Is the NHL rigged against Canada? Not really

As the underdog Montreal Canadiens manage to live to fight another day in the Stanley Cup final, we explore one of hockey's favourite conspiracy theories: that the league has it out for Canadian teams.

Conspiracy theories about Gary Bettman don't hold up, but Canadian teams do face hurdles

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price watches the puck go in during Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 5. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

After winning in overtime last night, the Montreal Canadiens have managed to live to fight another day in their made-for-Disney playoff run.

It's an underdog success story almost as unbelievable as the conspiracy theories that run rampant whenever a Canadian team fails to make it this far.

If last night was any sign, this could be the year that Canada makes its comeback, after years of complaints from fans that the game is rigged against them. A Canadian team hasn't brought home the Cup in 28 years, and as easy as it would be to blame that poor record on some Machiavellian plot to keep the Cup out of the north, it's not quite the case. 

Twitter and Reddit are rampant with theories from armchair experts who point out that the year Gary Bettman took over as NHL commissioner, 1993, was also the last time a Canadian team won the Cup.

The Stanley Cup final that year came close to being a showdown between two Canadian teams. But in a moment that still leaves Toronto Maple Leafs fans bitter, officials missed a call on a high stick by LA Kings star Wayne Gretzky against the Leafs' Doug Gilmour in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals.

Instead of being penalized, Gretzky scored the overtime-winning goal. The Kings went on to beat the Leafs in Game 7, only to lose the Cup to the Habs.

Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Demers lifts the Stanley Cup on June 9, 1993, after his team defeated the Los Angeles Kings to win the franchise's 24th championship. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

As much as that stings for Leafs fans, that's hardly a smoking gun. The idea that officials would intentionally make a call to advantage an American team over a Canadian one is bogus, according to Eric Engels, senior columnist and insider for Sportsnet. 

"It's all nonsense," he said.

"It's age-old that fans would think the officials are out to get their team specifically," said Engels, who has covered the NHL for 14 years. "That's a classic fan conspiracy that I wouldn't lend credence to."

The struggle to keep talent in Canada

If there's no invisible hand orchestrating who wins and loses, why have Canadian teams struggled to win the Cup?

"It's not so much that they're at a disadvantage, it's that they have a greater challenge to do what they need to do in order to be successful," Engels said. 

There are a few factors at play. For starters, there's the issue of attracting talent to Canadian franchises. Even though Canada produces nearly 43 per cent of the players in the league, keeping them at home is a challenge.

Hockey belongs to the people, but the NHL is a business.- Eric Engels, senior columnist for Sportsnet

Take for instance, the draw of playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Florida, with its warmer climate and decent real estate prices — not to mention that athletes take home more of their salary after tax.

The intense scrutiny that's a part of the bargain when you play in hotbeds like Montreal or Toronto can also dissuade some Canadian athletes from playing at home.

"Some of [the players] would be happy to be in a market where they're a little bit more obscure and off the radar. Where after they leave hockey practice, they can step onto a golf course and play a round, and just leave the job at the rink," Engels said.

Still, some players prefer the high-pressure environment. CBC Daybreak Montreal sports columnist Jessica Rusnak points to John Tavares, who agreed to leave the New York Islanders to come home to play for the Leafs. 

Marketing decisions leave fans feeling jilted 

Another popular conspiracy theory is that the officiating is rigged. But Rusnak said usually when an official isn't reffing up to their full potential, it's happening across the board and doesn't target a specific team.

Still, she said she understands why Canadian fans feel jilted. Part of that comes from the league's marketing decisions, such as broadcasting choices that cater to an American audience.

"The time slots tend to favour what the American networks wants as opposed to the Canadian ones,'' Rusnak said, dismissing the idea that those broadcasting choices would somehow bleed into influencing the actual gameplay.

They'd rather cater to someone who has watched the game three times in their life than someone who is a lifelong Habs fan or Leafs fan.- Jessica Rusnak, CBC Daybreak Montreal sports columnist

"I think that the NHL is definitely interested in growing the game in the U.S. market, because they know that the game is going to be really popular in the Canadian market regardless," said Adam Seaborn, director of sales and media operations for Kingstar Media, a Toronto marketing agency that buys advertising time on radio and TV.

"I think that stops in the business side of things, and when it comes to the actual competition, it's irrelevant," he said.

'Hockey belongs to the people'

Ultimately, the league is a business, and the American market is where there's room for the most growth. While that may mean that the league tends to favour U.S. cities like Las Vegas and Seattle for expansion over Canadian cities like Quebec City, it's nothing personal.

"They want new fans," Rusnak said. "They'd rather cater to someone who has watched the game three times in their life than someone who is a lifelong Habs fan or Leafs fan, because they know that lifelong fan is always going to come back to them."

If Canadian fans are looking for something to blame, instead of conspiracy theories perhaps they should look to capitalism.

"Hockey belongs to the people, but the NHL is a business that belongs to the owners, the players and all their corporate partners," Engels said.

Still, while the league caters to the Americans in many ways, Engels said the future is looking brighter for teams north of the border.

"I think you have a lot of teams in Canada that are on the rise. I think they're getting to be on an even playing ground with some of the teams that are in the United States."


Jaela Bernstien


Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and the environment for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at