Barring the unlikely, June 2009 will mark the 16th anniversary of the last time a Canadian-based franchise won the Stanley Cup.
A drought of such epic proportions would have been heckled back in 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens dealt with the Los Angeles Kings in five games to win their 24th title.
At the time, aside from the reigning champs, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames were serious threats, Vancouver and Quebec were teams on the rise, Edmonton was trending down, but still just a few years removed from glory while Winnipeg, well, they were still in the NHL. The fledgling Ottawa Senators brought CanCon to eight of 26 teams, 31 percent of the league. It would have seemed preposterous back in the days of Whitney Houston and Ace of Base to think we’d go more than one-and-a-half decades with Canada dry.
So what’s gone wrong?
Blame it on a myriad of factors, the main culprits being economic. As player salaries started to spike exponentially in the mid-1990s, the Canadian dollar retreated, falling from the 80-cent range in 1993 to the low 60s within a few years. It was a double whammy for small market Canadian clubs and hastened the departures of Quebec to Colorado in 1995 and Winnipeg to Phoenix the next season. It also threatened Edmonton’s well-being and made it difficult for Ottawa and Calgary, and to a lesser extent Vancouver and Montreal, to compete for the big-ticket players.
With Canadian teams down to six of 30 (20 percent) by 1996, the Cup odds became longer, but were still theoretically 1-in-5, not 0-in-14 (when you subtract the lockout year). Still, none of the Great White Northerners have been able to couple shrewd management with good fortune, though Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa have come very close.
I suppose the bigger picture question is, should we care? And should the NHL care?
It depends on whether you believe fairness is at issue.
Thanks to a rejuvenated Canadian dollar, heightened passion for the national game in the provinces and an erosion of interest in the states, the Canadian clubs are fuelling the league’s fiscal engine, on a per capita basis. In terms of ticket, TV, merchandise and ancillary revenue, Canada contributes a highly disproportionate percentage of the income.
At the same time, there is the notion of birthright. It’s Canada’s game, its natives live and breathe the sport; shouldn’t some of its inhabitants have the pleasure of celebrating the ultimate achievement, at least occasionally? Remember the furor when the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992 became the first non-American team to win the World Series? Imagine the angst in the U.S if that became a more frequent occurrence.
To its credit, the NHL has taken steps to address the haves-and-have-nots gap with the cap and revenue sharing system. That levels the ice surface to some extent, though by how much is debatable.
Perhaps what this is telling us is that it’s time for the NHL to look north again, whenever it’s next time for relocation or (way off in the distance) expansion. Dotting the map with teams across America is fine, but it’s no longer perceived as a TV bonanza by the U.S. networks.
Putting franchises in fertile markets where the fan bases are already rabid is the best way to strengthen the league and the product – and maybe give a championship back to people who’ve invested a huge part of themselves, and their wallets, into the game.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every Friday.
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