Canada makes hockey comeback

Both the Ottawa Senators and Anaheim Ducks have brought a Canadian flavor to the NHL finals.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

No matter which hockey club embraces the Stanley Cup – and there could be trophy-hugs as early as Wednesday night – one particular breed of fan is more than likely to crack a broken-toothed smile: the Canadian one.

While the Senators of Ottawa could become the first Canadian team since the Canadiens of Montreal in 1993 to win the Cup, the Ducks of Anaheim have more Canadians on the roster – 18 – than any other National Hockey League team. And the Ducks have, with the help of the Sens, rejuvenated the so-called "North American" – really Canadian – style of play: heavy-hitting, intimidating, and opportunistic.

The Canadian hockey heartache will never completely fade, but after years of sliding into regions where the ponds never freeze, the hockey barometer is headed, at least by a degree, back north. It's a redemption, of sorts, for enduring countless indignities by fair-weather fans in the United States, clueless networks, and knuckleheaded commissioners.

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"There has always been an inferiority complex with Canadians and their hockey," says Vancouver Canucks fan Jessie Ursulak, who blogs at Hockey Rants. But now, he says in an e-mail, Canadians are in a "tizzy" – not just over the Canadian-flavored Cup final, but because of hints that a struggling franchise in the US South, the Nashville Predators, may be moved to Canada. It would be the first such move in the expansion era.

Canadians have slipped on the ice in recent years. Since 1967, the percentage of NHL players who are Canadian has steadily slid from 97 percent to 50 percent, mostly replaced by flashier players from Europe's Slavic and Nordic zones, according to hockey researcher Ralph Slate at hockeyDB.com.

Yet when it comes to playoff leadership, all but one Stanley Cup champion teams have been captained by a Canadian – which could change this year, ironically, if Ottawa, where the Swede Daniel Alfredsson wears the "C," wins.

While the American Sun Belt – with its scrums of Canadian expats – has added teams from Anaheim to Raleigh, N.C., teams like the Quebec Nordiques have been shuttled south of the border. Hiring more of the game out to European dipsy-doodle specialists, ostensibly to add excitement to the game for the American audience, also took some grit out of the game.

Then, after the 2004-05 lockout, commissioner Gary Bettman's strategy took the league into the cable basement, broadcasting most of the season on Versus (formerly the Outdoor Life Network). And last month, NBC, which is showcasing the playoffs and finals, insulted fans by switching from overtime hockey coverage to show coverage of the Preakness – an hour before the race actually started. Meanwhile, US newspapers have largely stopped sending correspondents to the finals.

"The thing that frustrates hockey fans is, Why does the NHL cater to new or prospective fans?" says Jim Boone, president of the NHL Fans' Association in Ottawa. "Why don't they just recognize the fans that they have, where the roots of hockey are?"

But for all its provincial desire, Canada is a victim of its own prejudices, too. The reason ratings at least in English-speaking Canada are down by 6 percent this year is that Toronto fans despise Ottawa so much that they refuse to tune in. (So much for "Canada's team.")

Still, even though clubs in Nashville and Phoenix are struggling, the broadening of hockey has largely been a success, since no expansion team in the US has yet folded, some analysts say.

"I'm not trying to be glib about how people in Winnipeg feel about not having NHL hockey anymore," says Rodney Fort, a sports business expert at the University of Washington in Seattle. "But the main thing on the larger issues of where teams are and how they choose to play ... is primarily a business phenomenon."

Yet those who pledge allegiance to a maple leaf are on the comeback trail: Tight checking and bone-rattling hits typical of the Canadian game aren't just sideshows, but central to success this year. Even Swedish players, known for years to spin away from checks, are these days taking it on the chin.

In the current matchup, every turning point seems to involve a Canadian, whether it's Markdale, Ontario-born Chris Neil of the Sens laying five hits and scoring two goals in Game 3, or Dryder, Ontario-born Chris Pronger getting a one-game suspension – his second in the playoffs – for knocking Grande Cache, Alberta, native Dean McAmmond unconscious.

So far, the Ducks are playing better hockey, led by the Cranbrook, British Columbia-born Niedermayer brothers, Scott and Rob, and took a convincing 3-1 lead in the series by winning Monday at Scotiabank Place. The Ducks could win the Cup in Anaheim Wednesday night.

Should Ottawa lose, Canadians only have to look back at last year's disappointment, when Carolina beat Edmonton in seven games, for a spot of comfort: Soon after the final game, Carolina Captain Rod Brind'Amour was spotted wading out into Elk Falls, near Campbell River, British Columbia, with the Cup.

Canadians, says Mr. Boone, "just want that Cup." Either way, they're likely to get it.

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