Milan Lucic spent last year playing hockey in Los Angeles, where he discovered that Neil Diamond had it right: The city's fine, the sun shines most of the time and the feeling is laid back. Lucic grew up in Vancouver but spent the first nine seasons of his professional life in the United States – until he became a free agent this summer and suddenly had a choice to make.
When casting about for a new opportunity, Lucic eventually settled on what seemed like an unlikely next step in his NHL career: He chose Edmonton, the land where NHL dreams have gone to die for the past decade, with the Oilers plagued by the longest active playoff drought in the league – 10 years and counting.
For Lucic, Edmonton made sense because it gave him a chance to play with Connor McDavid and all the other rising stars in the Oilers organization. He was prepared to give up the weather and the lifestyle he'd come to enjoy in California to go north, something that would have been unheard of in years past.
"For me, it wasn't about the money, because it was the same amount of money no matter where I would have gone," Lucic explained. "But I wanted to go to a team where I could help it grow, where I could see myself having success – individually and, most importantly, team-wise.
"No matter what way you win, it's awesome. But I remember talking about this to Shawn Thornton, who won in Anaheim and in Boston. He said the Boston one meant so much more to him because he started with a team that grew into a championship team. And that's what played huge into my decision."
Lucic's choice looks prescient now. As the NHL headed into its final week before the Christmas break, four of the seven Canadian teams – including the Oilers – held down a playoff spot, and a fifth, Winnipeg, was only a few points out. That's a marked improvement from the same time last season, when the Flames, Jets and Oilers were 11th, 12th and 13th respectively in the Western Conference. By then the Oilers were eight points back of the Nashville Predators, who held down the final playoff spot and had a game in hand.
The Oilers were essentially already done in what turned out to be a lost season for the seven Canadian-based NHL teams, all of which missed the playoffs – a development that sparked a national debate over the special challenges of playing for a team north of the 49th parallel.
The scrutiny, the climate, the taxes and the shrinking dollar were all cited as reasons why it was harder for Canadian teams to compete for high-end players and, by extension, for championships.
No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens, though Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa have all made it to the finals since then. The Canadian conundrum was far less of an issue in the 1980s, when Canadian teams won the Stanley Cup for seven consecutive seasons between 1984 and 1990. Those were the halcyon days.
As Lucic noted, once players get to a certain point in their careers, their salaries are guaranteed no matter where they play. So other priorities factor into a decision to sign with a Canadian team.
Elite athletes share a desire to win and to play with like-minded individuals. After decades of losing generational players to U.S.-based teams, suddenly Canada has a few of its own – McDavid in Edmonton, Auston Matthews in Toronto, Patrik Laine in Winnipeg, Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary – and it's making a difference.
A deeply talented roster made Detroit a popular destination for all the years the Red Wings were a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. General manager Ken Holland couldn't lure players with the promise of a nice climate or state-of-the-art arena (that's coming). All Detroit had on offer was a team that perennially competed for a championship – and the chance to play alongside future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom.
"If you came to Detroit and played on that team and could crack that lineup, your value went up around the league and you could parlay that into a longer career," said Oilers coach Todd McLellan, who spent three seasons as an assistant on Mike Babcock's staff in Detroit before becoming a head coach in San Jose.
"Now, family does come into play. My wife loves it in California in January, but it didn't stop us from going to Edmonton. But I would be wary of comfort or players that are just looking for comfort. You play to win. They should want to win. It starts there. Then other variables come into play."
Last summer, Troy Brouwer chose to sign as a free agent with Calgary, even though he had a number of alternatives. He said he and his wife sat around the kitchen table, with massive spreadsheets, listing the pros and cons of the cities they might be interested in – and weeding out the ones they didn't think would be a good fit.
"The majority of the time the decision was about 'Where are you going to be the happiest?' and 'Where are you going to find a balance between the opportunity to win … where your family's going to be happy and what helps you become financially set?'
"It doesn't hurt that our families are from Western Canada. Having our kids grow up around their cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents was important as well."
Future Hall of Fame defenceman Chris Pronger also cited family reasons for wanting to leave Edmonton after the Oilers' 2006 playoff run. He joined the Anaheim Ducks and promptly helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2007.
Lucic's family made that trip in reverse – from California to Alberta.
"It was something I talked about a lot with my wife because she's there more than I am," Lucic said. "As much as we loved California, it was a nice little teaser being there for one year, to get that heat. Boston was cold, too, but I don't think anywhere is as cold as Edmonton when it gets to be winter. But we're close to home [Vancouver], and when I'm on the road, it gives her the opportunity to spend time with the family in Vancouver."
Still, Lucic believes the greater priority is career satisfaction.
"You can talk about the geography and all that stuff, but if you make it fun coming to the rink, it doesn't matter what the weather is like outside. I've talked to guys who played in Florida when it wasn't a happy place, and the [good] weather didn't matter. The rink was a terrible place to go to. It was a negative place, and that was your mood no matter what the weather was like outside."
Of course another factor in the decision-making equation is the attention paid to hockey in Canada – which can be a double-edged sword, according to St. Louis Blues defenceman Jay Bouwmeester.
"Hockey in Canada, it goes both ways," said Bouwmeester, who previously played in Florida and Calgary. "When you have a good team, a winning team, life couldn't be better – and you're not going to find that in most American cities, no matter where it is."
As proof, he cited his move back to Edmonton once his season in Florida was over in the spring of 2006 – the year the Oilers unexpectedly qualified for the Stanley Cup final.
"The excitement around the city was awesome," he recalled. "And the same thing happened in Calgary in 2004 and Vancouver in 2011 – people were going crazy."
On the flip side, he pointed out, "when things aren't going good, that's all there is. It's all hockey, all the time – and that can wear on guys a bit.
"But if you ever were to win in Canada, there'd be no better place to do it."