On Being a Fan of a Bad Team: Hope, Anger, and Apathy

As sports fans, the only thing we’re buying is hope. The Ottawa Senators sold a whole lot of hope at the start of the season. And keep that word “hope” in mind as you read this. As I type this, I’m getting settled in to watch the Sens vs. Ducks at the bizarre start time of 4 PM on a Friday. This is my first article for Sens Nation this season, and I’ve been struggling to come up with anything of substance to write about this team that’s so far embarking on yet another year packed with moral victories but actual losses in the standings. I still don’t know what to offer you all except my scattered thoughts on being a die hard fan of a bad team for the last half decade.


This was supposed to be a giant step forward, the first year of an era of “unparalleled success” as we were famously told. The worst was over, and let’s enjoy this upward trajectory. This year was supposed to be different, and I was buying in, literally and figuratively.


When I mean literally buying in, I mean literally. Both in terms of my money and time. I’m currently wearing a brand new Sens jersey, custom stitched with Drake Batherson’s name and number 19 on the back, which was not cheap. That’s not the only merch I bought this year either. Despite living in Mississauga, I’ve been to three Sens games this year, and shouldered all the associated costs in terms of gas and time to make the 450 km journey to the CTC. I’ve bought a half dozen of those $12 beers at the games (and missed an entire period in the home opener getting one, sigh). All in all, I’ve spent around $1000 on this team between tickets, merch, concessions, gas and parking. I’ve sat down to watch nearly every loss this season, but managed to miss nearly every win.


Why?


Well, I bought in; and I now feel like a sucker for it. “The rebuild is over,'' we were told. The kids are going to take the next step, we were told. The era of letting our stars go was over now that Brady Tkachuk has joined the likes of Drake Batherson, Thomas Chabot, and other pillars, locked in to team friendly contracts with term. We’ve named a worthy captain and team camaraderie and chemistry is the best it's been in a decade. Those new 2D jerseys look incredible. They play an uptempo and exciting style. These guys are playing hard and are a heck of a team in terms of sticking up for each other. There was the obvious excitement of getting back to crowds and live hockey after so much time away. They were going to challenge for a playoff spot or at least make a big step forward.


Woof.


Playoffs? You’re going to talk to me about playoffs?

This team is off to the exact same putrid 4-12-1 start in their first 17 games they got off to last year, and since this writing has dropped two more games for a delightful 4-14-1 record. Somehow, it’s even worse because at least last year’s team hadn’t been shutout a bunch of times like this edition has. Their poor play has been compounded by a COVID outbreak and sheer bad luck. A fellow Sens fan pointed out to me that they don’t deserve their current record. So what do they deserve? 6-10-1 record perhaps? What’s most infuriating is that it seems to be a different reason for a loss every night. This one was a bad bounce. This one is because we’re missing half our roster in COVID protocol. This one was a bad performance by the goaltender. This other one was a defensive breakdown by the hilariously awful bottom two defense pairings. That one was because our penalty kill just couldn’t stop that power play in the last minute of the period. This other one wasn’t as bad as it looked because we gave up two empty net goals. Deserve is a slippery slope to Excusestown.


No, this team is exactly where they deserve to be, at the bottom of the standings. If you want to argue that they deserve to be in 27th place instead of 32nd, have at ‘er. All I know is that, as a fan, I haven’t gotten my money’s worth, and with real life getting in the way of watching every game, I’ve only personally seen half a win so far this season as November is drawing to a close.


But where to lay the blame? Coaching? Defense? Goaltending? Sophomore slumps? Management? COVID? Injuries to two of their top 3 centres? An extra vet or two? Ownership is always a reliable target for fan ire.


I have a better question. Who cares about blame?


Attendance numbers the last few years obviously show that many fans hit that wall a while ago. Another season where playoffs are out of the question before the two month mark, another season of moral victories, another season of looking at the prospects at the top of the draft rankings. Another season of grasping at straws for something, anything positive to grab on to. Is Matt Murray getting waived a positive? "Unparalleled Success" indeed. The best positive I can think of so far? This team is saving up their good karma for when they’re ready to compete by taking it on the chin from both their opponents and the hockey gods at every turn.


