In Stanley Cup finals, the Sun Belt meets Canada, finally

Tuesday in Tampa Bay, as the national anthems of the United States and Canada echo across the ice, the Tampa Bay Lightning and Calgary Flames will stand face to face, waiting for the first puck to drop in this year's Stanley Cup finals. Beyond the raucous confines of St. Pete Times Forum, however, two nations will be eyeing each other from across the 49th parallel.

In another season, perhaps, TVs would buzz about Dave Andreychuk - a player so gnarled by his 22 seasons that trainers could crack him open and count the rings - finally making his first Stanley Cup finals. Writers would warble about Jarome Iginla - not only the best black hockey player in a league starved for diversity, but one of the best players of any shape, size, or hue - period.

This year, however, all that is background noise. This year it's all about the US and Canada and a decade's worth of payback. Payback for being cast off into the hockey hinterlands for 10 years - the last Canadian team to make the finals was Vancouver in 1994. Payback for those fashionable Sun Belt cities - from Anaheim to Phoenix to Tampa Bay itself - that came into the league, stripping Canadian towns of their teams or pillaging those that remained of their best players.

This is a seven-game series to end a decade of frustration. A series to take back a national pastime from a race of people who think that the five-hole is hovering somewhere over the Antarctic. A series to set the hockey world right at last.

Indeed, during the past two months, one cow-town team of unknowns has unified a country whose splintered hockey allegiances - divided among Maple Leafs and a half-dozen others - can sometimes make the Balkans seem like the Brady Bunch. Most of the time, the Stetson-wearing, big-belt-buckled Calgary fans occupy a narrow band of the high plains east of the Rockies, south of Edmonton, and just above the edge of the American border. Today, folks all over Land of Eh! have taken to saying that the "C" on the Calgary sweater stands for Canada.

For most of the Lightning's 12 years of existence, the bolt on their sweaters has stood for a vain attempt to jolt Florida's sunny coasts out of ice ignorance. It's no wonder. This is, after all, Florida. The list of great hockey players to come from its sandy shores can be counted on no fingers. Its hockey tradition is, to put it charitably, thin.

Yet in many ways, this is the new face of hockey - or at least the National Hockey League would have it so. In the early 1990s, the league began its southward expansion, bringing ice to places where it had only been familiar in soft drinks and Slurpees.

The results have hardly been what the league intended. Yes, Tampa Bay is following other Southern teams to a place in the Stanley Cup finals: Florida in 1996, Carolina in 2002, Anaheim in 2003. But all have been one-hit wonders. Meanwhile, the expansion has spread talent too thin, and poor TV ratings suggest that the effort to expand hockey's fan base has largely failed.

Calgary would be happy to put the final stake in that era of hockey history - and it seems to be just the team to do it.

For the past 12 years, the NHL has chased Donald Trump ambitions with an "Apprentice" budget. Buoyed by a stronger dollar, US teams have overspent to hoard the best talent. The trend has driven two teams out of Canada - Quebec and Winnipeg - and consigned the rest to competitive irrelevance. Before 1994, the longest drought between Stanley Cup finals without a Canadian team was two years.

What's more, the league's exuberance has moved it to the brink of financial disaster: A strike appears almost certain next season.

But there's a twist. After several years of the biggest spenders reaping the biggest rewards, the little guys have now found a formula that works - and Calgary is the poster child. The Flames are young, they're fast, and they play as if they were hooked up to a light socket. The flames that sweep behind the "C" on Calgary's sweaters often seem more a statement of purpose than a statement of fashion, and the team leader is the inimitable Iginla - part brawler, part ballet dancer in steel-toed skates. The son of an African immigrant. The hockey player with seven names: Arthur-Leigh Elvis Adekunle Jarome Jij Junior Iginla. Yet it's the last name - which means "big tree" in Nigeria's Yoruba language - that gives the greatest sense of the man on ice.

Ironically, even the US entrant in this series is downright Canadian in character. The Lightning are no free-spending gluttons. They, too, are young and fast, characterized by Martin St. Louis, a water bug on ice, and anchored by Andreychuk, whose desire could be measured on the Richter scale.

This is a good thing for hockey, even if the matchup creates little buzz south of the border. Here are the teams with the 19th (Flames) and 21st (Lightning) highest payrolls in the league. Here are teams that have turned a recent trend of tentative, defense-first hockey into a solar flash of pure energy.

After years of searching for itself, hockey has again found its soul. And it seems only appropriate that, at last, a Canadian team would find a role to play.

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