The future of hockey is American.
How’s that for a bit of blasphemy during the NHL playoffs?
Canadian hockey fans have every reason to be down right about now. On Tuesday night, the Toronto Maple Leafs lost yet another Game 7 to the Boston Bruins. The Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets had already made depressingly early playoff exits. Canada’s other four teams never made it beyond the regular season. And so, sometime in early June, for the 25th time in a row, Lord Stanley’s Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup will be lifted by a team from outside the Dominion.
It is ingrained in the national psyche that hockey belongs to us. Yes, more than three-quarters of National Hockey League teams are in the United States. Yes, that has long been so. Yes, the league is expanding to Seattle; no, it hasn’t shown the slightest interest in adding another team in the Great White North. But still we believe, we just know, that the game’s home is here. After all, the rosters of those American NHL teams are filled with, as Don Cherry would say, good old Canadian boys.
In 1966-67, the last season of the Original Six NHL, 98 per cent of the league’s players were Canadian. But ever since, the level of Canadianness has been slowly but steadily falling. By the early 2000s, the percentage of Canadian players in the NHL had declined to just more than 50 per cent.
That figure fell below 50 per cent for the first time in 2015-16. This season, the Canadian count is down to 44 per cent.
It will go lower. All one has to do is look at the NHL draft, the annual June selection of 18-year-old prospects. The draft, as with the league, was for years a Canadians-only affair. No longer.
At the 2015 draft, when Connor McDavid went No. 1, he was one of only three Canadians chosen in the top 10. In 2016, there were two Canadians in the top 10. The number bounced back to five in 2017, but was down to two again last year. This June, three or four Canadians are projected for the top 10.
Add it up and just one-third of premier prospects drafted in recent years learned to play the game here. Four decades ago, back in 1978, 100 per cent of players chosen in the first round – 18 out of 18 – were Canadian.
Canada has lost its stranglehold on the very best players. Mr. McDavid was the country’s last top pick. This June, American Jack Hughes is the consensus No. 1 – marking the first time there have been four consecutive drafts without a Canadian at the top. Mr. Hughes is one of four or so Americans forecast for the 10. All come out of the U.S. national team development program.
Hockey fans have watched the future of the game shift each Christmas at the World Juniors, the international under-20 tournament. After Canada rattled off five golds in a row from 2005 through 2009, the past decade has not been good. Finland, with barely more people than British Columbia, has the most golds, three, and Russia has the most medals, eight.
The bottom line is that, even as Canadian players are becoming more skilled, relative to previous generations, the quantity and quality of players in other countries has been rising, too, and at a slightly faster pace.
Why this is so should raise hard questions about hockey development in Canada. This country has some 440,000 junior hockey players, as many as the United States, Sweden and Russia combined. We have many more rinks than our rivals. But others have been innovating. Canada lags. One key pillar has hardly evolved at all: major-junior hockey, the entrenched road for elite teenagers that operates as a semi-pro system.
Canadians have become inured to the blossoming of spring with no Canadian NHL teams to cheer. Instead, we cling to the glow of Olympic gold won in 2010 and 2014, denied in 2018 by an NHL boycott and dreamed of in 2022 – if the NHL returns to the Olympics. But given the evolving state of the sport, gold is far from guaranteed.
It’s a similar story in women’s hockey. Until recently, the Canadian and U.S. teams were far ahead of all other competitors. But earlier this month, Canada failed to make the women’s world championship gold-medal game, falling to Finland in the semi-finals. Ten years ago, Canada trounced Finland, 8-0.
Hockey is about speed and movement. Others are moving faster. We need to up our game.