Saturday 21 July 2018

Proud hockey history goes south for Canada

Los Angeles Kings forward Dwight King (74) tries to get past Winnipeg Jets defenseman Paul Postma (4) during the NHL hockey game at MTS Centre. Photo: Ray Peters-USA TODAY Sports
Los Angeles Kings forward Dwight King (74) tries to get past Winnipeg Jets defenseman Paul Postma (4) during the NHL hockey game at MTS Centre. Photo: Ray Peters-USA TODAY Sports

Eamonn Sweeney

The Canadian relationship to ice hockey often reminds me of the Irish relationship to Gaelic games. You get the sense that the sport is braided into the fabric of national life to an unusual extent. As Ken Dryden said in The Game, probably the finest book ever written by a sportsman, "It is part of our national heritage, part of us. There is no sport in the United States that means the same as hockey means to Canada."

Ice hockey is a professional sport at the top level but its flagship programme Hockey Night in Canada lacks the super-streamlined Hollywood feel of its equivalents in the NFL or NBA. Its feel of a neighbourly chat within a community, is one that calls to mind The Sunday Game rather than Sky Super Sunday.

There's something familiar too about the importance the Canadians attach to beating their bigger, brasher rival next door. The 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympic final wins over the USA were Stuttgart '88 written even larger. An Irish sports fan would have had a much better idea about how they were feeling than an English or American one.

That's why this time every year I'm rooting for a Canadian club to end the country's famine in the Stanley Cup play-offs, the culmination of the National Hockey League's season. Because, sadly, you have to go back to 1993 and the Montreal Canadiens', Ken Dryden's old team, victory over the Los Angeles Kings for the last time a Canadian side lifted the sport's premier honour. That was the Canadiens' 34th crown, which made them, as a Montreal acquaintance of mine was wont to boast, 'the winningest team in sports', but they haven't even made a final since.

In the 1980s the Wayne Gretzky-inspired Edmonton Oilers won four and the Calgary Flames got in on the act in 1989. The Toronto Maple Leafs have 13 titles to their credit. But those days are no more. And last week came the ultimate humiliation as all seven Canadian clubs were eliminated from play-off contention, the first time this has happened apart from in 1970 when there were only two Canadian teams in the league.

Since 1993 Canadians have had to watch the Stanley Cup go to some American cities where, for obvious climatic reasons, it's unlikely that anyone grew up dreaming of ice hockey. Montreal still has the second highest attendance in the league but they won't be in the play-offs while the sunny likes of San Jose (22nd), Anaheim (23rd) and Florida (25th) will. It says a lot about the difference between the standing of hockey in the two countries that Toronto are sixth of 30 in the attendance table despite having the worst record in the league while the New York Islanders, who look set for the play-offs, are 28th.

The play-offs won't be devoid of Canadian players, five of the last ten finals MVPs have been from the county, but the lack of representation is a grievous blow to national pride.

It just shows what can happen when your national sport goes international. Maybe it's just as well Gaelic games didn't catch on across the water. A football final between Manchester Gaels and Liverpool Harps might be a hard one to take especially after a hurling decider between Birmingham and Bristol.

Poor Canada. It's been such a miserable season they should get Leonard Cohen to write a song about it.

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