RED DEER, Alta. Oct. 16, 2016/ Troy Media/ – The new NHL season should give hockey fans plenty to get excited about – in great part because of the rebirth of some Canadian rivalries.
It’s easy to look at opening night, for example, as the coming out party for Auston Matthews, with a masterpiece encore by Connor McDavid.
But the night had so much more on offer, and it sets the table nicely for the remainder of the 2016-17 season.
Superstars don’t exist in a vacuum. They need a counterpoint, a foil. Whether by a team or one athlete, pure domination with no challenger takes the lustre off the spectacle.
The last several years have been dark for the National Hockey League in Canada. Competitiveness hit rock bottom last year when not one of the country’s seven teams qualified for the post-season.
And the rivalries? It’s been a long time since the teams did anything but go through the motions. The last two great Canadian NHL dysfunctional relationships were between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Senators in the early 2000s, and between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s and ’90s.
Mutual dislike between teams requires mutual excellence. If one team is great and the other misses the playoffs, it’s like watching a bully pick on a nerd. And if both teams are rebuilding, who really cares who wins? In fact, it’s often a disadvantage to win since the two points could cost your team positioning in the draft.
But as the new season dawns, we have been given a glimmer of hope that a rivalry revival is underway.
For the last 20 years the Oilers and Flames have traded turns rebuilding and have never quite been able to be competitive at the same time. Once one of the great rivalries in sport, it’s been a generation since the Battle of Alberta truly meant anything.
But this year, for the first time in a long time, it feels different. The season opener was exciting and full of energy. Both teams have legitimate expectations, not just wishful thinking. The physical tone was set early by the Oilers: no more free passes for taking liberties with their stars – and that level of commitment has been missing for years.
Both teams now have skilful players who should mature together over the next decade. It’s much like the glory days of the 1980s, when the only thing keeping the dynamic Flames from being a dynasty was the dynastic Oilers. The result was war on ice for most of 15 years.
A similar Battle of Ontario may still be a few years off but the makings are there. The Senators are in limbo, trying to be competitive without all the necessary pieces and the Leafs have a great collection of young talent, led by Matthews.
The biggest rivalry among Canadian franchises, however, is likely between Matthews and McDavid.
Every generation features debate about who the top player is: Wayne Gretzky vs. Mario Lemieux, Gordie Howe vs. Maurice Richard, Howe vs. Bobby Orr and, of course, Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander Ovechkin.
With the Oilers’ McDavid and the Leafs’ Matthews, the plot lines are twinned. They are both great young talents, plus they are rooted in Southern Ontario. Matthews plays in Toronto and McDavid is from the Toronto region. The Canadian sports media machine, primarily based in Toronto, is frothing.
And fans are salivating – on both sides of the border. McDavid and Matthews are transcendent enough to draw fans to rinks when they play in the U.S., just as Gretzky did. And Canadian fans will get to see the players even more frequently.
Rivalries make sports great. Everyone wants championships, but those opportunities are rare. So what keeps fans coming out or tuning in for 82 games a year? What keeps players engaged? Often it’s hate for an opponent.
When Lovie Smith was hired to be head coach of football’s Chicago Bears, he said he had three goals: Beat the Green Bay Packers, win the conference and win the Super Bowl. The statement instantly set the tone for the franchise and made the Bears relevant again. Beating uber-rival Green Bay was Smith’s first priority and that set the stage for everything else.
The opening week of NHL play in Canada set a similar tone: it’s all about a return to hockey that matters, hockey that we can be excited about.
Troy Media columnist Josh Aldrich has spent the last 14 years covering the wide world of sports in B.C. and Alberta. Josh is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.
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