At least we know it’s possible.
No one can argue, given the events of the past few months, that successes at the highest possible level — championships – aren’t achievable for professional athletes and sports franchises in Canada.
We always knew that, of course. We knew there was no regulatory or logistical reason why it wasn’t possible. It just seemed that way because, well, it had just been so long since it happened. The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993. Mike Weir won the Masters in 2003, demonstrating a Canadian could go head-to-head with the very best on the most hallowed ground in the sport and win.
After that, well, nothing for a long, long time. We had athletes and teams win gold in the Olympic Games, but that’s a different animal entirely.
So to have the Toronto Raptors win the NBA title in June, and then have Bianca Andreescu capture the U.S. Open women’s championship this past weekend, suddenly the entire Canadian sports landscape seems different. The national sports conversation has been altered.
We the North. She the North.
And, with NHL training camps about to begin, that brings us to the national hockey conversation.
Unlike the Raptors, Canada’s only NBA team, there are seven Canadian entrants among the 31 NHL teams. In theory, that should give the Stanley Cup a much greater chance of going to a Canadian team every once in a while, wouldn’t you say? Perhaps a 20 per cent chance of it happening once a decade?
Except it hasn’t happened in 26 years. As a group, Canada’s NHL clubs sport a disgraceful competitive record. No Canadian team has won the Cup since Montreal won in 1993. Not a single Canadian team has even managed to get to the Cup final since Vancouver made it and lost to Boston in 2011.
Since then, 12 of the 24 U.S. teams have made it to a Cup final, including the Vegas Golden Knights in that team’s first year. Four teams — St. Louis, Washington, San Jose and Nashville — qualified for their first Cup final since the last Canadian team made an appearance.
Every year, Canada’s teams seem to be on the outside looking in with a couple of exceptions. This seems to have become generally accepted north of the border. Television ratings are good everywhere and attendance is usually terrific, with Ottawa the lone exception these days as Eugene Melnyk and Pierre Dorion mimic the Rogers/Mark Shapiro Blue Jays model of turning a winner into a loser faster than you can say Johnny Bower.
Certainly none of the Canadian teams seem to be suffering unduly from their lack of competitiveness. Edmonton got tens of millions of dollars of public money to build a spectacular new area. Calgary’s rich owners seem on the brink of doing the same. Ottawa is also trying to make it happen. The Maple Leafs went from mediocrity to being the worst team in the entire league by design and still didn’t suffer any noteworthy punishment from their fans. Four of the top 11 attendance teams last season were Canadian-based.
Business is good. The customers are gratefully buying what Canada’s NHL teams are selling.
With the 2019-20 regular season a little more than three weeks away, little has changed. None of the Canadian teams are currently positioned to win the Cup again this season.
To be fair, that statement comes with an asterisk. If the Jets and Leafs get their top young restricted free agents signed in the very near future, both would be considered serious contenders.
But if Winnipeg doesn’t have Patrick Laine and/or Kyle Connor, they’re weaker. If the Leafs don’t have Mitch Marner, they’re weaker. There’s a chance none of these three players will sign at all this season. There’s a greater chance they eventually will sign, but will return partway through the season and quite possibly struggle like William Nylander did last season.
Calgary and Vancouver have the same issues with Matthew Tkachuk and Brock Boeser, respectively, but even with those players inked to new deals neither team would be a viewed as a serious Cup threat.
Montreal isn’t either, and the Habs have everybody signed. Ottawa and Edmonton appear likely to be also-rans again.
At a time when the Raptors and Andreescu are demonstrating what’s possible, Canada’s NHL teams don’t appear ready to raise their games to meet that standard. Most are in a waiting mode, waiting for their best young players to magically mature. Waiting because their fans don’t seem to mind the wait.
There is nothing holding the Canadian teams back, nothing like the pre-salary cap days when only Toronto had the financial means to compete with teams like Detroit, Philadelphia and the Rangers.
Get more opinion in your inbox
Get the latest from your favourite Star columnists with our Opinion newsletter.
The truth is Canada’s teams haven’t won because they haven’t been run very well (we’ll exempt Winnipeg, which just got its team back in 2011) or very aggressively. These teams have been selling hope for so long now it’s actually what they do best.
It has taken the country’s NBA team and a 19-year-old tennis player to demonstrate emphatically there’s something beyond this. And not just winning. Winning by beating the absolute best their sport has to offer. Winning because winning was the only objective.
Wouldn’t it be nice if Canada’s NHL teams were paying attention?