Canada's NHL playoff hopes go south for 1st time in 46 years
Bad news for fans, bars and broadcasters, but not a national identity crisis, culture critic says
It's as Canadian as maple syrup, the Mounties or Tim Hortons. Hockey has long been Canada's national winter sport and is considered one of our most cherished pastimes.
But Lord Stanley's Cup will not return to Canada this year. For the first time since 1970, there are no Canadian teams in the NHL playoffs.
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It's not only the fans who will be affected. This is also bad news for bars, restaurants and broadcasters hoping to draw big revenue from Canadians looking to root for the home team.
"Across the country, Canadians love to cheer Canadian teams, so I think you're going to see the interest dwindle. Especially sports bars and restaurants, they may not have the numbers coming in to watch the games," said Hannah Holmes, a McMaster University professor who specializes in the economics of sport.
But what does that NHL shutout mean for Canada's national identity and our collective relationship with the game?
"I don't think it's a national identity crisis in the works in any way," Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, told CBC Radio's The Current earlier this week.
"If it were to happen over a number of years, I think it would probably matter more … I think Canadians still feel very good about our performance in hockey."
Hockey is big business in Canada. A May 2015 report pegged Canada's hockey-related economy at more than $11 billion annually, including $1 billion in tourism revenue. It also noted that 90 per cent of Canadians believe "hockey is part of our cultural fabric."
"[Hockey] is right up there with the RCMP and the beaver," says Jedwab. "It registers very strong as a national symbol, and any scale, any measurement across all demographics, hockey is extremely popular. It's the sport we think we excel at."
Five of Canada's seven teams reached the playoffs last year, though only the Montreal Canadiens made it through during the 2013-2014 season. But a complete shutout hasn't happened in 46 years, when Canada had only two teams — the Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs — vying for the Stanley Cup in a 12-team league. Now there are 30 teams.
Canadians may also be stinging at the fact that Lord Stanley hasn't been brought north of the border since the 1992-1993 season, the last time a Canadian team won a playoff title. Those heroes were the Canadiens.
Some suggest the success of Canada's other professional sports franchises in recent years is helping grow those games — at hockey's expense.
Major League Baseball returns this weekend, with the Toronto Blue Jays, still riding high on an impressive late-season run in 2015 that saw them reach the ALCS. And the Toronto Raptors have clinched an NBA playoff berth that begins mid-month.
Canada has become a breeding ground for NBA talent in recent years, with Canadian players taking the No. 1 draft picks in 2013 and 2014.
"For young people coming up, they don't know the Leafs … The Leafs have been irrelevant for young fans for a long time. And the success of the Raptors … I think that's been pulling more fans, especially young ones, to the sport of basketball," Paul Riley, a sports and media lawyer, told The Current.
He suggests a "seismic shift" is happening in Canada's sports landscape as the popularity of basketball and soccer continue to grow. Both sports embrace all cultures, said Riley, while hockey may have "priced itself out of the market."
"Blue-collar families can't afford hockey anymore," he said. "Soccer, basketball, you don't need anything, you just need some shoes on your feet and you show up and you can play."
Safety-related debates around hockey, including those related to fighting and concussions, may also influence parents' decisions to let their kids play, he added.
Heart of the community
Bruce Dowbiggin, a sportscaster and the author of Ice Storm: the Rise and Fall of the Greatest Vancouver Canucks Team Ever, suggests there's a rural-urban divide when it comes to the sports kids play, and hockey remains a "linchpin" in many of Canada's smaller communities.
Dowbiggin agrees that a prolonged playoff losing streak by Canada's NHL teams, coupled with greater success for the Raptors and Jays, may bring some change. But the "sentimental roots" hockey holds in Canada will be harder to shake.
"Whether you're in St. John's or whether you're in Vancouver, you can start talking to somebody about hockey and you can relate right away," he told The Current. "It's a conversational thing that Canadians have that we can identify with each other."
Always next year
While Dowbiggin predicts Canadian television ratings could drop by as much as half during this year's NHL playoffs, he says a successful playoff run next year will bring fans back to the fold.
"When teams make [playoff] runs these days, it becomes a cultural event on TV that people follow. If we get a Canadian team making a run again, I think we'll see some very healthy TV numbers come back," he said.
"As long as the hockey is entertaining and exciting and competitive, we're hoping and expecting that fans will tune in and watch great hockey," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told The Canadian Press.
In some ways, Jedwab argues, we've become a victim of our own success.
"We envisioned exporting hockey to our neighbours to the south and we've done really well by that," he said, pointing to the NHL's growth and a comment about the Chicago Blackhawks that U.S. President Barack Obama brought up during a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
With files from CBC Radio's The Current