Keeping Score

NHL Playoffs: Can Canada Regain the Stanley Cup?

A Canadian team hasn't won the Stanley Cup in nearly 20 years. Why the last Northern team standing in this year's playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks, are worth rooting for

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Ben Nelm / Reuters

Vancouver Canucks left wing Alex Burrows (14) celebrates his game winning overtime goal with teammate Ryan Kesler (17) after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of their NHL Western Conference quarter-final hockey game on April 26 in Vancouver, British Columbia

Anaheim, Dallas, Raleigh, Tampa: To the 34 million citizens of Canada, the country that invented the game of hockey, the Stanley Cup belongs in these cities about as much as tropical beaches belong in Saskatoon. Yet, in the almost two decades since the last time a Canadian team won the Cup — Montreal defeated Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings in the 1993 Finals — these southern and western American cities have all hoisted the Cup in triumph. “I mean, after Anaheim won [in 2007], they had a celebration in the parking lot outside the Honda Center,” says Doug Eberhardt, a Vancouver sports radio personality. “That kind of stuff gets people going. When real hockey fans see teams like Carolina and Anaheim winning the Cup, it sends a shiv through our ribs.”

And Canada has never had to feel that kind of pain for this long. The previous longest drought was seven years, between the 1935 Montreal Maroons and 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs. But luckily for America’s neighbors up north, the losing streak could end this year thanks to the Vancouver Canucks, which finished the regular season with the best record in the National Hockey League. The Canucks received a serious scare in the first round of the playoffs, when the eighth-seeded (and reigning Cup champs) Chicago Blackhawks bounced back from a 3-0 series deficit to force a seventh and deciding game. Vancouver survived, barely: during a heart-stopping overtime session, Alex Burrows of the Canucks punched in the sudden-death goal to give Vancouver the series win. In the second round, Vancouver beat Nashville — yet another southern city with no hockey history — in six games. The Canucks will face the San Jose Sharks, who defeated the Detroit Red Wings, 3-2, in Game 7 of their second round series on Thursday night, in the Western Conference Finals starting Sunday.

(See a brief history of the Stanley Cup.)

In the 18 years since Montreal won the ’93 Cup, Canadian teams have come close to bringing it home. On four occasions, teams have made it to the Cup finals: the last one, the 2007 Ottawa Senators, fell to Anaheim in five games. This year, the country is rallying around Vancouver. Martin Laba, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, notes that Canada, much like the U.S., possesses a “cranky parochialism.” The Canadian west, urban Ontario, French-Canadian Quebec, and Maritime provinces all have a strong sense of regional pride. Still, fans of the other Canadian NHL teams, however begrudgingly, want to see Vancouver win. “Canadians don’t do nationalism like Americans,” says Laba. “We don’t have Disney to animate our creation myths. We have the damn game. It would be a major event for the Cup to return to Canadian soil.”

The timing of a Canadian championship would also be fitting. “Canadian Economy the Envy of the World” read one CBSnews.com headline in June of 2010, ahead of the G-20 Summit in Toronto. Strong banking regulation prevented wild risk-taking in the Canadian financial industry, so the country largely avoided the economic meltdown that left the United States and other parts of the west in tatters. Canada suffered no subprime crisis. Operating from a position of relative strength, Canada will now likely win back one of the franchises it lost to the U.S. in the 1990s, when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman over expanded hockey into indifferent southern and western markets and Canadian clubs had problems keeping up with the rising salaries of the game.

In 1996, the Winnipeg Jets left the Manitoba chill for Phoenix heat; however, in 2009 the Coyotes went bankrupt, and were taken over by the NHL. Although the City of Glendale, Ariz., where the Coyotes play their games, just voted to fork over $25 million to keep the hockey team in town one more year, a resource-rich ownership group, True North Sports and Entertainment, is waiting in Winnipeg to scoop up Phoenix when the money runs out.

(See the top 10 sports moments of 2010.)

If Phoenix doesn’t move back to Winnipeg, True North could buy the Atlanta Thrashers, another financially-strapped team. Even Quebec City, which lost the Nordiques to Denver (where it became the Colorado Avalance) following the 1995 season, is planning to build an arena, which could attract a team. “In the 90s, when the Canadian dollar was worth 63 cents in America, the game shifted south,” says Gary Lawless, sports columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press. “Now, our dollar is on par with the American dollar, and our economy is strong. We want our franchises back, and we want our trophy back.”

That may sound like fighting words. But even for the bluest-blooded American, the Canucks are worth rooting for. The team plays an up-tempo style that leads to quick scoring chances. A set of talented twin brothers, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, toss telepathic passes to one another: they’ve been less than spectacular in the playoffs thus far, but are due to break loose. Goaltender Roberto Luongo, who minded net for Canada’s gold-medal winning Olympic team in 2010, is one of the best in the game; forward Ryan Kesler, of Livonia, Michigan, has been a dominant playoff performer.

Plus Vancouver, the picturesque city in the Pacific Northwest which hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1915, when Cyclone Taylor — “the LeBron James of his day,” says Eberhardt — led the Vancouver Millionaires to a win over the Ottawa Senators. In 1970, the Canucks played their first season as an NHL expansion team. For years, they were best known for donning the hideous “Flying V” uniforms in the late 70s and early 80s (though they have made it to the Finals twice since then). The sweaters consisted of a monstrous yellow, red, and black striped “V” coming down from the shoulders. A psychologist came up with the look, because he thought it conveyed aggression. Unfortunately, it was only ugly.

(See the top 10 U.S. sports strikes and lockouts.)

Vancouver also knows how to party. During the Olympics, I wrote a story headlined “The Vancouver Games: A Gold In Drinking,” which did not cast the city’s festive mood in the most flattering light. Vancouverites were not pleased: one called me “a bit of a wuss,” online. Compared to some of the other invective thrown my way, that felt like a compliment.

Fair enough. But if the Canucks capture the Cup, giving a lovely city a long-awaited victory, and Canada a shot of national pride not to mention bragging rights in its national game, here’s one American who will gladly drink to that.

Watch “Vancouver Minute: The Hockey Team Wears Heels.”

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