Let us go back 15 years and … shudder.
It is the early weeks of the new century and all is doom and gloom for Canadian NHL franchises.
Not only have the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets long slipped over the U.S. border, but the Ottawa Senators are facing bankruptcy and possible relocation. The Canadian government is so concerned with the financial viability of the six Canadian teams that a multimillion-dollar bailout package has been offered, only to have provincial and municipal leaders turn their thumbs down.
Ottawa is almost certain to lose its team. The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are said to be in trouble and contemplating moves south. Even the storied Montreal Canadiens openly wonder whether they can survive. Some have predicted that within a few years only one team – the Toronto Maple Leafs – will begin the evening's entertainment with the Canadian anthem.
Just imagine if that had come to pass – no playoffs at all this year for the nation that invented the game and then lost it.
Consider next the incredible puck luck of Rogers.
Before this season began, the broadcast giant paid out $5.2-billion to tie up NHL rights in Canada for a dozen years. It began its first season under expert predictions that only one Canadian team, the Canadiens, would even be in the playoffs come April.
Well, as of Thursday night there were four – Montreal, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets – with the possibility of a fifth, the Senators, joining them if Ottawa could pick up but a single point in their Saturday afternoon match against the Philadelphia Flyers.
As much as the demise of the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings has been a shocker, the return to Canada of the Jets in 2011 and their reaching the playoffs three seasons later have been pure delight. There have not been playoff games in Winnipeg since 1996, when the former Jets fell in the first round to the Detroit Red Wings.
It may be no accident that Jets fans, living in the figurative centre of the country, are not only the loudest but the happiest. And it is a delight shared across the land, no matter what one's local or regional hockey loyalties.
The underdog is now best of show.
When The Hockey News, which is often considered the game's bible, put together its expert panel before the season, only the Montreal Canadiens were predicted to reach the playoffs. They predicted the Flames would finish dead last in their division, below even the Edmonton Oilers. They predicted the Jets would be dead last in their division. And they predicted the Senators would finish worse than the Maple Leafs in their division, both effortlessly missing the playoffs.
The Hockey News was hardly alone in missed shots. NHL.com's 12-person expert panel had four members predicting the Kings would repeat as Stanley Cup champions and one saying it would be the Bruins. L.A. has missed the playoffs and Boston may join it.
It was a season unusual in other ways, as well. For once, the NHL scoring race elicited about as much interest as watching a Zamboni go around and around during intermission. With scoring down to levels not seen since the 1960s, interest in numbers gave way, happily, to interest in stories.
There was something precious about heart-warming stories in what Canadians in the east, at least, found to be the toughest winter in collective memory. And Canadian NHL teams were filled with such tales: goaltender Carey Price having an MVP season in Montreal; goaltender Andrew (Hamburglar) Hammond coming out of nowhere to help Ottawa challenge for the playoffs; the high-tempo energy and determination of the Jets in front of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec; rookie John Gaudreau (Johnny Hockey) in Calgary; the goal-scoring prowess of Radim Vrbata in Vancouver.
Even in despair, the stories of the talented but directionless Edmonton Oilers and the dysfunctional Toronto Maple Leafs were compelling in their own way.
The success of the teams heading into the postseason argues against current thinking that Canadian teams are doomed – none has won a Stanley Cup since Montreal back in 1993 – by their inability to attract, and keep, the first-rank free agents, who so often prefer a lesser spotlight in warmer and less-taxing climes. In most cases, success among these five teams has come from players barely known or not known at all only a year ago.
As Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray said only this week, "We're more and more convinced it's a young man's game now."
Hockey has long had a special hold over this country. Youngsters often know the words to Stompin' Tom Connors's The Hockey Song before they master their own anthem. We put shinny on our currency when Americans were going with God. Our defining moment didn't even take place in Canada but in a Moscow arena at the 19:26 mark of the third period, Sept. 28, 1972. No need for further details.
A generation back, hall-of-fame goaltender Ken Dryden and I wrote a book, Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada, in which we attempted to explain the grip that child's play has on a grown-up nation.
"Hockey is Canada's game," we wrote. "It may also be Canada's national theatre. … It is a place where the monumental themes of Canadian life are played out – English and French, East and West, Canada and the U.S., Canada and the world, the timeless tensions of commerce and culture, our struggle to survive and civilize winter."
Canada's national theatre indeed.
With the curtain about to go up on an opening round that will feature four or five times more Canada than the experts predicted.