Last week, to great fanfare, preliminary rosters for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey were unveiled. And as usual, Team Canada stood out as being ridiculously stacked, boasting so much talent that the biggest story were the perennial All-Stars who wouldn’t make the cut.
It was a nice moment for Canadian fans, one where they could feel good about the nation’s hockey prowess. Then the NHL regular season resumed, and those feelings immediately vanished. Because as a glance at this year’s standings will confirm, Canada’s NHL teams are terrible.
Canada has seven of the NHL’s 30 teams, and barring a miracle, all seven will miss the playoffs this year – according to Sports Club Stats, the country’s best hope for a postseason appearance rests with the Ottawa Senators, who have just a 1.7% chance of making it. It would be the first time that no Canadian team has made the playoffs since 1970, and back then there were only three.
So what’s going on? How can all seven teams from a hockey mad nation be so bad at the same time? There are a handful of theories, some better than others.
The simplest is also the most reassuring: that this is all just coincidence. The NHL is a cyclical league, where teams tend to rise and fall in predictable ways, and it just happens that the seven Canadian teams find themselves in the downward phase of that trend at the same time. Sure, the odds of all seven of the country’s teams being in the league’s bottom ten are slim – but you could say that about any random group of seven teams, and somebody has to be there. The fact that these particular bad teams happen to share some geography might be a curiosity, the thinking goes, but nothing more.
The big problem with that theory is that this year isn’t some sort of isolated quirk. It’s part of a bigger picture, one in which a Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993. There have been some close calls over that span, including four losses in game seven of the final. But year after year, the quest to bring the Cup home eventually ends in failure, and at some point the numbers suggest that thatcan’t just be coincidence.
So if it’s not just bad luck and poor timing, then what? For years, there was an economic element in play. The Maple Leafs and Canadiens are among the richest teams in the league, but the other Canadian teams have decidedly medium-sized markets. The recent struggles of the Canadian dollar hurt, since the country’s teams take in much of their revenue in local dollars but have to pay player salaries in US currency. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, two Canadian teams had relocated to the States and others seemed to be perpetually on the verge of following, and it’s hard to compete for a title when you can barely pay your bills. But that was before the league introduced a hard salary cap, and the game’s current economics make it much easier for Canadian teams to compete. So while the dollars may not help, they can’t be the entire explanation.
A related theory is that Canadian teams don’t have the same economic incentive for success that their American counterparts do. In a nation where hockey rules, Canadian teams tend to fill their buildings whether or not they’re any good. American teams need to win to generate fan interest, while Canadian teams don’t feel the same pressure to invest in the on-ice product.
It’s a popular theory, but it’s also nonsense. For one, Canadian teams do spend. The much-maligned Maple Leafs spend more than just about anyone, especially once you include factors such as buyouts, front office firings, and dead money – they even agreed to pay Nathan Horton roughly $25m to sit at home just so they could dump free agent disaster David Clarkson’s cap hit. And in a modern sports landscape where ticket sales only account for a fraction of overall revenue, there simply isn’t a realistic business plan where losing is more profitable than winning championships. So scratch that idea off the list.
Could we interest you in a good old fashioned conspiracy theory? After all, the country’s Cup drought began in 1994, which also happened to be the first full season of commissioner Gary Bettman’s reign. The NHL has spent the last few decades aggressively expanding into new US markets, chasing new fanbases and those elusive American TV ratings. Are Canadian teams struggling because the dastardly Bettman is making it so, secretly directing officials and various minions to keep their northern neighbors down? No, because conspiracy theories are dumb. Next.
So what else? There’s a good case to be made that this is all one big self-fulfilling prophecy, where a nation full of rabid fans want to win so badly that they get in their own way of doing so. In the NHL’s salary cap era, the easiest path to building a powerhouse is to first drive a team off a cliff. Ship out anyone with a pulse, finish dead last for a few years, and then reap the rewards of the high draft picks that come with lots of losing. Recent champs like the Blackhawks, Kings and Penguins all followed that path to varying degrees, as did this year’s best regular season team, the Capitals.
But with the exception of the Oilers and, more recently, the Maple Leafs, Canadian teams tend not to bottom out completely. You’ve been far more likely to find the country’s teams lingering in the dreaded middle ground, not good enough to win but not bad enough to draft the next can’t miss franchise player. That’s the worst place for an NHL team to be, but it’s one that the Canadian teams can’t seem to avoid.
Could that be the country’s fault? Maybe. While a burn-it-all-to-the-ground rebuild might be smart, it can be a hard sell to fans. And in theory, that’s especially true in a Canadian market where hockey dominates. If you need to write off a few seasons in Chicago or LA, sports fans there will shrug and go watch the NBA or NFL. But if a GM tries it in Canada, antsy fans will be calling for his head as soon as the first losing streak comes along.
It’s not a perfect theory – Maple Leafs fans have long been Exhibit A for this kind of thinking, but they’ve happily embraced this season’s outright tank job – but it’s probably the best we have. That inability, real or perceived, to truly embrace losing has kept Canadian teams from landing the sort of top talent that champions are built on. Mix in a few economic hurdles, and maybe a dose of plain old bad luck, and you’ve got yourself seven sad sack franchises.
Will things stay that way? Probably not, since there are signs of optimism almost everywhere. The Leafs and Oilers are on the right track, there’s still some hope in Calgary, and the Canadiens are about to get one of the best players in the worldback from injury. The Jets’ pipeline is still stocked with enough young talent that the future looks bright, and the Senators could always pull a late-season miracle like they did last year. (As for the Canucks, well, we did say “almost everywhere”.)
Eventually, one of these teams has to pull it together and win something. Basic probability would seem to insist on it. Maybe not this year or next, or the one after that, but eventually. An entire nation can’t be this bad forever.
In the meantime, the World Cup is in September. That should give Candians a chance to feel good about themselves for a few weeks, at least.