A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in more than 30 years. Does it matter?

<span><a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/players/6743/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Connor McDavid;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Connor McDavid</a>’s <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/teams/edmonton/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Edmonton Oilers;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Edmonton Oilers</a> will start their Stanley Cup campaign this weekend. </span><span>Photograph: Perry Nelson/USA Today Sports</span>

There is a question that looms over the Edmonton Oilers as they begin the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday night against the Florida Panthers. It’s been more than 30 years since a Canadian team, the Montreal Canadiens, lifted the Cup. The question is: if the Oilers don’t bring the Cup home to Canada, does it matter? If American teams forever claim the Cup, can Canada at least still claim hockey’s soul? The answer is complicated.

Let’s back up – to a different Oilers era. In August 1988, Wayne Gretzky left the Oilers, a team with which he had won four Stanley Cups in five seasons. It was a gut-wrenching exit. Gretzky famously cried during the press conference to announce his departure. And indeed, it felt to many like something more profound had changed than Gretzky’s move from postcode to zip code. The deal – he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings – wasn’t just huge in terms of dollar value and player numbers. It was huge for the sport. Gretzky was a superstar, and his arrival in the US – in Los Angeles, no less – launched him into the sports stratosphere, alongside Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson. The Kings owner, Bruce McNall, toured the team around the US during Greztky’s first pre-season with the team, hitting what were then unconventional spots: Phoenix, Dallas, Las Vegas. At every one they were greeted by sold-out crowds. All of a sudden, hockey was big. Bigger than it had ever been. Hockey had made it in America.

Related: Connor McDavid and Edmonton Oilers see off Dallas to reach Stanley Cup final

A few years later, in walked Gary Bettman, an American – a basketball guy, no less – as the NHL’s new commissioner. It was 1993, the year the Canadiens would win the Cup, marking the end of Canadian victories for three decades. That November, the NHL referees went on strike, and Bettman quickly embodied a role he still holds for many Canadians. “What is particularly galling to many is that Bettman’s style may be a sign of things to come in the NHL,” Mary Ormsby wrote in the Toronto Star that month. “The big, heavy foot of American influence is just the start of change to what had been essentially a Canadian game.” Already there were new teams in San Jose, Tampa, and Anaheim. Two years after Bettman’s arrival, the Winnipeg Jets left for Arizona. The following season, the Quebec Nordiques went to Colorado. Before the decade was out, there were teams in Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, and Texas.

Back up north, the teams that hadn’t yet departed Canada were broke, and threatening to leave. In 1998, Edmonton came within hours of losing the Oilers. The Ottawa Senators also teetered on the brink in 1999, as then-owner Rod Bryden looked to sell (to Portland, Vegas, or maybe Houston). And there appeared to be little sympathy from the NHL and its owners. In September 1999, the league and owners said they would commit to keeping the teams in Canada – but only if they got tax relief or if the NHL could take a share of hockey betting revenues from provincial sports lotteries. The Canadian federal government came through, but a year later the Calgary Flames were still begging to sell 14,000 season tickets to keep the team in town. Things changed after the new collective bargaining agreement was signed following the lockout in 2004-05. A hard salary cap was introduced and, coincidentally, commodities prices jumped, boosting the Canadian dollar. The tax thing is still an issue. But these days, it’s morphed into concern that lower, or nonexistent US state taxes woo the best players away from high-taxing Canadian markets. How else do you explain that Florida has sent its two teams to the Cup Final for five consecutive years, and Canada’s sent just one in that span, huh?

Yes, Canadian teams have indeed had their chances. Just four years after the Flames’ near-departure, they were in the Cup Final. But they lost to Tampa Bay. A year after the full-season lockout, the Oilers reached the Final, but lost to Carolina. The following year, the Senators got there – only to lose to, uh, Anaheim. Montreal reached the Final in 2021’s Covid bubble year. They also lost to Tampa Bay. You see the pattern – Canadian teams losing to expansion teams in southern US states. The only break was 2011 – Vancouver’s loss to Boston. But that US city’s relatively northern position was little comfort.

And each failure has stirred existentialism. If a Canadian team isn’t winning the greatest trophy in hockey, is hockey still Canadian? If hockey isn’t Canadian, what is Canada? Because, like it or not, an outsized proportion of Canada’s identity since its confederation has been wrapped up in this game. Its frigid outdoor beginnings, its rugged physicality, and its centrality in so many communities, have all combined into an avatar for national identity in a country that for generations has struggled to define itself against its hulking, powerful southern neighbour. If anything was Not American, it was hockey. At least until Wayne left.

But all this time agonising has been wasted. These questions about hockey’s soul residing in any one place will never lead to clarity about why it still matters to watch, no matter which team wins – or what city they’re from. It’s not hockey’s nationality that matters, but its nature. And the nature of hockey is the same now as it was when those boys at McGill University developed the game in the 1870s, adapting it from the tumultuous, disorderly, playful versions that had been around for perhaps a hundred years or more on frozen ponds across Canada. Hockey’s soul isn’t based in geography, its soul sits deep within its inherent chaos, the fundamental unpredictability that still lives on in the game today.

Take the Oilers, for instance. A year after Gretzky left, the Oilers started the 1989-90 season in the dumps. Last place in the Smythe division at the end of October. Only 16 points through the first month. And without their first-string Cup-winning goalie, Grant Fuhr, they were relying on “promising but unproven” (as one pre-season scouting report put it), Bill Ranford. Oilers head coach, John Muckler, wasn’t optimistic. “The Oiler dynasty ended a year ago,” Muckler had said after an early-season game in Buffalo. “We’re in a major rebuilding stage now.” Later that week, the Oilers began what would be a 15-3-2 run. The following May, they won the franchise’s fifth Stanley Cup – and Ranford took home the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

This year many believed the Oilers could compete for the Cup, but a month into the season, it was far from certain. They were second-last in the Pacific division. Their power play was terrible, their goaltending was worse. And McDavid had just two goals in all of October. “That’s not at all what we expected,” McDavid told reporters in early November about the start. But, he added, the team was capable of great things. “It may not look like that right now, but we are. Everyone has more to give. Myself included.” Three days later, the Oilers began what would be a run of 27 wins in 33 games. Now, here they are, at the Final. If they don’t win, what does that mean? It means nothing about Canada, but a lot about hockey.

“Hockey’s hard,” Dallas forward Tyler Seguin said last week, after the Oilers eliminated the Stars in the Western Conference Final. “You need a lot of things to go right. ….We had something special [and] lost to a team we thought we could beat. Sometimes that’s playoffs. Sometimes it’s that one bounce, one goal, one save. That’s why we all love it. This is the hardest damn trophy in the world to win.”

That’s hockey. You just never know what will happen.

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