On thin ice: the NHL’s Canadian teams are mostly a mess

There's plenty of blame to go around but only one certainty: the nation will rally around the Toronto Maple Leafs – right?

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Bruce DowbigginThis has not been a vintage winter for hockey in the country that worships the game. Consider the wreckage:

  • Canada’s National Hockey League stars were not allowed to participate in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. The Replacements may be a swell movie, but it wasn’t a happy tale for the apple scruffs we sent to the Olympics. Canada’s men finished third in a tournament that resembled the Spengler Cup more than the Olympics. For people expecting best-on-best, it was often a case of “what’s on the other channel?”
  • Canada’s women lost the gold-medal game in most bitter fashion to the damned Americans, losing in a dreaded shootout.
  • Canada lost the sledge hockey gold to the bloody Americans, too, at the Paralympics in South Korea – again in extra time.
  • Just two of the seven Canadian NHL teams are going to make the post-season this spring. Only Toronto and Winnipeg have a chance to bring the Stanley Cup to a Canadian city for the first time since 1993. Making matters worse, the teams missing the playoffs are tire fires with little hope of a quick return to respectability.
  • The Edmonton Oilers can’t win despite having Connor McDavid, the best player of his generation. Enough said.

This is not an appeal to rend Canada’s garment and tear down the sport in the country yet again. There is no call to assemble the heavy hockey thinkers of the nation to have Bob McKenzie tell them what they should be doing (although that’s not a bad idea).

What ails Canada’s hockey heroes can mostly be traced to the machinations of the NHL and its commissioner-for-life, Gary Bettman. It was he who decreed that the International Olympic Committee was not sufficiently awed by his aura, resulting in NHL players staying put in North America while the Olympics were happening in South Korea. (Bettman versus the IOC reminds me of the line, “Can’t they both lose?”)

In the NHL, Bettman’s fever dream to place franchises in any city large enough to sustain a Red Roof Inn has resulted in an expansion team from Las Vegas being one of the four best teams in the league. This is the equivalent of a complete outsider with no experience becoming prime minister. But enough about Justin Trudeau.

It’s been great news for Vegas (which could use some good news after recent events) but a humiliation for the management of Canada’s five non-playoff teams. If a startup in the desert can assemble enough talent in the first year of operation to challenge for the league’s top spot, fans ask why can’t these long-standing and well-capitalized (okay, Ottawa’s a mess) teams get it together to make a run at the Cup?

Let’s review the damage:

Montreal: The NHL’s heritage franchise has descended into depths not seen since the 1940s, when Dick Irvin Sr. was brought in to straighten things out. Games are notable more for fans demanding general manager Marc Bergevin be fired, goalie Carey Price be traded and the traded P.K. Subban be venerated at St. Joseph’s Oratory. Chances of a quick turnaround: five per cent.

Ottawa: Mad King Melnyk, the Senators owner Eugene, has driven this team into the ditch. So dire have things become that the Sen were actively shopping their franchise defenceman, Erik Karlsson, at the trade deadline. It appears that Melnyk’s only remaining play (supported by Bettman, of course) is to extort a downtown arena at LeBreton Flats, where he can coin enough money to make the team salable again. Chances of a quick turnaround: three per cent.

Calgary: This up-and-coming franchise is now down-and-out after collapsing in the weeks following the trade deadline. Bringing in goalie Mike Smith wasn’t enough to put spackle on the Flames’ shotgun shack. Speaking of shacks, the Flames’ stunt of bringing in Bettman to play Scrooge McDuck in arena negotiations with the city has had the effect of galvanizing city council and citizens against them. Own goal. On the ice, the team has some nice elements but it’s a case of too many nuts and not enough bolts. The trade for defenceman Travis Hamonic could result in the Islanders drafting first overall. Chances of a quick turnaround: Seven per cent.

Vancouver: Former GM Mike Gillis tried to prepare the team for a rotten patch while it retooled from its 2011 Stanley Cup Finals disappointment. For his honesty he was fired in place of eyeglass huckster Trevor Linden. Linden’s Canucks are last in the West with a fair chance at being worst in the NHL. At least they have their own first pick this year. Chances of a quick turnaround: Two per cent.

EdmontonAs I’ve said previously, McDavid could be gone sooner than you think. And that would be disastrous. Chances of a quick turnaround: is there a number less than zero?

This mess might be fatal to Rogers Communications, which has the national rights to the playoffs. The spring of 2016, when all seven teams missed the playoffs, nearly killed them.

But this year’s playoffs contain the one team that really matters to Rogers: the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sure, those Winnipeg Jets are swell, but if Auston Matthews is healthy and Toronto makes a run into June, they’ll be tossing money out the windows at Rogers’ downtown Toronto campus.

And if Hogtown’s happy, then everyone’s happy, right? Right? C’mon, you know it’s true.

Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.


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