There are a lot of less-than-fun ways to express the east-west divide in this country. One useful way to do it is the Edmonton Oilers versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Leafs are new money, and as such, totally self-absorbed. It’s not really their fault – it’s the city’s. The last time the Leafs were good, Toronto was Rochester with free hospitals. Now it wants to think it’s in the same league as Paris. Anything that isn’t happening here isn’t happening. Which is why everyone acts like hockey stops as soon as the Leafs head out on their annual May vacation.
But when things go right just once, Toronto switches shamelessly from pretend apathy to pretend confidence. Hence, switching locally from Worst Franchise in Sport™ to talking like Stanley Cup favourites within the space of 24 hours.
The Oilers carry themselves like old money. There are still people in that organization who were there the last time Edmonton ran hockey. Their modern failures are harder to laugh off. Especially after you’ve lucked into another generational player.
At their lowest, the Oilers give off the feel of bankrupt aristocrats: We used to consort with Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky and that whole crowd, and now this.
Toronto has taken on losing as part of its civic character. It’s a kind of inside-out joke. Edmonton has never gotten there. Its citizens still go prickly when you mention it.
If you want to understand why east and west spend a lot of time talking past each other despite many superficial similarities, check out their hockey teams. Same planet. Different worlds.
Two weeks ago, people talked about these two wounded franchises meeting in the Stanley Cup final with an implied sigh. Wouldn’t it be cool if …
The pair are now the bookies’ betting favourites to meet at the end, and by some distance.
That doesn’t mean anybody’s actually favoured for anything. It means that’s the way the money is laying. But it shows you where people’s heads are at.
Would it be the greatest Stanley Cup final of all time? Well, no. There’s no recreating the working-class savagery of the best Original Six finals. Those teams actually hated each other.
But Edmonton-Toronto would be the greatest Stanley Cup final since the internet took over. Maybe since the Berlin Wall came down. It’d be the greatest Stanley Cup final you can remember.
We’ll know it’s gotten real when talking about it starts to seem like a jinx. The beginning of round two of the playoffs might be a bit early, but we’re already there.
The Oilers start their second round on Wednesday night against the Vegas Golden Knights.
The only reason the Vegas hockey club seems to exist is to prove how little everyone else in the NHL knows. How do you put a hockey club in a place a hockey club does not belong, staff it with everyone else’s castoffs and succeed sustainably straight out of the gate? I guess it’s easy when most of your competition doesn’t know what they’re doing.
Vegas takes special pleasure in putting the boots in on another Canadian legacy project, the Winnipeg Jets.
Maybe the Jets could have been this year’s Oilers or Leafs if that conference finals against Vegas back in 2018 went differently. This year, the Knights so discombobulated Winnipeg that it had a big, out-on-the-lawn-where-the-neighbours-can-see-you argument once everyone left.
Nobody likes losing. But Canadians especially don’t like losing to a team that plays its home games beside a roller coaster and a replica Statue of Liberty.
Edmonton’s calculus is different than Winnipeg’s or anyone else’s. For everyone else, it’s win or feel bad for a while.
For the Oilers, it’s win or squander a gift you can never get back. Connor McDavid isn’t old (26), but he long ago started to look like a guy who can’t quite believe it’s turning out this way. Every year he wastes is a ‘what if?’ year.
This year, so far so good. The L.A. Kings were the joker in the playoff deck. Laying them out proves you aren’t flaky.
Elsewhere, Colorado got gazumped by Seattle. That’s a team you could never seem to beat in exchange for a team you usually seem to beat. So while the path to a final isn’t clear, it’s not as rutted as it could have been.
Should the Oilers beat the Knights? Why not? Can they beat the Kraken or the Dallas Stars? Why not? Should they meet the Leafs in the final? Yes.
Without anybody talking about it much in the lead-in, that’s what this playoffs have become in Canada. Everybody waiting around to see whether two of the half-dozen sporting polarities of this country (good luck next year, friends) finally figure it out in tandem.
In a more sensible world, Edmonton vs. Toronto would be a key matchup in the NHL. It could be the Yankees-Red Sox or Liverpool-Manchester United.
We don’t seem to notice that it’s never happened, and how little sense that makes. An inability to line up two of hockey’s heartlands at the same time is one of the NHL’s key structural failures. It is hard to understand how, over the course of going on almost 50 years, no one’s managed it.
It’s happening now, in our imaginations at least. For once, it doesn’t seem like wish fulfilment to discuss it seriously.
Unlike the Leafs, Edmonton has gotten close recently. Not close enough to touch (after being annihilated by the Avalanche in a conference final), but close enough to discuss it.
On Monday, McDavid talked about the playoffs as a “different animal” from the regular season. It’s more than that. It’s a much larger, more attractive and far better animal. It’s a different species.
Edmonton has never played Toronto in the postseason. How does that make any sense?
But because of that, right now, with the W-L slate wiped clean and everything still possible, nothing seems more electric than Edmonton vs. Toronto.
It’s still a long shot. I have a lot more faith in the Oilers handling their end of business than the Leafs. But part of the fun of the playoffs is projecting forward to what might be. Has any final in any sport ever seemed so fated, so right and so overdue?