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The 'C' Stands for Canada

Calgary's run to the Stanley Cup finals has an entire nation filled with pride

May 23, 2004|Chris Foster | Times Staff Writer

The Calgary Flames were on the ice, and people in Edmonton were cheering.

This, of course, had to be bad news for the Flames.

Except, this time, the hollers were for Flame goals. Every hit by a Calgary player was greeted with hoots. Each scoring chance produced squeals of delight.

The irony of it all was obvious to Shaune Peebles, manager of the Overtime sports bar in downtown Edmonton.

"People are honking their horns and waving Flame flags," Peebles said. "The crowds at the bar have been dressed up in Calgary shirts and yelling really loud when the Flames scored. That is usually a dangerous thing here."

The Hatfield-McCoy relationship involving Calgary and Edmonton is on hold, though, as feuding Canadians unite against a common foe. In three weeks, the Flames have polished off the top three seeded teams in the Western Conference, becoming the first Canadian team to reach the Stanley Cup finals since Vancouver in 1994, and hockey fans in Canada -- about 99.9% of the population -- are delirious.

Even in Edmonton, hard-bitten Oiler fans join in as Flame supporters, an idea only slightly less ludicrous than NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and union chief Bob Goodenow joining hands and singing "Kumbaya."

Such is the thirst Canadians have for returning the Stanley Cup north of the border to what they see as its rightful home.

"This is huge for people in Canada," Calgary defenseman and Edmonton native Andrew Ference told reporters. "Our players come from lots of different countries, but once you put on a Canadian team's uniform, everybody supports you, especially in the playoffs. Even Oiler fans are behind us right now."

It has been 11 seasons since the Montreal Canadiens turned Marty McSorley's illegal-stick brain cramp into the Stanley Cup championship. That was the last time a Canadian team hoisted the Cup.

It has been a decade since Vancouver reached the Cup finals before losing to the New York Rangers in seven games. Canadian teams have been absent for the finals ever since.

This has been a national embarrassment gnawing at the fabric of Canadian society. Little wonder that the Flames have burned like a prairie fire across the country.

Calgary dispatched Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose -- all division champions -- in winning the Western Conference title. The Flames will face Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup finals beginning Tuesday, leaving Canadians eagerly anticipating the prodigal Cup -- the symbol of their game -- being brought back from that hockey- heathen land to the south.

That fervor has even infected Toronto, where the Maple Leafs are always considered Stanley Cup contenders, even after they have been eliminated from the playoffs. The Flames are a hot item in the store at the Hockey Hall of Fame there.

"They're not just selling more jerseys, but everything Flame stuff," said Philip Pritchard, curator of the hall. "You see Flame shirts all around on game nights. No matter what time of year, whether the team is in or out, people still have their Leaf hat and shirts on. But the Flames, I think, might be Canada's team right now."

That's a startling admission in the self-proclaimed center of the hockey universe. But it's underscored by the Toronto Sun -- where "we always give hockey playoffs and finals a decent rattle," said Sports Editor Pat Grier -- which will increase its coverage even more during the finals.

A trip to the Stanley Cup finals used to be a Canadian team's birthright. From 1927 -- the year the NHL took control of the Cup -- through 1994, there had never been more than a two-year period during which a Canadian team did not reach the finals. Canadian teams, led by Montreal, won the Cup 41 times during that 67-year span.

"The enthusiasm is in the culture," Mighty Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said. "Everyone has a connection to the game. Their brother played or their sister played or their grandfather played. It's like the Lakers in this area. Everyone has some attachment. In Canada, hockey is their sport."

It just isn't the same these days.

Most NHL players still come out of the Great White North, but the numbers have dwindled considerably because of European imports. And there have been traumatic upheavals. The country lost its hockey icon when Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Kings, then two teams, the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques, moved to the U.S.

The ever-widening expansion into the U.S. Sunbelt diluted the talent and, at the same time, strengthened the competition for the Cup. More teams -- 24 of the 30 are in the United States -- made bringing home the Cup much more difficult.

"It has been tough for those teams to compete with Detroit and Colorado, the big-budget teams," King General Manager Dave Taylor said. "The only Canadian team that can compete with those teams is Toronto."

A small renaissance is in progress, though. Canada has won consecutive gold medals at the world championships for the first time in 45 years. In 2002, Canada won its first Olympic gold medal since 1952.

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