December 16, 2017

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Opinion

O, say can you see... a U.S.-dominated NHL?

Will hockey still be considered Canada’s game in 2028 when there are more Americans than Canadians playing in the NHL? (Charles Krupa / The Associated Press files) </p>

Will hockey still be considered Canada’s game in 2028 when there are more Americans than Canadians playing in the NHL? (Charles Krupa / The Associated Press files)

So here’s an uncomfortable question: Will hockey still be considered Canada’s game in 2028 when there are more Americans than Canadians playing in the NHL?

I’ll wait here while you mop up that coffee.

While the idea of an NHL dominated by the U.S. may sound preposterous to any Canadian told from birth that we’re the greatest hockey-playing nation on earth, you cannot argue with math. Or, for that matter, with what’s been going on in suddenly hockey-crazy U.S. cities such as Nashville, where the Winnipeg Jets were visitors Monday night.

More on Nashville in a minute. But first let’s talk about that math, which points to an NHL that in the very near future could look a whole lot like the Jets roster already looks like today, which is to say dominated by Americans.

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So here’s an uncomfortable question: Will hockey still be considered Canada’s game in 2028 when there are more Americans than Canadians playing in the NHL?

I’ll wait here while you mop up that coffee.

While the idea of an NHL dominated by the U.S. may sound preposterous to any Canadian told from birth that we’re the greatest hockey-playing nation on earth, you cannot argue with math. Or, for that matter, with what’s been going on in suddenly hockey-crazy U.S. cities such as Nashville, where the Winnipeg Jets were visitors Monday night.

More on Nashville in a minute. But first let’s talk about that math, which points to an NHL that in the very near future could look a whole lot like the Jets roster already looks like today, which is to say dominated by Americans.

Consider: of the 24 players on the Jets' roster Monday night in a 5-3 loss to the Predators, 10 were Americans, eight were Canadians and then there was a United Nations smattering of two Finns, a Swede, a Dane, a Russian and an Austrian.

Welcome to tomorrow’s NHL, today.

According to the indispensable number-crunching website quanthockey.com, the percentage of Canadians playing in the NHL is in freefall — and it’s been mostly the Americans who have been replacing our boys.

Forty years ago, in 1977-78, the NHL was made up of 87.5 per cent Canadians and just 8.6 per cent Americans.

Thirty years ago, it was 76.9 per cent Canadians and 15.6 per cent Americans.

Twenty years ago, it was 61.3 per cent and 16.5 per cent Americans.

Ten years ago, it was 51.4 per cent Canadians and 22.1 per cent Americans.

And today? The gap is at its all-time narrowest — NHL rosters consist of 45.9 per cent Canadians and 26 per cent Americans.

And that gap has been closing faster than ever in recent years — a 40.3 per cent gap between the two nations just 16 years ago has been more than halved to just 19.9 per cent today.

 

 

 

If you missed the moment Canadians ceased to be a majority in the NHL, it occurred during the 2015-16 season when for the first time ever, Canadian content dipped to 49 per cent.

Put all those numbers together, extrapolate out from the decades-long trends and then factor in what’s been going on most recently and what you come up with is that as early as the 2028-29 season, according to one estimate, the trend lines will cross and the NHL will be a league with more American players than Canadian.

Now, that day, whenever it happens, will come as a sobering reality to every Canadian who has just assumed that our country would forever produce the best hockey players in the world — and in the highest numbers.

But while it might be sobering, it shouldn’t be surprising. Because let’s face it: the NHL is a league that has been dominated by American teams for better than two decades and what we are now seeing is simply the grassroots catching up to those elite organizations.

It’s been 23 years since a Canadian-based team last won the Stanley Cup and it is not a coincidence that all those Stanley Cups paraded around all those American rinks over the last couple decades caught the attention of a generation of young American hockey talent that is taking over the game.

Success breeds success in every endeavour. And so it only stands to reason that an NHL so long dominated by American teams would at some point also come to be dominated by American players.

Just look at the Jets, an organization that has been American-heavy at the draft table for years and for whom many of the key pieces are now Americans, from leading scorer and team captain Blake Wheeler to No. 1 netminder Connor Hellebuyck to blue-line stalwarts Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien to a couple of the team’s most exciting young prospects in Kyle Connor and Tucker Poolman.

Throw in defenceman Tyler Myers, centre Adam Lowry and grinders Andrew Copp and Matt Hendricks and you could make a case that the Americans on the Jets roster are some of the very best parts of an emergent Winnipeg team this year.

A similar story is emerging league-wide. The NHL’s most exciting young player these days is an American in Auston Matthews, and across the league this season, Americans have scored 25 per cent of the goals, 27.2 per cent of the game-winning goals and have chipped in with 25.3 per cent of the assists.

It might be our game, but it has a distinctly American accent these days.

Canada still hockey heavy on world stage

Now, no one is writing off Canadian hockey. Not now and not ever.

The league’s leading scorer this year is a Canadian in Steven Stamkos, as were seven of the top 15 scorers in the league heading into this week’s action (the Americans had four players on that list).

And Canada also continues to provide the league’s sandpaper — while Canadian players represent 45.9 per cent of the league’s rosters, we’ve taken 50.7 per cent of the penalties so far this season.

Canada has also, it’s worth noting, won the last two Olympic gold medals in men’s hockey, the last four in women’s hockey and if our best NHLers would have been allowed to play in Korea in February, we’d have been heavy favourites at the 2018 Winter Olympics to again skate away with both hockey golds.

Woe Canada? Not by a long shot.

But you only have to look at what’s going on in Nashville to realize a sport that we once had almost entirely to ourselves has now found big and equally rabid fanbases in some unlikely places.

Last spring’s Predators' playoff run all the way to the Stanley Cup final was one of my favourite sports stories of 2017, as much for the show the fans put on in the stands as the one the Nashville players performed on the ice.

"You only have to look at what’s going on in Nashville to realize a sport that we once had almost entirely to ourselves has now found big and equally rabid fanbases in some unlikely places."

We might have invented the game, but everyone loves a winner and Nashville has become one of the elusive new hockey markets that the NHL under commissioner Gary Bettman has been chasing for the better part of a quarter-century.

A lot of that quest has been fruitless. Sunbelt destinations such as Arizona, Carolina and Florida continue to struggle at the gate and the television ratings for the NHL remain a joke, one that is getting less amusing by the day.

But with a population roughly 10 times ours, hockey can grow slowly and incrementally — and remain a mostly regional sport in the U.S. — and the Americans will still outnumber us in the long run.

How much do you want to bet that 15 or 20 years from now, we’ll be talking about some hot new hockey prospect from Tennessee, who caught the bug watching the Preds' playoff run in 2017 and never looked back?

And so the smart play looks to be exactly the one the Jets have adopted — if you can’t beat 'em, scout 'em. And sign 'em.

It’s worth noting that a lot of those American-based Stanley Cup champion teams over the last couple of decades were dominated by Canadian players — and I don’t recall any of those American owners making apologies as they handed out championship rings.

And there’s some history to all this that is baked into the Jets' DNA. Those great Avco Cup champion Jets teams of the WHA back in the '70s were built, in large part, by a Jets management team that had the wisdom to recognize an untapped market of hockey talent overseas and then aggressively scouted it.

Back then, it was Swedish players such as Lars-Erik Sjoberg, Ulf Nilsson and Anders Hedberg who put the Jets over the top.

The team was ahead of its time on that one.

The inescapable math suggests the club might be ahead of its time on this one, too.

 

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca  

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Read more by Paul Wiecek.

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