There are two ways at looking how miserable Canada is professionally at its own national sport.
On the one hand, Canada wins the Stanley Cup every year, because every winning NHL team is full of Canadians. This country raised those players (and more than a few of their American and European teammates as well).
And on the other hand, does that make you feel any better?
Once again this year, there is no Canadian team in the NHL’s conference championships. This postseason is uniquely embarrassing in that it is organized by Canadians, staffed by Canadians and hosted by Canada, but we already know the Cup is getting UPS’d south once this thing ends.
Everybody talks about the drought since ’93, but it’s worse than that. In the past 10 years, only four Canadian teams have made the conference finals. Four out of 40 total spots.
I’m no mathematician, but that strikes me as being outside the statistical mean. At some point, you have to begin wondering how much of this is performance-based and how much is institutional collapse.
Why is a team such as the Vegas Golden Knights, a startup staffed by players other teams didn’t want and playing in front of people who discovered the sport existed three years ago, a regular contender?
And why is every Canadian team, with all their pedigree and local support, a regular failure?
And why aren’t people annoyed enough about that to do (or not do) something?
(There’s no point in being angry about anything to do with sports, but it does make sense not to spend your money on corporations that consistently deliver a sub-standard product. Your kids’ house-league club? That’s a team. The Toronto Maple Leafs? That’s a corporation.)
Imagine Brazil accepting that an Argentine team wins the Brazilian soccer championship every year because, I dunno, the balls didn’t fall their way in the draft lottery. That’s what this is.
Yes, it’s not as simple as that because no other country shares all its top leagues with a much larger neighbour. And some will remember how poorly the United States handled it when the Blue Jays briefly took control of the national pastime. So it’s not as though we’re the only ones this has happened to.
But that doesn’t make it any less humiliating. Canada invented a game. We created the showcase to highlight the top level of that game. We continue to represent the bulk of that top level. But we’ve given up ownership of that showcase, and there was no buyout. We just handed it over.
U.S. business is happy to accept our contract labour, but the spoils stay south of 44. It’s happened for so long that no one seems to mind any more.
The first issue is why this happens. Because it’s no longer bad luck. Not when the field is level and we’re going on a quarter century of blight. There is something cracked in the foundation of Canadian clubs.
The first thing that’s wrong is Canadians.
Imagine playing in Las Vegas. That has got to be a pretty good deal. Weather’s nice and the whole team has that new-car smell. You make the same money as your buddies in Edmonton or Ottawa, but with half the hassle. Nobody cares if you’re good. These people don’t even know what ‘good at hockey’ looks like. They’re just impressed because you know how to skate.
There is pressure in Las Vegas (or Nashville, or Tampa), but it’s the good sort. People want you to do well, but don’t take it personally if you screw up.
There is more pressure in a U.S. hockey town – your Bostons or Philadelphias. But it’s nothing like Canada. The Patriots and the Eagles? They understand pressure. Hockey’s third or fourth down the pressure list anywhere in the States. That’s the sort of pressure that reminds you your job matters, but isn’t so heavy that you live in fear.
When you lose in Canada, it’s a civic disaster. Forget about the playoffs. Losing three in a row in January will light hair on fire all around town.
Thirty years ago, those playing in Canada could hide from these regular bouts of civic panic. Don’t read the newspaper, listen to FM radio and buy yourself a VCR. Problem solved.
Unless he is a techno-abolitionist, the modern player cannot escape that pressure. Every time he looks at his phone (which for most of them is every waking moment of every day), he is being deluged with public opinion.
When things are good, that Canada-based player thinks he is a Golden God. And when they’re bad, he is loudly telling anyone with a microphone that, hey, he doesn’t read the newspaper, after which he quotes the newspaper. Evidently, that whiplash effect is not good for people.
Down in the United States, it’s steady as she goes. Good, bad, somewhere in between. Until the third round of the playoffs, most people in your town don’t care. They treat you like the neighbour’s dog. Everybody loves the neighbour’s dog because you get a little love, but you’re not responsible for the messes.
Up in Canada, it is all-attention, all-the-time. Whenever a mess is the result, the result is an endless lecture that is bound to make some people resentful. Hence the vicious cycle.
Nothing about that is changing. The Montreal Canadiens do not want Montrealers easing up on the team because, were that the case, they’d also be spending less money on Jean Béliveau sweaters. The business of Canadian hockey needs this recurring cycle of panic.
But the hockey of Canadian hockey? That is not working out so well. It’s beginning to seem as though the real secret to building an NHL winner is planting it somewhere in the United States where no one cares. Then you have happy employees and the luxury of a free hand to shuffle them around.
There’s no reason players in Canada shouldn’t earn their salaries. If they want to be paid US$10-million, then they owe 10-million’s worth in results. But they might be better at their jobs if they didn’t have thousands of wannabe colleagues trying to hold the stick for them.
Canada’s hockey problem isn’t hockey. It’s Canadians, abetted by modern communications. Only one of those things can be changed.
The first thing I’d do if I owned one of these teams? Collect phones on Day 1, run them through a wood chipper and cancel the locker room WiFi. They want to know what’s going on in the world? They can read a book instead. Something that’s got nothing to do with hockey.
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