When the Ottawa Senators began their 2019 training camp, their camp roster was brimming with exciting young prospects. Some were high-end Sens’ draft picks, while others were acquired as part of the club’s many trades from last season. So, no matter how camp played out, everyone expected to see a number of new faces in Ottawa’s opening night lineup.
But no one expected Scott Sabourin.
At 27, Sabourin’s career had begun to take on the look of an American Hockey League lifer. The tough guy from Orleans spent seven years battling in that league – three with the Man-chester Monarchs, one split between the Ontario Reign and Iowa Wild, two with the San Diego Gulls and one with the Stockton Heat. Sabourin provided all of those teams with energy and a physical presence – and yes, that included the occasional tilt, dropping the gloves and standing up for team-mates. It became clear to Sabourin this past summer that business wasn’t exactly booming for NHL tough guys.
“There wasn’t much work out there, to be honest,” says Sabourin. “I had a tryout here with the Sens, so obviously I was going to pursue it.”
New Sens head coach D.J. Smith certainly had a say in that invitation. Smith has never minded a good dustup – not back in his playing days, nor today as a coach. He also has a history with Sabourin. Smith was an OHL head coach in Oshawa in 2012-13 when Sabourin scored 30 goals for him and put up 142 penalty minutes. “Sabby,” as teammates call him, brought a rugged ingredient that Smith still appreciates today at the pro level.
As Senators’ training camp wore on, Sabourin’s name began to attract attention. With each wave of cuts, as players like Logan Brown, Alex Formenton, Josh Norris, and Vitaly Abramov were reassigned to Belleville, this Sabourin guy was still here, still fighting hard for his little piece of NHL real estate. He was relentless, finished his checks and made opponents skittish. He even sorted out Ben Harpur and Max Domi when they started to get a little too loud. Finally, on September 27th, Sabourin was called in to meet with GM Pierre Dorion and head coach D.J. Smith and got the news he’d waited 7 years to hear.
He’d finally made an NHL team.
“It was pretty surreal,” Sabourin recalled. “Pierre and DJ sat me down in the office. They had a contract out on the desk in front of them so that was pretty cool. The only thing we had to do was get my agent on board and make sure everything was all squared away. I went home and saw my fiance and then shortly after that I called my parents and her parents and then my sisters found out and, yeah, it was all pretty cool.”
It’s so difficult to get to the NHL but it’s just as tough to stay there. Sabourin got more good news on October 27th, just after the Sens had beaten San Jose 5-2. When an NHL team tells you to buy a house, it means you’re sticking around for a while. Smith announced in the dressing room that night to loud teammate applause, “Sabby, you’re getting a place!”
Sabourin’s climb to the NHL evokes memories of Matt Carkner ten years ago. Carkner was another local tough guy, who finally found a regular NHL job in Ottawa in his late 20’s. He, too, had spent years toiling in the American League, waiting for his break. Carkner knows exactly how Sabourin is feeling.
“There’s nothing quite like fighting and clawing your way through the minors,” says Carkner. “When (getting to the NHL) finally happens, it feels like a dream. That’s what it felt like for me and I’m sure Scott feels the same way. Scott’s getting to play in front of his family and friends every night. It’s definitely special and gives you a little more jump, a little more energy. And, I’ll tell you what, all that energy was needed for me when facing some of the tougher lads in the game. Great to see a fellow Brockville Braves alumni work his way to the NHL.”
Back then, Carkner and Chris Neil made sure no one took liberties with guys like Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, or Jason Spezza.
Today, Sabourin and Marc Borowiecki make sure no one takes liberties with guys like Thomas Chabot, Colin White or Erik Brannstrom. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
“Was I expecting this? No.” Sabourin admitted. “Was I hoping for it? Yeah.”
At what stage in camp did you start thinking to yourself, “I think I have a chance to make this team?”
I think every year when you go to camp, you have to have it in the back of your mind that, you know, you’re trying to make a hockey team. The minute you don’t, the minute you go, I’m going to get cut, you know, five days from now, 10 days from now, whatever it is, then you’re just not giving yourself the best chance. A lot of it’s a mindset, proving to yourself that you can do it. So, from the get go I was optimistic and confident and I knew if there was ever a year to do it, it’d be this year. Luckily, it panned out.
Did you do anything differently in this off-season leading up to this camp compared to previous camps?
Um, yes and no. I definitely dialled in my diet a little more. So I think that had a lot to do with it. The strength and conditioning was all pretty much the same. I was on the ice a whole bunch and I guess I just came into camp feeling pretty fresh. I kept up with the right foods and my energy was solid all the way around.
Can you describe what that first shift was like in your first NHL game? Yeah, the nerves were definitely there.
