Canada's hockey angst runs disturbingly, delightfully deep
Coyotes' stretch against Canadian teams a reminder that Cup drought, Olympic hopes have created win-or-nothing mentality up north.
The Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and are on the fringe of the playoff race this year.
Tom Szczerbowski / USA TODAY Sports
By Craig Morgan
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Canadians have a love affair with hockey that is both admirable and disturbing. The modern version of the game was invented in Canada during the 19th century, so it is as much a part of the Canadian fabric as baseball, basketball and football are in America.
That fact creates certain expectations from the game's teams, whether its winning Stanley Cups, as the Montreal Canadiens did so prolifically in the last century, or Team Canada winning gold medals in international competition.
Not surprisingly, there has been much angst over Canada's chances at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, with most Canadians agreeing their team will be the favorite based on forward talent. But a large group of those same voices assuming Canada will fall short of its goals due to mistakes by the selection committee or shortcomings of the players involved.
To understand just how passionate this angst is, think of how Americans feel every time NBA players are assembled for the Olympics. Anything but gold is a failure — and there should be a fair amount of blowouts along the way to prove America's dominance.
The Olympics will occupy Canada for most of February, but once they are finished, the nation will turn its lowly eyes back to a source of great sorrow: No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since Montreal hoisted it in 1993, and Toronto, the nation's flagship franchise, hasn't won one in 46 years. Judging by the standings, it looks like that drought will continue this season.
As the Coyotes continue a four-game stretch against Canadian clubs with a road trip through Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver, four of Canada's seven teams are currently out of playoff position — with Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg almost certain to miss the postseason.
Of the three in playoff position, Vancouver and Toronto are seventh in their respective conferences, and Montreal is fourth in the East.
To get a sense of how Canada feels about it current Olympic and NHL predicaments, we caught up with three writers who cover the NHL for a living: NHL.com senior writer Dan Rosen, National Post columnist Bruce Arthur and NBC Pro Hockey Talk's Joe Yerdon, who also covers the Leafs and Sabres for NHL.com. Here are the their takes on a few Canada-centric questions.
Which is more important to Canadians, winning Olympic gold or having one of their teams break this 20-year Cup drought?
Rosen: It's the Olympic gold, and I'm not sure it's even close. The Olympic gold is a national symbol for Canadians. Hockey is their sport, and winning an Olympic gold in Sochi would bring about national pride. The Stanley Cup is still very much a regional symbol, even though it is the greatest symbol of the sport and one of the most cherished pieces of Canadian history. What I mean is if the Canadiens win the Cup, I'm not sure that the people in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg or Vancouver would care too much, and I'm pretty sure the people in Toronto and Ottawa would not be happy at all. However, if the Canadians go to Sochi and win gold, everyone in the country is going to celebrate.
Arthur: I'd say it's gold, if only because when Canadians talk about wanting to win the Stanley Cup, they want their team to win. Toronto doesn't want Montreal to win, and Montreal doesn't want Ottawa to win, and nobody but Vancouver wants Vancouver to win, and so forth. It's tribes. Whereas the Olympics — I mean, something like 80 percent of the country watched the gold medal final in 2010. When it comes to Team Canada, that's all of us.
Yerdon: I have to think a gold medal is a bigger deal. Yes, it's "embarrassing" to Canada that teams like Carolina, Anaheim and Tampa Bay have all won Cups since the Habs won in '93, but fans of Canadian teams don't want to see teams that aren't their own be the team end Canada's Cup drought. Everyone else in Canada already despises the Canadiens, so disliking them for being the last team to win is something else to throw on the pile. If it's not their own team winning the Cup then they definitely don't want someone else in Canada getting to brag about it. The Olympics is the one thing that unites everyone.
How would you measure or describe the national angst over the Olympics? And over the Cup drought?
Rosen: Think of the entire population of Canada on the edge of its seat, and that pretty much describes the national angst Canadian hockey fans have over the Olympics. Of course, not everybody is at the edge of their seats, and I bet there are even some Canadians who won't even be watching, but the point stands because the sport and being recognized as the best in the world matters.
The decisions (Team Canada GM) Steve Yzerman made for the roster have probably been questioned and debated more than some of the decisions Prime Minister Harper makes. Heck, PM Harper was probably questioning and debating the decisions. There is angst and a lot of it.
As for angst over the Cup drought, I think it's just a feeling of wonderment. They probably can't believe that a Canadian team hasn't won the Cup since 1993, but to be fair, there are only seven Canadian teams, and for a while there were only six. But it's no comparison to the Olympics.
Arthur: The Cup drought is agony in different ways, in different places. The Leafs are a long, endless agony; Vancouver was so close and is recovering from that; Calgary and Edmonton are so far away it might as well be the moon; Winnipeg is just happy to be there; the Senators are a "nearly" team, but their fan base isn't as deep; and the Canadiens are a religion. The Olympics, though; people still complain about player selection for the 1998 and 2006 teams. Like, today.
