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Montreal Canadiens' Tyler Toffoli celebrates his game-winning goal with teammate Ben Chiarot following overtime NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey action against the Winnipeg Jets, in Montreal on June 7, 2021.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

It’s been a tough week to be Canadian.

Some people want to cancel Canada Day.

There was outrage in Toronto on Tuesday night when the country’s most-identifiable landmark, the CN Tower, lit up in red, white and blue to honour the Montreal Canadiens being the sole Canadian team to reach the semi-finals of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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This was done, Tower officials said, to support the team that “will go on to represent Canada’s hope for a 2021 NHL Stanley Cup.”

In other words, the Montreal Canadiens are now “Canada’s Team” – to some. The Canadiens, the oldest and most-storied NHL franchise, with 24 Stanley Cups since the team was founded in 1909, will now meet the newest and least-storied team, the Vegas Golden Knights. Game 1 is scheduled for Monday night in Las Vegas.

The winner of that series will move on to play for the Stanley Cup, a trophy that has not been held in its country of origin since 1993. That was a spring when a strangely similar spunky, come-from-behind, count-on-the-goalie Canadiens became the last Canadian team to raise the trophy originally awarded to “the champion hockey team in the Dominion.”

It should follow, then, that because none of the other six Canadian teams are still playing, the Canadiens would take on the mantle of “Canada’s Team” – the ones who will, finally, bring the Stanley Cup home.

That’s not likely to happen in Toronto, where some outraged fans said the Canadiens’ colours on the CN Tower made them want to “vomit,” and where Mayor John Tory immediately took to Twitter to assure his people that the “Toronto” sign at City Hall will not be lighted in Habs colours accordingly. It turns out, curiously, that “Canada’s Team,” in terms of players’ birthplaces, is more the New York Islanders with 21. Vegas has 19 Canadian-born players on its roster. Montreal has 16.

The team the Islanders will face in their semi-final, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is the only less-Canadian team left, with 15 Canadians – one short of Montreal.

When it comes to head coaches, all four are Canadian-born. As for general managers, three of the four are Canadian, with the Islanders’ Lou Lamoriello the sole American-born senior executive.

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Canadian teams haven’t fared very well since that last Montreal championship 28 years ago. The Vancouver Canucks reached the final the following year and again in 2011. The Calgary Flames reached the finals in 2004, Edmonton Oilers in 2006, Ottawa Senators in 2007. None raised the Stanley Cup, but all were at some point labelled “Canada’s Team.”

A survey taken in the spring of 2011 by Angus Reid Public Opinion found that seven out of 10 Canadians were cheering on the Canucks as they prepared to meet the Boston Bruins in the final. Another poll by Ipsos Reid said 60 per cent of the country’s hockey fans were rooting for Vancouver.

It was a sentiment not shared, apparently, by those who played against Vancouver. Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ryan Whitney told a local radio station that he believed “90 per cent of the guys in the league want nothing to do with seeing them win.”

Matthew Sekeres, writing in this newspaper, argued that the Canucks, rather than becoming “Canada’s Team,” had actually become the NHL’s “most-hated team” through the on-ice antics of Alex Burrows, Aaron Rome, Raffi Torres and Ryan Kesler.

When the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks met in the 2007 finals, then Ottawa mayor Larry O’Brien claimed the Senators were “Canada’s team without a doubt. I ask everybody who’s a hockey fan in Canada to get behind the Ottawa Senators.”

It’s rather more complicated than just saying it. As Calgary poet Richard Harrison long ago said, hockey is “Canada’s national id” – impossible to know and understand completely. The CN Tower incident merely underscores the unlikeliness of Toronto fans suddenly embracing the “bleu-blanc-rouge.”

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And yet there are justifications for Canadian fans cheering on a Canadian team that isn’t their beloveds. All Canadian teams have problems in attracting those top-level free agents who might have grown up dreaming of one day playing for the Leafs or Canadiens or Oilers, Canucks, Flames, Jets and Senators, but for other reasons – taxes, weather, raising a family under a microscope – they prefer to play south of the border.

There is also the “underdog” factor, something that the country itself has often dealt with. The Canadiens were not expected to be able to skate with the dominant Toronto Maple Leafs, yet came from being down three games to one to take the series in a dramatic Game 7. They were not expected to get past the Winnipeg Jets, yet blew past the Jets in a four-game sweep.

The Canadiens are, as one reporter put it Friday, “massive underdogs” when it comes to betting on the outcome of this semi-final series against the Golden Knights.

“Having people doubt you,” Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme said, “I always personally like to prove people wrong.

“We believe in ourselves. Not too many did when we started the playoffs.”

“Canada’s Team” or just “Montreal’s Team,” the Canadiens are hard not to like.

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With a report from Dylan Earis

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