Bear up, Canadians – the lottery pick is nearly a lock.
As of this morning, only two of the six Canadian NHL franchises are playoff bound – which would be first time since 1978 for such a poor national showing – and three of the bottom five teams in the 30-franchise league have postal instead of zip codes: Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Edmonton Oilers.
Those five bottom feeders will get a chance at the coveted ping-pong ball that determines which team gets first pick overall in the 2011 NHL entry draft, which will be held June 24 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Fans in all three Canadian cities have recently switched from hoping for a turnaround to embracing the downturn, as the lower one ends up in the standings the better chance they will have in the lottery.
What on earth – or, more accurately, on ice – has become of this hockey country?
In the previous century, the Stanley Cup rarely left home, won 24 times by the Montreal Canadiens alone in those years. Second place is also Canadian: Toronto Maple Leafs with 13 Stanley Cups.
What has happened between 2011 and 1993, year of the last Montreal Cup, or the mid-1980s, when the Edmonton Oilers were a Stanley Cup dynasty and, at times, all seven Canadian NHL teams would qualify for the postseason? At the moment only two would – Vancouver Canucks and Montreal – with Calgary Flames a possible third if they can maintain the current hot streak.
The usual reasons thrown out for stumbling franchises are bad drafting, bad trading and bad luck – yet never is any mention made in this country of two points that may be of equal import: weather and women.
“A (ital)huge(end ital) factor,” says one long-time agent.
As more power has accrued to the individual player regarding freedom of choice – the age of unrestricted free agency has fallen from 31, at the time of the lockout, to 27 for those with seven years service – that increased freedom has not appeared to benefit Canadian teams significantly.
As all teams operate under a salary cap, it cannot be argued that elite free agents – those at the peak of their hockey careers – flee to American markets for the money. In fact, says another prominent agent, increasingly money is (ital)not(end ital) a factor among UFAs, “Russians excepted.”
Certain Canadian teams that are not destinations of top choice have to make do with either older or fading – in many cases they are both old and fading – free agents who come with a high salary ticket and very often disappoint.
Whereas older UFAs were once driven to go to the highest bidder, with everything from personal ego to the NHL Players’ Association pushing – the rising-tide-raises-all-ships up argument – the situation has changed, according to players agents.
“Despite what people think,” says one, “it’s not always the highest bidder who wins.”
For the players, the key decider is the “hockey” situation: is the team on the rise? can you get along with the coach? where will I fit in?
For the players’ “significant others,” however, it can be quite a different story. Where will we be living? What is there to do there? How cold does it get?
“I don’t think the players care all that much,” says one agent. “They’re always travelling, so they don’t care much where they live. They do, however, care that their wives or girlfriends are happy.”
So powerful is this influence, says one, that he tells his clients, only half jokingly, “If you get married before you’re 30, don’t invite me – I’ll go to your next one.”
If the significant other comes from the United States, particularly a warmer state, the reluctance to head north and spend a lonely January in Edmonton or Ottawa can be profound.
“Imagine you’re a Coyote and the team goes down,” says one agent, “and you have to go home and tell your wife or girlfriend that you’re about to move from Phoenix to Winnipeg.”
It may be no accident that in that recent survey of 318 acting NHL players taken by CBC and the NHL Players’ Association Vancouver was the top Canadian city of choice when it came to teams the players would like to go to, second only to perennial contender Detroit Red Wings.
And no accident, as well, that Edmonton was the Canadian city they’d least like to play for – the mess in New York Islanders not surprisingly considered the least attractive location.
The players did, however, think that Edmonton had, by far, the best ice.
There were no survey results on what the significant others had to say about ice conditions.
But rest assured, if the choice comes down to California or Calgary, the capital of the United States or the capital of Canada, Canada isn’t likely to win.
And as for winning back that Stanley Cup, it’s 17 years and counting now…..