After 29 years of failure, is Canadian hockey now defined by losing?

Nick Foligno of the Boston Bruins battles for the puck against Jason Spezza of the Toronto Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on April 29.Claus Andersen / Getty Images

By law, the year 1993 must be mentioned at least a dozen times in any NHL playoff preview published in Canada. Failure to do so creates an undesirable attitude of national permissiveness.

If Canada can go 29 years without a Stanley Cup, that raises uncomfortable questions about what else it could do without? A prim need to judge each other? The world’s most boring politicians? Our way of life is in the balance here.

Those other national failings can’t be helped, but through the proper application of guilt, it’s possible this one can. What do you think would happen if the United States lost 29 straight world hot dog eating championships? There’d be riots. Because Americans have some pride.

That seems to be the rule here – feel bad because Canada (as represented by some Canadians and a fair few Americans, Scandinavians and eastern Europeans) can’t git ‘er done, rather than expect anything to change.

But maybe we’ve been thinking about this wrong. Maybe this isn’t anyone’s fault.

While it’s true that Canada hasn’t secured a Cup since Patrick Roy won one in ’93, it’s even more true to say no deeply beloved hockey club has. The problem isn’t geographic. It’s demographic.

The Stanley Cup has become a trophy for teams playing in cities that only sort of care about hockey. Occasionally, cities that don’t care at all.

This isn’t to say that no one in Boston (champions in ’11) or Detroit (’97, ’98, ’02, ’08) watches or understands hockey. Just that those are not hockey-first towns.

If the team is good, then great. But what those people really care about is the Patriots and the Lions, and the Celtics and the Pistons, and the Red Sox and the Tigers. And then after that’s done, maybe the Bruins and the Wings.

Then there are the Carolinas (’06) and Anaheims (’07) of the world. When Anaheim won its Cup, it didn’t make the top of the fold on the next day’s LA Times. It was treated like a high-school football team had won state.

If the Leafs win this year’s Cup, they’ll have to wipe the CBC’s broadcast schedule clean for six weeks so the run can be covered like a rolling natural disaster (which is how it will go over in every part of the country that isn’t t Toronto).

Twenty-nine is a decent sample size. Summon to mind the most obsessive, hysterical, prone-to-panic fan bases in every sport – say, Dallas for football, Boston for baseball, LA for basketball. They’ve all won titles at that time. In those sports, pressure works.

But apparently not in hockey.

In hockey, the more you are watched, the worse you are. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that a very average Canadian team got to the final last year – because inasmuch as that is possible in Montreal, no one cared. The team wasn’t good enough to invest in. It wasn’t until they got to the last hurdle that people began to really buy in. Whereupon the Canadiens immediately fell apart.

What if the thing that’s wrong with Canadian hockey isn’t Canadian teams, but Canadians?

I once caught a cab into Tuscaloosa on the day Alabama played LSU. Ten hours before kickoff, the streets were pulsating. Every single person was wearing red. It felt like a Rockwell painting made real. And as we goggled out the car windows, the cab driver said in a slow, mesmerized drawl: “These people believe in football.”

Canadian hockey fans believe in hockey. Maybe too much.

But it’s unfair to blame fans for wanting their team to do well. At the most basic level, hockey teams don’t make their money off merchandise and ticket sales. What they do is convert belief into cash.

If no one believed it wasn’t at least a little possible, there would be no reason to watch the games, buy the junk or wear the jersey.

But somehow what should be a virtuous circle – fans to management to roster back to fans – has been interrupted.

There is a glitch in the system that starts popping smoke every May. Canadian teams get into their own heads from the postseason. Sometimes, you can see it happening. The Leafs going to pieces against Montreal after being up 3-1 is only the most recent embarrassment.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Ottawa had beaten Anaheim back in ’07. If that had happened, we wouldn’t be here.

With the cycle broken, and nobody talking about rights any more, some Canadian team would have been freed to make a wild run to the end.

But Ottawa lost and the streak started to become a story. Like anything else, failure is habit forming. If you practice it enough, you get good at it.

Canadian NHL teams could try European soccer rules – lose and you’re fired, even if that means a new management group and / or roster every couple of years. But for no particularly good reason, we’ve all accepted that doesn’t work (though no one tried it).

Since no one wins, no one else is expected to. Whenever someone suggests shaking things up, they get shouted down because that’s not how things work (even when they aren’t working).

Fan belief get converted into fan anxiety. Problematically, anxiety is just as good for sports business as excitement. As long as people are watching, no one cares why they’re doing so.

So the wheel keeps turning. Next year, we’ll have the 30th anniversary of the drought to talk about. That should be an international story. What other country has gone so long without winning professionally at its own national sport? None.

What’s the solution? This. Losing is the solution. Everyone understands their role – the fans doubt the teams and the teams affirm their suspicions. People keep watching. The money keeps rolling in. We all have something to complain about and then we do it again next year.

Having done it this way for so long, it may be that losing isn’t a glitch in Canadian hockey. Maybe it’s the thing that defines Canadian hockey.


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