NHL·First Person

Pick your side and enjoy the 'Canada Cup' these unique NHL playoffs present

The North Division has resulted in a western playoff series and an eastern series where the winners then meet for what will amount to a kind of Canada Cup, although God forbid, the NHL bosses in New York will never let it be called that. But for me at least, that's exactly what it will be.

League's realigned season offers 2 classic rivalries for Canadians to enjoy

Montreal's Shea Weber, Edmonton's Connor McDavid, Toronto's Auston Matthews, Winnipeg's Conner Hellebuyck. (Getty Images/Illustration by Hugh Bakhurst)

Growing up as a new Canadian during the late fifties, I had a serious challenge.

It started almost immediately after I got off the ship from Britain and walked down the gangway with a cricket bat in my hand and discovered it wasn't going to be much use when I hit the ice. I had to learn how to skate, hold a stick and manoeuvre a puck, all toward eventually playing hockey.

That wasn't easy, but the next challenge was even more difficult: who was I going to cheer for? In Ottawa, my new hometown, the Senators were still decades away, and if you wanted to support a Canadian team you had only two choices. You either went red or blue. Habs or Leafs. Montreal was just down the road. Toronto was much further away.  

The rest of my family loved Rocket Richard, Boom Boom Geoffrion and the great Jean Beliveau. I wanted to be different. So I went blue and that meant the Big M — Frank Mahovlich — Dave Keon and Dick Duff. They were all-stars, just check the list in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Together with their teammates, they set up a fabulous decade or two of Stanley Cup playoffs where both teams had terrific records and multiple Cup parades. It's been a long time since they've really lived up to the old slogan of "Forever Rivals." A long time since they've even played against each other in the playoffs.

WATCH | How the Leafs-Habs rivalry came to be:

Renewed after 42 years, how the Leafs-Habs playoff rivalry came to be

5 months ago
It's official, the Leafs and Habs will meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 1979. Rob Pizzo goes back over 100 years into the archives to examine hockey's oldest rivalry. 4:28

But we are about to watch just that now, in what could be a springtime to help bring us out of the COVID doldrums we've been stuck in for more than a year. Because the pandemic has forced the NHL to shuffle its schedule and its games, we've witnessed an all-Canadian division for the first time in the league's history. Seven teams from five provinces, and now a playoff format based on the top four team's records during the regular season.

As it turns out, it means there will be a western playoff series and an eastern series where the winners then meet for what will amount to a kind of Canada Cup, although God forbid, the NHL bosses in New York will never let it be called that. But for me at least that's exactly what it will be before the eventual winner moves on to play the winners of the American divisions.

Newly emigrated from Great Britain and living in Ottawa, a young Peter Mansbridge had to choose between storied rivals Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs. Most of his family went red. Peter went blue. (Courtesy Peter Mansbridge)

Basement caves

Edmonton and the remarkable Connor McDavid will face off against Winnipeg and the other Connor, standout goalie Hellebuyck. The Oilers versus the Jets. Alberta versus Manitoba. And on the other side of the country, it's Toronto with Auston Matthews, the best goal scorer in the world (my bias) versus Montreal and all those banners hanging from the rafters. Habs versus Leafs. Ontario against Quebec. Could anyone have scripted it any better?

Of course, it would be better if we could watch from arena seats, but social distancing will keep us in our basement caves, screaming at the big screens on the wall, and probably eating and drinking too much of whatever we think won't completely tip our pandemic weight into the red zone.

WATCH | North Division playoff preview:

Stanley Cup Playoff preview: North division

5 months ago
Hockey's oldest rivalry highlights round 1 in the all-Canadian division. 3:08

So what does it all mean? Anything? Maybe not, but I'd like to think it's going to be one of those rare moments in our country where an awful lot of Canadians end up watching the same thing at the same time.

There used to be a saying that the only time Canadians were united in TV watching was during the Stanley Cup playoffs or when all the first ministers sat around a table at a constitutional conference. But Meech Lake killed one of those, and the poor performance of Canadian teams in the playoffs killed the other. But sports has proven it can still surprise us.

It may seem like a century ago already, but it was just two years ago that the Toronto Raptors had the whole country enthralled with their championship run, led by an inspired Kawhi Leonard and his buzzer-beating three-pointer along the way that no one will ever forget. People who had never watched a basketball game before watched the Raptors that year, and my bet is that at least for the aforementioned "Canada Cup" there's the potential for something like that to happen again. 

I mean let's admit, we could all use something other than worrying about where our second vaccination shot is and when we'll get it. Cheering for our regional favourites, laughing, crying and losing our thoughts in something far different than what has consumed us for the past fourteen months, will be healthy in itself.

So bring it on. I'm ready.


Peter Mansbridge

Former Chief Correspondent CBC News

Peter Mansbridge is the former chief correspondent of CBC News and Distinguished Fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

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