I couldn’t even tell you how it went. I think it’s just, you know, trying to stay composed and trying to remember to do the right things. I think I did that from what I can recall. But the first one was definitely very special.
Who was in the building that night and was there a big demand for tickets for your family and friends?
I had my immediate family there and my fiance’s immediate family. So about eight to 10 people. So it wasn’t too bad but it was pretty cool to get to share that special moment with them.
Let’s talk about Sens’ head coach D.J. Smith. You guys were together in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals. Is he a different coach than the coach you had in the OHL or the same guy?
No, I think he’s the same guy. I think that’s what guys will learn to respect about him, that he’s true all the way through. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and he always brings a lot of clarity to the room. If he’s feeling a certain way, you’ll know it, and as a player, you can respect that. If he doesn’t like what you’re doing, he’s going to tell you but when he does like what you’re doing, he’s going to reward you. He’s a very down to earth guy, definitely a players’ coach.
What are some of the differences you’ve noticed in the NHL after a long run in the American League?
First off, I’d say the pace. Then there’s the execution and the way guys carry themselves. There’s a lot of true pros in there that take it very seriously and that’s the way it has to be at this level. Everything you do is under the micro-scope and so it’s not only on the ice, it’s off the ice, it’s at home, it’s away from the rink. It’s a 24/7 job. I think that’s definitely a little bit of a step from the American League.
You recently fought Vegas forward Ryan Reaves, arguably the toughest guy in the NHL. Are the guys at the NHL level a bigger handful or is the American Hockey League just as tough?
The American League is definitely very tough. With fighting numbers lowering every year, the trickle-down effect is true and it’s noticeable in the American League. So there’s a lot of older tough guys still there. With that being said, I mean, Reaves is one of the toughest out there. So there’s definitely still plenty of tough guys in the NHL.
That guy in particular. How did that fight come together?
Well, he was being a little physical. I think that shift prior to that he had a good little hit on one of my teammates by their bench. Being in Vegas on the road, a loud building, I figured no better time than now to try and get the guys involved and get ‘em sparked and fired up. So, I asked him and he was willing and that was that.
Does it bother you that fighting seems to be fading from the NHL?
Yes and no. I still think there’s a time and a place for it and I hope there always will be. But at the same time, I agree that you probably don’t need four or five staged fights a game like you had 10, 20 years ago. But if someone is getting pushed around and whatever, or playing a little dirty on the other side, I think it’s important that there can be a response. I think if fighting stays in the league, it actually helps keep injuries down, the head hits and stuff like that. It’s our own form of policing out there.
I know the whole Austin Matthews thing kind of blew up on social media in the preseason, when he pretended to glance over your shoulder to check your name tag, trying to let you know he had no idea who you are. He was trying to be a wise guy, obviously. What was your take away from that? Were you bothered by it?
No, I mean, it’s hockey. If it wasn’t Auston Matthews, nothing would have come of it. Plus there are worse things that are said every night on the ice. I guess the only thing I’ll take away from it was that my name started cir-cling the hockey world and the Twitter world so that might’ve helped my case.
That Twitter buzz came from your old AHL linemate, Paul Bissonnette, who came to your defense over that story. Do you keep in touch with Biz Nasty now that he’s a big podcasting star?
I just saw him in Arizona the other day, actually. Yeah, we caught up briefly. Biz has been great over the years. He’s always been a great teammate and he’s doing a heck of a job. He might be having more success after his hockey career than he ever did during it. But, yeah, it’s awesome to see him succeed.
Out of the gate, the club’s record isn’t where anyone wants it to be, but knowing the guys and seeing the talent you’ve got, what are your thoughts about the potential for this team?
Yeah, I’m optimistic for our group. I think we have the right leadership in there. I think we have a lot of young talent. I think we have more grit than people think. I think if we play the right way and we buy into the system, and we start changing the culture around here, we’re going to be just fine. There’s no reason we shouldn’t be in every game.
Like any pro, I’m sure there were points in your minor hockey career where you ripped it up, scoring lots of goals. When did you flip the switch and change to a physical, high energy type of a player?
Well, I knew you had to be able to separate yourself from the other players and that was a way I could do that. In minor midget I was a bit of a physical player. When I was 16, in my first year of tier 2 under Todd Gill, who was a heck of a coach and ex-NHL’er, he really knew how to teach the game. So he taught us the right habits and I think that’s where I ultimately learned to start playing hockey the right way and it kinda just took off from there.
Ottawa, of course, has a great minor hockey system. What association did you grow up with?
