutier. "Maybe he won’t find anything and there’s nothing that he can conclude [from the incident]
but at least we have an owner who is quite proud of his team and willing to stand up for his team."
Maybe someone can direct Melnyk to section 303 on Monday night.