Cup Canada

MONTREAL – In today’s fully global NHL, with players of many nationalities making up a team’s roster, there really shouldn’t be a fuss made about the fact that a club based in Canada hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in 31 years.

But there is a tremendous fuss being made north of the 49th parallel this spring with anticipation -- no, make that expectations -- higher than any time in recent memory.

The Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers finished first and second in the Pacific Division, respectively drawing First Round matchups against the Nashville Predators and the Los Angeles Kings.

The Winnipeg Jets were second in the Central, set to face the Colorado Avalanche. And the Toronto Maple Leafs, third in the Atlantic, will meet Boston, their nemesis Bruins first up.

The Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators failed to reach the playoffs but fully one-quarter of the 16 qualifiers are from Canada this season and all are girding to potentially make long runs and challenge, seriously, for hockey’s ultimate prize that hasn’t been won in these parts since 1993.

1993: Canadiens win 10 straight OT games

(That’s not including the Bruins capturing the Cup on Vancouver ice in 2011, a discussion for another time.)

This is an embarrassment of riches compared to 2016, when with 11 days left in the regular season, all seven teams from Canada had been eliminated from postseason contention.

That marked the first time in 46 years, since the NHL was a 12-team, two-division League in 1969-70, that Canada’s teams -- then just two, in Montreal and Toronto -- were on the outside looking in having finished fifth and sixth in the East Division.

“Woe Canada,” and others headlined their 2016 stories when the country was skunked 0-for-7.

Now, the refrain is more “Oh Canada!” with an entire population, including three fiercely proud Canadian Hall of Famers who have won the Stanley Cup for teams in this nation, fully engaged by the possibilities.

Lanny McDonald 1989

Lanny McDonald takes the Stanley Cup for a spin around Montreal Forum ice following the Calgary Flames’ Game 6 win against the Canadiens on May 25, 1989.

To many Canadians, the Stanley Cup is little like a sterling library book that was signed out of this country by the New York Rangers in 1994 and never returned.

Lanny McDonald and Doug Gilmour, champions with the 1989 Calgary Flames, and Grant Fuhr, a five-time winner in goal for the Oilers in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990, are all pulling for the Stanley Cup to “come home,” Canada’s Governor-General Lord Stanley of Preston having conceived the trophy in 1892 as a gift to the country.

“How cool would it be for, say, the Oilers to play the Maple Leafs for the Stanley Cup this year?” McDonald said dreamily.

“Obviously, a lot of things have to go right for Toronto to make it through three playoff rounds to find a way to get there. It’s much different out west, where with three Canadian teams there are more chances of seeing one get to the Final. But wouldn’t it be cool if one of those teams out west has a chance to play the Maple Leafs? It would be awesome.”

Not since the Canadiens captured the Stanley Cup in 1993, coasting past the Los Angeles Kings in five games with a stunning playoff run of 10 consecutive overtime victories, has a team based in Canada won hockey’s holy grail.

Cup Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens sprawl on Forum ice following their 1993 Stanley Cup victory, the last won by a team based in Canada.

On six occasions since that championship, a Canada-based team has teased fans in the north by advancing to the Final before falling short, four times within one win of the Cup:

2021: Canadiens lost to Tampa Bay Lightning in five games;

2011: Canucks lost to the Bruins in seven;

2007: Senators lost to the Anaheim Ducks in five;

2006: Oilers lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in seven;

2004: Flames lost to the Lightning in seven;

1994: Canucks lost to the New York Rangers in seven.

McDonald, the Hockey Hall of Fame chairman, won the Cup in the final game of his 16-season career, his Flames defeating the Canadiens 4-2 in Game 6 of the 1989 Final at the Montreal Forum.

Having begun his career with 6½ seasons in Toronto, McDonald scored the Flames’ second goal with Gilmour, who played for Montreal in the twilight of his 20-year career, notching the eventual winner.

It was the penultimate championship won by a team from Canada, the Canadiens four years from winning the country’s most recent.

The Flames’ only Cup to date came in a rematch with Montreal, who had defeated Calgary in the 1986 Final.

Cup Lanny split

Calgary Flames’ Lanny McDonald celebrates the final game of his NHL career with the Stanley Cup won in 1989 against the Montreal Canadiens. At right, an exhausted McDonald leans into the trophy in the Flames’ dressing room.

After taking a victory lap of Forum ice with the trophy, McDonald sat behind his moustache and quietly let the accomplishment seep into his every pore.

“It was absolutely unbelievable,” he said of the 1989 victory, an iconic postgame photo showing him with his eyes closed, exhausted, his cheek pressed to the Cup’s sterling bowl.

“And as exhilarating as it was, it was the most peaceful feeling you could possibly have. You’d worked 16 years to get there and you’re thinking after what had happened three years earlier, was this ever going to happen? Then it finally happens. I just wanted to sit back, while the younger guys were yelling and screaming, and soak this in.

“The fans in the Forum were unbelievable. … To win it in that hallowed building, to have the fans stay and applaud, it was kind of surreal. We thought, ‘Are we playing at home?’ They were applauding because it had been a great series – hard-hitting, great goaltending on both sides, take no prisoners every game. I hope as a Canadian – not a Canadien – that it will happen again in Canada.”

Gilmour played 1,474 games over 20 seasons, 182 more in 17 trips to the playoffs; in Canada, the intense center nicknamed “Killer” skated for the Flames, Maple Leafs and Canadiens.

Doug Gilmour 1989

Exhausted Calgary Flames’ Doug Gilmour in his team’s Montreal Forum dressing room following a 4-2 Game 6 win against the Canadiens in the 1989 Stanley Cup Final.

