Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time for Canadian teams to contend for Cup

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For the longest time, the thought of a Stanley Cup parade being held in Canada was about as improbable as a black man being elected president of the United States.

After all, the last Canadian-based team to win was the Montreal Canadians in 1993; a time when Kim Campbell was prime minister, Czechoslovakia was breaking into two, Kurt Cobain was still alive and John Bobbitt had all his parts, if you know what we mean.

It was still the dawn of the dark ages of the NHL, when a plummeting loonie and insane league economics threatened the existence of Canadian teams, much less made them Stanley Cup threats. The only team that had the financial resources to seriously compete for league supremacy was the Toronto Maple Leafs, which is to say the only actor who had a chance to win the Oscar was Pee Wee Herman.

So Canadians grudgingly came to accept the prevailing climate and for the most part were grateful their teams survived on threadbare budgets, or maybe that their star players didn't bolt for outrageous contracts in New York or Dallas or Philadelphia.

But look around. There are no excuses anymore.

Why did only three Canadian teams make the playoffs in the first place? Why did the two worst teams in the entire 30-team league (Edmonton and Toronto) represent one-third of Canadian markets?

It shouldn't happen, not in a new fiscal era where the playing field hasn't just been levelled but now tilts towards Canadian outfits that all have their helmets bumping against the league's $56.8-million ceiling.

Question: How could Darryl Sutter's Flames possibly miss a playoff spot despite having a massive competitive advantage over teams like the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche? And why shouldn't the Vancouver Canucks and Montreal Canadiens, the only two Canadian teams still in the tournament, not have every chance of winning hockey's holy grail as any other team still standing -- and that includes the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins?

Sure, the Penguins have an envious wealth of young talent, led by the growing legend of Sidney Crosby. But it's not like the Penguins can outspend their rivals, and for every extra dollar they pay Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal they have to cut at the back end. It's not the olden days, when the Rangers, Leafs, Wings and Stars could happily spend their way into the playoffs with late-season deals and you could rent superstars for draft picks.

Seriously, why aren't the Canadiens, Canucks and Leafs favourites to win a Stanley Cup every year? They make the most money. They sell out their buildings every night. They are the star attraction in their markets.

So why do only half of them make the playoffs? The cap has been in place for enough years now that spirited runs to the finals by the Calgary Flames (2004), Edmonton Oilers (2006) and Ottawa Senators (2007) should be more commonplace. Yet for some reason, that 17-year Canadian Stanley Cup drought seems to have become accepted with a shrug.

What, have we all become Leafs fans? How pathetic that the bar has been lowered to the point where repeated failure becomes the acceptable norm. That attitude should be recalibrated now, regardless of the poor souls in Toronto.

Because no Canadian team should have even missed the playoffs, given that the Coyotes and Nashville Predators got in with much lower payrolls. Question: How does a team with an unlimited budget (outside the cap) and unconditional love finish dead-last in the East (Toronto) while an orphaned team in Phoenix finishes fourth in the tougher Western Conference?

And while the Canadiens are certainly long shots against the Penguins, the Canucks have no crutches when it comes to winning a Cup. They have superstars in the Sedins, one of the world's best goaltenders most nights and a strong supporting cast. The Canucks will have their mitts full with the young Blackhawks to be sure, but it's also a veteran, handsomely paid group that, if healthy, should be expected to succeed.

Yet Canadian teams have gone so long without holding a Cup over their heads that to imagine it somehow seems foreign. Maybe because they haven't won a Stanley Cup in Vancouver ever, in 40 long years. It's been 17 Cup-less seasons in Montreal, 20 in Edmonton and 21 in Calgary. It's been since 1967 in Leaf Nation and since 1927 in Ottawa.

These heady days, however, there's no reason why a Canadian team can't get at least to the Cup final every single year. It should be an annual rite of spring and summer.

In fact, it's the Canadian clubs that are now bankrolling the NHL and paying out welfare to the likes of the Coyotes, Thrashers and Predators.

Time to start paying back the local fans, too.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 10, 2010 C3

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