It started with the Orleans Blues, then the Gloucester Rangers, then the Ottawa junior 67’s. I played in the CJHL with Brockville as a 16-year-old then Kanata as a 17-year-old and then I was off to the OHL. Did you have a favourite Senators’ player back in the day? I’d say I liked Daniel Alfredsson. I liked Mike Fisher. Obviously, I loved watching Chris Neil and Brian McGrattan play back in the day and their physicality. But, I mean, I liked just watching the games back then.
Which Ottawa schools did you attend?
I went to St Matt’s High School. Before that, I was at St Joseph. I had a couple of courses at UIT in the OHL, but nothing much other than that.
Have you ever held a non-hockey job? If so, what was it?
Yeah, I was a delivery driver at a Greek on Wheels in the east end of Orleans. That was actually a fun gig for a couple of summers. Other than that, I used to shoot on goalies in the summers, I did a little bit of landscaping. You know, just smaller summer jobs to kinda put some money in the bank account when I was home for the summer from the OHL or tier 2 junior.
What can you tell us about your immediate family?
I have two older sisters, Amber and Steph. I’m the baby boy in the family. Steph is married with a baby named Cash. My fiance and I have been living there for the last couple of months, so it’s nice to get to know Cash on a deeper level. We were away when he was born and all that. So it’s been nice getting to know the little guy.
Tell us about your parents and maybe which one was responsible for taking little Scott Sabourin to those 6 am practices?
Yeah, my parents are Kim and Dave. They’re both government workers. They’ve been there since day one, supporting me for a long time and so I’m happy to see it all work out for them just as much as it’s working out for me. They’re getting to come and support me at the games and everybody’s been having a really good time with it.
What other sports did you play growing up?
I played most sports. I’d say my real number two sport would have been lacrosse. I started playing that when I was, I don’t know, 10 or 12. I really had a passion for it. It was a great summer sport. I also played some high school lacrosse, some field lacrosse. It was a lot of fun, but hockey seemed to be a little more serious at the time. There were a few more options on places to go with it so eventually, it took over.
Do you have a nickname?
Yeah, it’s Sabby. I mean it’s either an “s” or a “y” at the end of every hockey player’s name, right? D.J. has been throwing some different nicknames at me lately. I think he called me “Sword” or something. It’s okay. I like Sabby. Keep it simple.
Almost every NHL player has a story in their childhood about where the game really kind of took off, whether it’s an outdoor rink, the basement, the driveway. What’s that place for you?
I’d say the outdoor rink. I lived right across from Barrington Park in Orleans so the rink was there every winter. At one point I think my dad helped manage the rink so we had the keys to the shack and all that. So it was nice, you know? I could go in there and get set up and lock up when I felt I wanted to. Man, I spent a lot of hours out there. So I’d say that’s definitely where the game took off for me.
What’s your favourite thing about your hometown of Ottawa?
It’s a big city with a smalltown feel. I find that anywhere you go you’ll see people you know. It’s a very welcoming city and offers anything that you can think of.
Do you have any pet peeves, on or off the ice?
Oh, I don’t really know if I have any. Um, I like seeing people be good humans to each other, even though we’re strangers out there, you know? I like hearing, ‘Thank you.” I like hearing, “Please.’ I like opening the door for a stranger. There’s nothing worse than arrogant strangers.
You’re getting ready for a big game. You have one song you can choose. What’s it going to be?
I don’t wear headphones before the game or anything really like that so I lis-ten to whatever’s on in the locker room. I like classic rock. I like new rock. I am easy going with music. I like country. I’d say a band that stands out to me would be The Tragically Hip. The Glorious Sons is a new up and coming band that I really enjoy. Then, for throwbacks, if I’m getting pumped up, I’d say hearing AC/DC in the old Peewee tournaments was always a good time.
Favourite movie and favourite TV show?
For movies, I enjoy Will Ferrell. I think he’s hilarious. So any comedy he’s in. He’s always good for a laugh. For TV, I’d say The Office or Parks and Recreation. That 70’s Show is a good one. There’s a whole bunch. I do like to unwind and watch Netflix at night.
What’s your go-to pre-game meal?
A big salad to start, throwing all sorts of fixings on there. Then some rice. I’ve been trying to stay away from the meat lately, so maybe like a chickpea protein, something like that. But I keep it pretty light. I do a lot of snacking throughout the day. I’m not really one of those guys who has like a huge pasta meal with a bunch of chicken or any-thing like that. So rice, veggies, a protein and we’re to the races.
As you finally get your NHL chance at age 27 in your hometown, what’s been the feedback from the fan base so far?
Yeah, it’s been great. Not only from the fans, but I have a lot of friends and people I’ve known over the years that have reached out to me. So the support’s really been overwhelming and it’s been a pleasure playing here.
By Steve Warne
Photography by Sean Sisk