All week long, in newspapers and on websites, talk radio and television, the issue popped up like an annual rite of spring. It was a variation of the old Woe Is Canada theme – and why it likely that Canada’s Stanley Cup drought could easily extend for yet another season since only one or two of the NHL franchises based in the Great White North are about to qualify for the playoffs. That’d be the Vancouver Canucks, who are in, and the Ottawa Senators, who are close.
The starting point is always the same flawed premise too – that this coast-to-coast failure provides an opportunity for some national soul-searching, as if there really was a common thread linking Canada’s seven NHL franchises.
Why is it is even an issue? To me, Canada is the team that competes internationally in Olympics, world championships, world junior championships etc. – whatever entry we field in international ice hockey competitions around the world. That’s Canada and that’s a completely separate discussion from why Canadian teams haven’t won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens did it back in 1993.
Thanks to the transfer of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, there are now seven individual corporate entities licensed by the National Hockey League to operate above the 49th parallel. These seven Canadian-based business operations, scattered across the country, have the same opportunity to win the Stanley Cup as the 23 separate corporate entities that operate in the United States – one in 30 on average, or a little more than three championships per century.
Generations of fans can grow up and grow old in a city – be it Toronto or Buffalo, Vancouver or Los Angeles – with the mathematical expectation of seeing only two or three championships in their lifetimes. Of course, because some teams win more through a variety of factors from management skills to pure dumb luck, others will win less.
In the 19 years since the Canadiens won the 1993 Stanley Cup, the percentage of Canadian-based teams compared to the rest of the NHL has been altered by the last round of expansion and then again last year, when Winnipeg arrived on the scene. But for mathematical simplicity, let’s call it roughly about 20 per cent, since for most of that period, there were six Canadian teams in a 30-team league.
From a mathematical perspective, it means about four Canadian teams should have won the Cup during the past 20 years. One did. Montreal.
But in 2011, Vancouver lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games. Could have gone either way. In 2007, the Ottawa Senators lost in the final to a one-and-done champion, the Anaheim Ducks. Could have gone either way. In 2006, the Edmonton Oilers lost to a one-and-done champion, the Carolina Hurricanes. Could have gone either way. In 2004, the Calgary Flames lost to a one-and-done champion, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Could have gone either way, and probably should have, except that Calgary had a legal goal disallowed in Game 6 that would have permitted the Flames to wrap up the series on home ice. Instead, it went to overtime, Tampa eventually pulled it out and then won it all at home. If those championship finals go the other way, then you would have had five Canadian champions in 20 years, which is more than what it should be based on statistical probability.
Unhappily, when you get to a Stanley Cup final, factors other than how well you build a team enter the equation. Usually the healthiest team, the one that has everything break right for it in a given year, is the one that wins it all. Every general manager will tell you that, from the veterans to the rookies - that you can put what you think are all the right pieces in place and if you aren’t really lucky along the way, it can all go wrong.
Also: In that 20-year span, the best team didn’t win in the Stanley Cup most of the time (including and beginning with the Montreal team that won in 1993 because of Patrick Roy’s goaltending. Pittsburgh, champions the previous two years, with the best team they ever had in the Mario Lemieux era, was upset by the New York Islanders in the second round).
Among NHL franchises, one could safely argue that the Detroit Red Wings represent the gold standard these past two decades. They have qualified for the playoffs for a 21st consecutive season in 2011-12 - an extraordinary and admirable record of consistency. The second most successful club might be the San Jose Sharks, who have made the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 years, managed 100 points or more in six of the last seven, but have not been able to even qualify for a Stanley Cup final, let alone with a championship.