On May 25, 1989, in Montreal, Gilmour didn’t have the strength to lift the 36-pound Stanley Cup.

“I was one of the last guys on that team, I wasn’t getting the Cup on the Forum ice any time soon,” he recalled, having been acquired by Calgary in a multiplayer September 1988 trade with the St. Louis Blues. “I was just skating around in the background, enjoying every moment. But at the same time, I was just exhausted.

“We started off slow against Vancouver in the first round, winning in overtime in Game 7. Then we beat L.A. four straight, Chicago in five and found a way to beat Montreal in six. There was the strong Canadian vibe to it, too. The memory is overwhelming. Twenty years and I got there once.”

Gilmour speaks of “the process,” and of making indelible memories “for your teammates and yourself.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Nobody remembers the regular season. It was a little different for us in 1989, two Canadian teams. Wouldn’t that be ideal this year?”

2016 woe canada

How recorded all seven of Canada’s NHL teams being eliminated from Stanley Cup Playoff contention in 2016.

Before the all-Canadian Final in 1989, you’d have to rewind to 1967 to find the last time two teams from Canada met for the Cup, the Maple Leafs beating Montreal in six games to win their most recent championship.

As with all of so-called “Leafs Nation,” Gilmour and fellow Maple Leafs ambassadors Darryl Sittler, Wendel Clark, Darcy Tucker and Curtis Joseph will hang on every Toronto game against Boston, and they hope well beyond the Bruins.

And Killer laughs at the very notion of how Toronto might react to a Stanley Cup parade, the last one held in the springtime of Canada’s 1967 Centennial.

“It’d be crazy,” Gilmour said. “I have no idea how they’d do, and I wouldn’t be going anywhere near it. If the Maple Leafs win it, I’ll be watching on TV. It’s their turn. Hopefully they can get it done.

“I want Toronto to get there,” he said of who he’d like to see lifting the Stanley Cup in June. “On the other side, I’ve got to go with the best player.”

Gilmour took it for granted that you knew he was speaking of the Oilers’ all-universe Connor McDavid.

Bettman Carbonneau 1993

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the 1993 Stanley Cup to Montreal Canadiens captain Guy Carbonneau.

Out in Palm Desert, California, Fuhr will be dividing his time between watching the NHL postseason and his work as a broadcaster for Coachella Valley of the American Hockey League.

The Firebirds have earned a first-round bye in the 2024 Calder Cup playoffs, their coach knowing the ropes of the postseason; Dan Bylsma guided the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup.

Not once but five times, Fuhr lived the experience of winning the Cup with his hometown team. The native of Spruce Grove, Alberta, a community 20 miles from Edmonton, remembers the battle just to get out of Smythe Division, arguably the most competitive of the day.

“It was definitely special winning the Stanley Cup, there’s no question,” said Fuhr, who would go on to play for Toronto and Calgary during his 19-year career. “As a Canadian kid, you grow up dreaming of winning it. We were lucky enough to do that with the Oilers and being from Edmonton made it even more special.

“But for us, it was getting out of our division. Probably three of the NHL’s five best teams were in our division – us, Calgary and Winnipeg – and somebody was being eliminated in the first round, somebody else in the second.”

Fuhr surveys the NHL landscape and likes something on all four teams from his native land that are skating into the playoffs.

Grant Fuhr 1985

Goalie Grant Fuhr of the Edmonton Oilers poses with the Stanley Cup in the locker room after the Oilers won the 1985 Stanley Cup Final at Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton.

He enjoys the way the Oilers finished strong after a start “that was kind of flat and not very pretty (2-9-1 in their first 12 games). Everybody will have flat spots during a season, the key is not to have one in the playoffs.”

Fuhr was a goalie coach for the Arizona Coyotes who worked alongside Rick Tocchet and Rick Bowness, respectively coaches today of the Canucks and Jets.

“I think they’re both great coaches,” he said. “They both won’t let their teams get out ahead of themselves now. They realize what the long grind is, how hard it will be, and they’ll keep the guys focused.”

Fuhr, and all of hockey, has been impressed by Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who with a career-high 69 goals has just won his third Maurice Richard Trophy in the past four seasons as the NHL’s top goal-scorer.

“Everybody knows that Matthews is Toronto’s goal-scorer, their biggest key will be whether they have the secondary scoring,” Fuhr said.

Cup Roy Demers

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman presents the Conn Smythe Trophy to Montreal Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy and coach Jacques Demers presses the Stanley Cup overhead following the Canadiens’ 1993 Stanley Cup win.

“You know that somebody is going to shadow Matthews. That’s just the way the playoffs work. If they take him away, does Toronto have somebody who can step up and fill that gap? Unfortunately for them, the East is really good this year. All the teams they’re going to play are big, physical teams.”

And as always, Fuhr will cast a sharp eye on goalies in the weeks ahead.

“For a goalie, playoff hockey is simple,” he said. “It’s not about save percentage or goals-against average. It’s about making the right save at the right time to change the momentum of a game or win a game.

“That’s the fun part of being a goalie in the playoffs – you make a difference every game, whether it’s good or bad. You’ll get the credit or the blame.”

With fellow Hall of Famers McDonald and Gilmour, Fuhr is proud of the red and white blood that pumps from his heart a little more quickly come playoff time. He yearns to hear “O Canada” played with “The Star-Spangled Banner” before every game of the 2024 Stanley Cup Final.

“I hope it’s Edmonton,” he said of the last one standing. “But I’ll take any Canadian team.”