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Woe Canada! These Days, It's Hard to Be a Hockey Fan

New Jersey? Anaheim? The matchup is another reminder of the nation's sagging NHL fortunes.

May 29, 2003|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

VANCOUVER, Canada — This is a love song, the kind where someone else walks off with your girl.

Let Andrew Snead -- his elbow propped on the bar at a downtown joint called Mahoney's -- fill in the blanks.

"When it comes to being a Canadian hockey fan, it's all about bringing the Cup home," he says. "Back to the country where it belongs."

Without the least bit of prompting, Snead recites every Canadian team that has won the NHL's Stanley Cup in the last three decades, starting with the Montreal Canadiens in 1993 and working backward through the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers of the Wayne Gretzky era.

But no team from this side of the border has won since Montreal. Not one has reached the finals since the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.

This season, Canada seemed on the verge of recapturing its national pastime, Vancouver and the Ottawa Senators advancing deep into the playoffs.

Fans packed into Mahoney's on game nights, the line stretching down trendy Robson Street.

It was only a tease.

Now, die-hards arrive at a more leisurely pace after work. Television screens around the bar, interspersed with hockey photos and autographed sweaters, show a finals matchup between teams from New Jersey and Anaheim, the latter named after a Disney movie.

"Frustrating," Snead says.

Though there is disagreement over where and when the game was invented, no one disputes Canada's claim on hockey.

To understand this nation's distress, imagine a Japanese baseball team winning the World Series. Or Brazilian teams dominating the NBA Finals season after season.

Through the 1950s and '60s, you could count on one hand the number of times that Canadian teams failed to win the NHL title. Only twice were they shut out of the finals.

Nothing could have been sweeter than the 1967 finals, when an aging Toronto Maple Leaf squad upset Montreal in six games.

"Every player on the ice was Canadian and all the games were played in Canada," says Stephen Cole, who wrote a book, "The Last Hurrah," about that season.

"It did not occur to anyone," he says, "that it wouldn't always be that way."

In fact, it was the last time that two all-Canadian teams reached the finals.

It was, Cole writes, "the last time hockey seemed securely, yes, perhaps even smugly ours."

What happened next is no secret.

The cozy, six-team league expanded to more cities in the U.S. Other suitors came along, American and European players becoming good enough to make NHL rosters.

By the early 1980s, one of every five players was born outside Canada. This season, the percentage has risen to nearly half.

Canadian fans were all-too-aware that their biggest hope this season -- Ottawa -- was led by a Swedish forward, Daniel Alfredsson.

Some complain about NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman -- an American, no less -- steering new rules away from the Canadian style of play.

Others grouse that the nation's junior system does not teach fundamentals the way it once did.

Ultimately, though, when Canadians talk professional hockey, the talk turns to money.

With the country's dollar consistently lagging behind the U.S., its teams struggle to keep pace with American salaries.

Even with several small-payroll teams doing well this season, there is simmering discontent about the likes of the Detroit Red Wings and Dallas Stars loading their rosters with high-priced free agents.

"We develop the potential superstar, then -- bang! -- he's gone," former player and broadcaster Howie Meeker says from his Vancouver Island home.

American owners are seen as so many lotharios in Armani suits and black Mercedes, flashing cash.

"Their attitude is, if Canadian teams can't make it, to hell with them," Meeker says.

Canada lost the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado and the Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix. The Senators, who filed for bankruptcy in January, have hinted at moving to a city in the U.S.

"It gives you that 'David versus Goliath sense,' " says Clayton Munro, a University of British Columbia student researching his master's thesis on hockey fans. "They're painting over hockey with an American brush."

And don't even mention U.S. television experimenting with a glowing puck.

But there is a glimmer of hope.

Several Canadian teams -- Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton -- already receive about $5 million a year through the NHL's Canadian Assistance Plan. More help could be on the way.

When the NHL renegotiates its collective bargaining agreement with the players' union next year, fans want a salary cap and, perhaps, a luxury tax to help level the financial playing field.

The general manager of a Canadian franchise recently called it "our goal line."

In the meantime, die-hards say they have no choice but to stick by their game.

They have celebrated victories in the most recent Winter Olympics and World Championships. On a larger scale, they have suffered with the rest of the country over severe acute respiratory syndrome and "mad cow" disease.

When it comes to the NHL, they wear disappointment as a badge.

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