OTTAWA — As the NHL's Eastern Conference final shifts to Canada's capital city on Wednesday night, hockey fans in Ottawa are preparing to welcome home the Senators after they split the first two games on the road against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
And while the hockey spotlight is now on Ottawa, that's not usually the case. In fact, many loyal fans who are now basking in their team's playoff success say it's not always easy being a Sens supporter.
"We're a city that's often overlooked and underestimated," says Derek Nighbor, one of those longtime fans.
"Our team is the same way. And we're OK with that."
Nighbor was 17 years old when the modern Senators franchise joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1992. He had been a fan of the Washington Capitals growing up, but immediately dropped them for his hometown's new team. It's a familiar story for many, he says.
"I think there are people like me who just dumped their team and got behind the Sens. But I have a lot of friends who still cheer for the Leafs and Habs."
And that's just it. Ottawa is squeezed between the hockey hotbeds of Toronto and Montreal. Fans of those iconic, Original Six teams can be found in all parts of Canada, and they make their presence known.
But unless they have a direct connection to Ottawa, you won't see many new Sens fans popping up across the country.
"I don't think we're a fan base that's insecure or anything. I do think we're a fan base that's cautiously optimistic and I think there's a natural hesitation to get too excited about the team because we've been disappointed before," Nighbor says.
Four playoff losses to the Leafs between 2000 and 2004 made for a very disappointing time in the team's history, he says.
The Senators have come a long way since their inaugural season, though. They finished that 1992-93 campaign with a 10-70-4 record — one of the worst in the history of the NHL.
Fast-forward a quarter century, and an argument could be made that Ottawa is on the best current run of any Canadian franchise. The Senators have made the playoffs in 16 of the last 20 seasons, including three conference final appearances and a Stanley Cup final loss to Anaheim in 2007.
But for as much success as the team has had, it's still searching for a strong identity in its own community and across Canada.
"I think it takes a generation to build that die-hard fan base," Nighbor says. "I think a generation from now it'll be very different."
Taking it to the streets, Ottawa style
On the Red Mile on 17th Avenue in Calgary, they shut down the streets during the Flames' 2004 Stanley Cup run.
In Vancouver, they rioted after a Game 7 Stanley Cup final loss in 2011.
In Ottawa, they celebrated the Senators' second-round victory over the New York Rangers in the most polite way possible: fans ran out into the middle of downtown Elgin Street, dubbed the Sens Mile, to whoop it up during a red light… and then raced back to the sidewalk when the light turned green so as not to hold up traffic.
"Not sure that would happen in every Canadian or U.S. city, but in Ottawa we're nice people," says Pierre Dorion, the general manger of the Senators.
It's taken fans a few playoffs games to get into fine form in Ottawa — a wait-and-see approach. Outsiders questioned Senators fans' loyalty when the team didn't sell out all of its home games in the first round versus Boston.
But that's all changed now, including the team getting a hero's welcome at the airport in the middle of the night when they returned home from defeating the Rangers.
Sens Mile abuzz with playoff excitement
The main section of Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa, between Gladstone and Laurier, makes up the Sens Mile. Signs line all nine intersections along the way to let people know they're in the fan zone.
Bars and pubs display Senators signs and flags, and are jammed to capacity on game nights with jersey-wearing, beer-drinking hockey fans.
"This is a great vibe. It brings everyone together," says Peter Abraham, owner of the Sir John A pub and a loyal Senators fan since day one.
"I'm an Ottawa boy. And I remember when we didn't have the Sens," Abraham says. "We take the losses hard. When we win we're excited. There are nights my wife says, 'Geez, Peter, it's only a game.'"
Abraham says business has been better than ever, with crowds jamming the place on game nights. He wears an Erik Karlsson jersey as he clears dishes from tables, keeping one eye on the screen while the game is on.
And the longer this improbable playoff run goes, Abraham says, the more new Sens fans are created.
Abraham, Nighbor, and many other longtime Sens fans don't care if the rest of Canada is with them or not. Ottawa is one of only four teams left in the hunt for the Stanley Cup — and the only one based in Canada — and there's a sense of quiet confidence in this fan base.
"We're taking teams by surprise and they're not giving us enough credit. That's OK, though — we can play the underdog," Abraham says.
"This was totally unexpected. We were mediocre at best. This has been a really pleasant surprise," Nighbor adds.
"We got a shot."