Canada is not doing well in its own national sport. Only one of seven Canadian-based NHL teams made the Stanley Cup playoffs for the 2013-14 season. This has to be quite unsettling to a Canadian fan base where following ice hockey is as natural as breathing. Maybe “O Canada!” needs to be renamed “Oh No, Canada!”
Montreal Canadiens, the lone bright spot . Still skating with the hopes of Canada as the lone playoff entry are the Montreal Canadiens, hockey’s equivalent of the New York Yankees in terms of winning championships. According to thehockeynews.com, this is the first time since 1973 that only one Canadian team reached the postseason. And that squad in ’73 was also the Montreal Canadiens, who went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, one of six Cups the Habs would win during the 1970s. However, there were only three Canadian teams in the NHL in 1973, so having only one make the playoffs wasn’t as glaring. Now there are seven clubs. The Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks and Winnipeg Jets will all start the playoffs on the outside looking in.
Stanley Cup drought. The dismal showing by Canadian teams only accentuates the long Stanley Cup drought Canada has experienced. The last Canadian team to hold up the Cup was, you guessed it, the Montreal Canadiens. But that was way back in 1993, 21 seasons ago. The Canadiens are not thought of as one of the favorites to win this year, so the drought is likely to continue.
Deck not stacked against Canada. Unlike Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League doesn’t have a rich club vs. poor club structure. There is nothing inherent about the NHL system that should put Canadian teams at a disadvantage. The NHL has a hard salary cap and also a minimum amount teams must spend. In theory small-market NHL teams should be able to successfully compete against larger markets. And some Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver are large markets to begin with. If a Canadian-born free agent is concerned about higher taxes in Canada, this is more than offset by an opportunity to play in his native land.
The one exception to this level playing field may be self-inflicted. Maybe Canadian cities put additional pressure on clubs to win. If you go to Toronto news websites, for example, the Maple Leafs are as prominently featured at the top of the homepage as the biggest news of the day. In most U.S. cities the hockey club is not given such a primary position. So when the Maple Leafs started their freefall late in the season, maybe it was more difficult to put the brakes on it precisely because so much is expected of them in a hockey-mad city like Toronto.
Is playoff absence temporary? The failure of Canadian teams to earn playoff spots in 2014 may be a blip on the radar screen. But the trends don’t seem positive. For instance, the Vancouver Canucks had been perennial contenders. Led by Daniel and Henrik Sedin, the Canucks were just one game short of winning the Stanley Cup just three seasons ago. Yet this season Vancouver joined fellow Canadian teams Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton as being the four teams with the fewest points in the Western Conference.
Lack of star power. Canadian teams lack the great stars that made them successful decades ago. Remember those high-octane Edmonton teams in the 1980s that featured Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Grant Fuhr and Paul Coffey? Or how about those high-flying Montreal teams of the 1970s that starred Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Steve Shutt, Peter Mahovlich, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Jacques Lemaire, Ken Dryden and Serge Savard? Today, teams that have a plethora of stars all seem to reside south of the Canadian border. And this must bring about great angst in a Canadian hockey fan.