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The Green Men, Vancouver Canucks fans, wait for play to stop so they can return to their seats in the second period of Game 3 between the Nashville Predators and the Vancouver Canucks in a second-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series on Tuesday, May 3, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
The Green Men, Vancouver Canucks fans, wait for play to stop so they can return to their seats in the second period of Game 3 between the Nashville Predators and the Vancouver Canucks in a second-round NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey series on Tuesday, May 3, 2011, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

Canada slowly warming to Canucks Add to ...

There's much to loathe about these Vancouver Canucks. They're chippy, they have a knack for dirty hits, they dive and apparently bite, too. And underdogs, they aren't - they had the league's best record before this painfully probable Stanley Cup run.

East of the Rockies, that could be enough to turn most folks off. Canucks fans are few and far between from Alberta to the Atlantic, with their opponent, the Original Six Boston Bruins, capturing many hearts and minds. In contrast, the Canucks franchise has no history, little national profile and hasn't won a Cup.

It's enough to suggest this squad from far-flung, latte-sipping and kayak-loving Vancouver can't possibly be the so-called "Canada's team," the last hope for a country without a cup since 1993. Boston, after all, has as many Canadian players.

But that's simply not the case. Canada has a team, and right now it's the Canucks. The TV numbers say so.

The first three games averaged 5.56 million viewers, up 79 per cent from last year. Although much of that bump is from B.C., where viewership is up 270 per cent, CBC viewer totals show spikes in each and every region of the country. The figures are roughly twice as high as the last two times a Canadian team made a run (the Senators in 2007 and Oilers in 2006), and is on pace to be the most watched since TV stations began measuring viewership in 1989.

When meeting with B.C. Premier Christy Clark, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach swallowed his pride for the province's Flames and Oilers and donned a Canucks jersey. They're Canada's team now, he said. In Halifax last week, a region with close ties to Boston and filled with fans for its sports teams, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson gathered Canada's big-city mayors for a photo opportunity, wearing Canucks jerseys.

Only one put up a fuss - Calgary's Naheed Nenshi, a Flames fan who joked afterwards he'd need a shower.

"It's about bringing the Cup back to Canada for the first time in 18 years," Mr. Robertson says.

Canadians may be unwilling, but they have no choice. Including the new Winnipeg franchise, only one other Canadian team even made the playoffs.

"It might be grudging and by default, at times, but I think the Canucks are on the way to becoming, in a bona fide way, Canada's team," said David Mitchell, a former B.C. MLA who is now president of the Public Policy Forum, an Ottawa-based think tank.

"It's churlish to suggest otherwise. How long have we been waiting for a Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup? I'm sure all of Canada loves the Canucks. They're the Canucks, for goodness sake, not the British Columbians," added Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter, who has a food and jersey bet on the Cup outcome with Northeastern University president Joseph E. Aoun in Boston.

There are, however, barriers keeping the Canucks from the upper echelon of public sentiment occupied by Original Six teams. Many start in Vancouver. The city itself is an isolated hockey market, whose games start at bedtime on the east coast and whose fan base has long fluctuated. The team also has few rivalries.

In Alberta, Flames and Oilers fans are hard-pressed to cheer for a division rival, despite the Canadian connection, ending the spread of Canucks Fever at the Rockies. Manitoba may have some Canucks fans because the franchise's farm team had been based in Winnipeg, but with the NHL's return that city now has its own team. And in Quebec and southern Ontario, the Canadiens and Maple Leafs, respectively, are king.

Much of Canada cheers for Original Six teams or, particularly along the East Coast, grew up inundated by American television. For Maritimers, New England sports loyalty runs deep and can take bizarre forms. Before every game, Nova Scotia Transportation Minister Bill Estabrooks removes his false teeth and drops them into a beer mug emblazoned with the Bruins logo.

"A safe place to put your dentures during a hockey game, you put them in a beer glass that you're drinking out of," explained Mr. Estabrooks, who grew up listening to the Bruins on the radio.

The devotion is spread through the region but arguably strongest in Halifax. The city shares with Boston a similar maritime history and a strong emotional bond - every winter, Halifax sends south a large Christmas tree as a mark of thanks for assistance given after a devastating explosion in 1917.

"Geographically, we are closer to Boston," said Steve MacEachern, a Halifax hockey fan who has been a Bruins fan since the day they acquired Cam Neely in the mid-1980s. "I feel about as much connection to Vancouver as I do to Australia. We're here and they're way over there." Across the NHL, too, these Canucks have worn out their welcome. Several players and executives across the league have criticized their play, as well as Alex Burrows' alleged finger biting and Aaron Rome's hit that sent Nathan Horton out on a stretcher. The Canucks, however, say it doesn't affect their play.

"We don't really care," Captain Henrik Sedin said Tuesday.

All this debate, as such, matters not in hockey-mad Vancouver, a city that basked in Canada's gold medal hockey glory a year ago and hopes to follow suit with its first Cup win. The province is overwhelmed again by hockey; slowly, it seems, the rest of Canada is warming up.

With files from Matthew Sekeres

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