Yerdon: Not much angst over the Olympics when they won gold twice in the last three. Angst comes in picking the team, which is like trying to pick out the best All-Star team. Olympics are the thing, though. That means national pride on a country-wide scale. The Cup drought is national pride on a localized basis for whoever winds up in the playoffs.
Which is more likely (this seems fairly obvious), a gold medal or a Canadian team winning the Cup?
Rosen: I'd have to say gold medal, because I'm not sure that any of the NHL Canadian teams are all that close to competing for a Stanley Cup, whereas the Canadian Olympic team will go to Sochi as the favorite for the gold medal. I'm not suggesting they will win gold, but they will be the favorite.
Yerdon: Canada has a better shot at gold. They have arguably the best roster in the tournament. Sweden, Finland and the U.S. may have some better components, but Canada's talent up front is just too good. You can't quite say the same about Vancouver or Montreal when it comes to their Cup chances against other teams in the league.
Which Canadian team has the best chance to win the Cup and why?
Rosen: Right now, I'd say the Montreal Canadiens because they have the best goaltending. Carey Price is exceptional, and obviously you need great goaltending to win the Cup. I like their special teams. I like their depth. I don't like their possession numbers, and I sometimes feel they have too many holes in the D zone and rely on Price too much. But of the seven Canadian teams, they are the closest. Vancouver would be second, followed by Ottawa and then Toronto.
Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton have a long way to go, obviously. The Canucks have the firepower and they seem to be adopting (coach) John Tortorella's toughness, but it still feels slightly out of character for them.
Arthur: Right now, Ottawa might have the best chance, and they're on the fringes of the race. Nobody's very close this season, I think. I mean, Calgary and Edmonton are rebuilding, Winnipeg's in stasis, Vancouver's at the end of their run or getting there — and the West is so brutally tough — and Toronto and Montreal are coin-flip playoff teams, I think, at the end. Nobody's a contender. I thought Ottawa might be, but . . . not right now.
Yerdon: Right now, it's Montreal. They're near the top of the Atlantic Division, and playing in the Eastern Conference means having to really worry about two teams (Pittsburgh and Boston), and it's possible Montreal wouldn't have to see either of them until maybe the second round. If Ottawa can find any sort of consistency, I think they'd be right there as well. Vancouver is also up there, but with what a brutal competition the West is, it's tough to feel confident about anyone that's not Chicago, St. Louis or Anaheim.
Rank the Canadian cities' fan bases in terms of fervor, irrationality and all those good things that come with fandom?
Rosen: I'd have to go with Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa in that order. And I'm not suggesting any of them don't have a unique brand of fandom. They're markets that live and breathe with their hockey clubs.
But Toronto is by far and away the wildest that I've seen, and it probably has a lot to do with the fact that the Maple Leafs haven't won the Cup since 1967. The fans in that market have gone through every kind of emotion possible. In Montreal, they're big on history and they love the Habs' place in hockey history. In Toronto, it seems like they don't want to talk about history because even though they have all these great former players, there is that difficult fact that it has been so long since they won the Cup. The analysis of the Leafs from media and fans surpasses any other market. They will break down every possible number to determine the future success or failure of the club. The entire discussion in the city is about the Leafs.
Arthur: Oh, that's hard. Irrationality: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, then some combination of Calgary, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton. But honestly, it can vary from day to day. And in terms of fervor, everyone but Ottawa.
Yerdon: Montreal is far and away the No. 1 for everything. It's the most intense city I've ever seen when it comes to fandom. A few years ago, I went to a concert there that happened to take place the same night as a Habs home playoff game. They had the game on the TV screens before the start of the show, but once the concert was to start, the TVs went off. The theater erupted in boos until the band appeared on stage to make it better.
Every game there is an event. Every game played there makes you believe in the power of sports — every game there, no matter whether it's a regular-season game against the worst team in the league or against the Bruins or Leafs or the playoffs.
Toronto and Vancouver are battling for second place on this list as far as I'm concerned. Leafs games have tremendous life, as do Canucks games, but they don't come with that same full-arena fervor Habs games do.
Ottawa is a great town with good fans, but being caught up between Toronto and Montreal makes life hard when either of those teams come to town. Having the arena miles and miles away from downtown doesn't help things out either. Winnipeg may be the one place that gives Montreal/Toronto/Vancouver a run for their money right now for intensity and irrationality, but it's easy to be excited when that "new car smell" hasn't yet worn off.
Edmonton and Calgary have seemingly had the life sucked from them thanks to losing, but Oilers fans are as intense as any and I'm sure we all miss seeing Calgary's "Red Mile" come playoff time. You put a winning team back on the ice in either place and they'll be right back in the thick of this. All that said, every other city would love to have it like Montreal.
Going to Canada for hockey purposes is always exhilarating. There's always a buzz in the air for every game and it makes doing work that much more fun. Seeing how much the game matters to fans north of the border makes you understand what it would be like in America if the NFL season lasted 82 games plus playoffs.