Canada’s hockey angst runs disturbingly, delightfully deep

The Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and are on the fringe of the playoff race this year.

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.

Another frustrating loss

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.

You can follow them on Twitter at: @drosennhl, @bruce_arthur and @JoeYerdonPHT.

Which is more important to Canadians, winning Olympic gold or having one of their teams break this 20-year 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.

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.

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. 

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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. 

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