So I ask again; Who cares?


Now, obviously I’m not there yet, because I wouldn’t bother writing this article if I were. If you’re reading this, you’re probably not there yet either, because you’re looking up Sens content on the internet. But in nearly 30 years of being a Sens fan, I’m closer to that “wake me when it’s over” outlook on things than I ever have been.


Then again, look at how excited Leaf fans and media are about the team’s start as getting their hopes up for breaking through in the playoffs. Apparently, you can exorcise two decades of playoff futility in November. The entire business of sport is predicated on selling hope. You can’t guarantee anything beyond “a chance at a positive result” when selling your team to a fan base at large. But as long as you can sell hope, you can sell merch and tickets and hype. A few wins perks up the attention of those fans looking to inject a little hopefulness into their lives. Apparently, that’s too much to ask here.


If your team is bad, you want your fans to be angry. Anger translates to engagement. As long as your fanbase is engaged, they’re saying “we care.” It says “we love this team, and we’re eager for success.” Anger is an emotion that stems from expectations not being met. But how can you feel angry about something when you have no expectations for it any more? How do you stay engaged with a team in a stretch like the Senators (or Buffalo, or Arizona, or any other long term bottom feeder franchises) find themselves in? How long can you stay disengaged before you don’t bother coming back at all? How long until you lose that hope and move on to something else, or god forbid, a different team entirely. Despair is worse than anger, but a fan in despair still feels an attachment to the team and the product you’re selling. They too, are just waiting for their passion to be rewarded.


Apathy, on the other hand, can be way more difficult to come back from. Apathetic fans tend to not come back. They move on to other franchises, or from the sport entirely. Once a team is deemed “not worth my time”, that’s a sentiment that’s hard to shake.


You can only be sold the idea of hope while receiving a product of mediocrity for so long. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me every season since 2017-18 in embarrassing fashion, shame on me.

When I was in high school and university in the late 90s to the mid/late 2000s, the Senators were in the playoffs every year. Sure, they were losing to the Leafs regularly, but there was at least a conference finals run in there, hockey in April, and regular season Presidents Trophy and division championships accomplished by a roster of relatable, likeable, and skilled players. The odds of tuning in or heading to the rink to see a win were never less than 50/50 and usually much better than that. Those years were essential in my formative years to solidify my Sens fandom. I find myself thinking a lot these days about if that would have been the case if my high school career had taken place during a stretch like the Senators have found themselves in since 2018. Would I still be a fan if my formative years were during a stretch where the team starts each season at the bottom of the standings and playoffs are a pipe dream just weeks into the season on top of everything else this team has “accomplished” the last few years?


In the immortal words of Daniel Alfredsson, “probably not.”


As I sit here watching the team wrap up another loss in my shiny new jersey, I wonder how much more of this state of affairs until something breaks. Maybe it’s never. The decade long regular season futility followed by another decade of playoff flameouts experienced by the Oilers and Leafs tells me that maybe that pilot light of hope is always burning, ready to ignite.


A lot of you, like myself, are despairing and angry, sure, but 1,500 rambling words later, obviously not apathetic. I leave you with one question to ask yourself as a fan though. Given no other options, would you rather be upset, hopeless or just not care anymore? Chances are, if you’ve read this far, it’s one of the first two, and that’s where you want to be as a fan of a bad team. As we know at this point, they’re not too good at delivering on the “hope” part of what they’re selling, so we’re left with those options.


Then again, as I finish editing this, the Sens have finished losing to Anaheim to sit at 4-13-1, news of Matt Murray’s waiving has dropped, and then the team lost to LA, a game whose most interesting aspect was Brady Tkachuk getting bitten on the hand.


Ugh. Maybe you should wake me when it’s over.


With all of that said, stick around. Apathy is no fun. It's worth caring about your team. It's the surviving of times like these that makes the breakthrough that much satisfying when it comes. Ask any Raptors fan who was celebrating in 2019 if it was worth suffering through an exodus of their biggest stars and multiple low finishes if the wait was worth it. The Sens will eventually breakthrough too, and you won't want to miss it.


By Andrew Sztein | Sens Nation Hockey