Now that the Philadelphia Flyers have officially eliminated the Ottawa Senators, the only NHL team from the land to which the Stanley Cup was donated, the only one that had a winning record this year, Canada will not have a single NHL franchise competing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year, a fate that has not occurred since 1970 when Canada had only two franchises in the NHL. There will be wailing and gnashing of the teeth in the Great White North at the end of the season and probably a few of the usual NHL-is-anti-Canadian diatribes but the only surprise is why this has not occurred earlier and more often.
When I started writing sports articles on blogs, one of my first was a series of five articles about the history of NHL expansion in Canada. They could be transferred to this blog now. It would be timely. It has been my contention (and the theme of those articles) that the reason Canada does not have more NHL teams is that it is Canada’s fault, not the work of greedy, ignorant Americans. Canada has gone from 2 teams in a 12 team NHL league to 7 teams in a 30 team league. From the first snub of Vancouver in 1967 to the present disgrace with Quebec trying to reenter the league, Canadians have been prominent in keeping Canadian franchises in the NHL to a minimum. Canada has handed the NHL to the United States on a platter.
The existing NHL Canadian franchises simply do not want to share Canadian television money and regional ticket sales and merchandising with new NHL Canadian franchises. With that mandate, any NHL President/Commissioner from Clarence Campbell to John Ziegler to Gary Bettman is merely the mouthpiece for that policy. In the first major expansion of 6 teams in 1967, there was an uproar in Canada when Vancouver was ignored and non-hockey environment St Louis got a team. Toronto and Montreal did not want to share Hockey Night In Canada money. Vancouver had to wait until 1970.
Enter the WHA in 1972. Many of its owners were rich Canadians who found they could not buy their way into the NHL so they started their own league instead. Unlike the NHL, Canadian franchises were highly prized and valued in the WHA because most of its fans and ticket buyers came from Canadian cities especially two current NHL teams, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets and the hopefully soon-tp-be-revived, Quebec Nordiques. At one time, there was even a Canadian division.
The creation of the WHA led to a player salary war with the NHL and many people were all for ending it by merging the WHA into the NHL. But the NHL opposed it and the leaders of the opposition were those two “patriots”, Canadian flag waver Harold Ballard, owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs (who had been jailed for tax-evasion and was letting a pedophile ring operate out of Maple Leaf Gardens), and ex-Canadian Jack Kent Cooke (a graduate from my high school), owner of the Los Angeles Kings. Thanks to their patriotic impulses, Quebec, Edmonton, and Winnipeg did not join the NHL until 1980.
If I were to name Canada’s two greatest sins, I’d have a ready answer: elitism and bad faith. Elitism concerning NHL Canadian franchises is evident to this day. For example, anybody who watches a Toronto Maple Leafs game at the Air Canada Center on television sees a huge number of empty seats at the start of every period that gradually fills up. Why? Because these seats are not owned by fans at all but by rich corporations who want to wine and dine their clients with hockey games and spend part of each period in the bars trying to cut business deals. The game comes secondary. Only rich people and corporations can afford to buy NHL hockey tickets in Canada.
The other main sin, bad faith, would play a significant part in the fate of the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques. Immediately after joining the NHL, Quebec and Winnipeg expanded the seating in their arenas to a barely acceptable 15,000 instead of building new arenas like Edmonton had and what Calgary and Ottawa were to do when they joined the NHL. Quebec and Winnipeg were the poorest of the lesser Canadian cites and tried to get by on the cheap.
When bad times came in the 1990s, with high NHL salaries and a low Canadian dollar, Quebec and Winnipeg had no proper NHL arenas to fall back on to get them through. And no rich Canadians stepped forward to either buy them or solve the arena problem. No rich Canadian believed in them and Quebec and Winnipeg lost their teams. And of course, so called “anti-Canadian” Commissioner Gary Bettman got a lot of the blame.
It is my belief that there should be at least 12 Canadian teams. These include Quebec, a second Montreal, and in the long term, a Saskatchewan team, probably based in Saskatoon. And I believe that the Southern Ontario market is so rich, it can afford to support two more teams, 2 of Hamilton, second Toronto, London, Kitchener, or Oshawa. But Toronto and Montreal do not want to share television revenue and ticket and merchandising sales with any new local rivals. “Anti-Canadian” Bettman was simply hired to carry out this policy which is probably not his at all. He is only carrying on the anti-Canadian policy that has been initiated by Canadians themselves.
So crushing indemnity terms are said to be formulated for anyone trying to put a team too close to an existing Canadian franchise. Toronto and Montreal (and Buffalo) are being well protected. All those potential Canadian expansion sites would probably be winners if the teams would get good owners, a proper NHL arena, and a healthy Canadian dollar. But will they ever exist? Los Angeles and New York were able to work out their differences but Canadians have started an anti-Canadian policy in the NHL that is proving hard to overcome.
So Canada, get used to being excluded from the NHL playoffs. It will probably be an occurrence that happens frequently in the future. There may come the day when even getting one team into the playoffs will be an achievement, never mind winning the Stanley Cup which you have not done since 1993. But do not blame the Americans. You sold out to them long ago. Canada, you have earned your fate.