Next spring, 2023, will mark the 30th anniversary since a Canadian team hoisted the Stanley Cup.
The 30-year mark is traditionally marked by a gift of pearls. But will it be pearls of wisdom – no Canadian team will again win the highest award in the national game – or will that easy curse turn out to be fake pearls that a northern team eventually breaks?
There were high hopes for the Edmonton Oilers this year, but they came up very short, being swept in four games in the Western Conference final by the Colorado Avalanche. Swept, despite having what is widely seen as the two best players in the game, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
One year ago, the Montreal Canadiens surprisingly reached the final, largely on the back of the goaltending of Carey Price.
The Canadiens were the last Canadian team to win the Cup, the 1993 Conn Smythe Trophy for the MVP of the playoffs going to goaltender Patrick Roy. He also won the Conn Smythe in 1986, the previous time Montreal won.
Since 1993, it has been fallow going for Canadian teams. The great dynasties of the Canadiens (1950s, 1970s), the Toronto Maple Leafs (1960s) and Edmonton Oilers (1980s) are now so far in the past that many of today’s fans have no recollection of how dominating those Canadian teams were in their time.
There was a period early in this century where Canadian teams reached the Stanley Cup final three times in a row – Calgary Flames in 2004, (no Cup in 2005), Edmonton Oilers in 2006, Ottawa Senators in 2007 – but all three teams ended up runners-up. The Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in 2011 and, of course, the Canadiens lost to Tampa Bay in 2021.
Goaltending takes the usual blame for coming up short, just as goaltending gets the usual credit for going all the way. Montreal’s Patrick Roy was the clear hero in the Canadiens last two victories – and Price the near hero in last year’s surprising run. Edmonton’s Mike Smith is still being roasted for a few misplays that are said to have ended the Oilers’ chance to reach the final.
Goaltending, however, may not be as great an issue for today’s Canadian teams as is the ability to attract those superior veteran talents who have reached unrestricted free-agent status. Those excellent players – stars but not superstars – who can help the McDavids and Draisaitls get to where they believe they should be, given their regular-season brilliance.
It is too often presumed that such players are keen to play for the teams they grew up dreaming of one day playing for – but history would argue that John Tavares, the Mississauga kid who slept in Toronto Maple Leafs pajamas and now wears the Leafs’ “C,” is far more the anomaly than the standard.
A generation ago, it was believed that Vincent Lecavalier, the 2004 Stanley-Cup winning star of the Tampa Bay Lightning, would like to finish his brilliant career in Montreal, where he had grown up. Despite the constant rumours, it never happened. (Lecavalier did eventually join the Canadiens, but as a special adviser for hockey operations.)
This year, the rumour is that Claude Giroux, the former Philadelphia Flyers captain who played this season for the Florida Panthers, would be signing with the Ottawa Senators. And why wouldn’t he? He has a beautiful home in Ottawa. He played junior hockey across the river in Gatineau. The Ottawa Twitter microuniverse has even claimed sightings of Giroux shopping in the local Costco.
Will it happen? Possibly, though it’s hard to see the 34-year-old remaining the force that he once was with the Flyers. Giroux appeared in only 18 games for the Panthers this past season, scoring three goals and adding 20 assists.
The reality is, unfortunately for Canada, that a great many veteran players who gain control of their destiny rarely see Canada as a destination.
Back in 2015, ESPN.com polled hockey agents to see which NHL cities are most often listed in players’ no-trade clauses. Edmonton and Winnipeg claimed the two top spots, with Ottawa and Toronto coming in fourth and fifth.
There are many factors that come into play when a superior free agent contemplates going to a Canadian team. Chances are good that he will have a family, perhaps even have married an American citizen. Canada is freezing cold compared to, say, Sunrise, Fla., where the Panthers play. There are increasingly frustrating border crossings. Taxes are higher, in some instances much higher.
There is also the not-insignificant matter of scrutiny. To play for a Canadian team is to be instantly recognizable whether on the ice or entering a restaurant. Schoolyards are vividly aware of how the local team is doing, how some new kid’s father isn’t living up to all the hype of the summer signing.
Sportsnet insider Elliotte Friedman has said in the past that one unidentified superstar who expected to be traded told his team, “Don’t even think about Canada.”
Media attention can become intense in Canada when things are not working out. Just imagine how Mike Smith feels this week after Edmonton’s third-round loss.
Alexei Kovalev, who played two seasons for the Ottawa Senators after starring for the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers, told Sovetsky Sport in 2011 that the Ottawa media “don’t watch hockey at all.” Instead, he claimed, they “channel their anger at hockey players.”
And here we thought we were friends …