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Is Canada's Cup drought nearing 20 years a big deal?

by Arpon Basu

Many believe the 1992-93 NHL season was among the finest staged in the League's history. From the addition of two teams through expansion, to the sudden prominence of European players, to the heroics of Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, to the crowning of Montreal as Stanley Cup champions, the season was full of memorable moments. On its 20th anniversary, will spend the year looking back at the key moments of that '92-93 season to see if it may indeed be the NHL's Greatest Season.

This spring will mark the 20-year anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens becoming the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, a trophy originally donated by a Canadian governor general to the country he governed.

During the past decade or so, it has become a rite of spring to mark the elimination of the last Canadian team from the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a story about the country's Cup drought being extended by another year. But have Canadians actually developed a complex around this, or is it a story that doesn't ring true in the day-to-day lives of the Canadian populace?

Two researchers, who have conducted a number of studies regarding the attachment to hockey Canadians feel, don't believe the drought has much resonance among the population -- other than the fact it means the teams they root for haven't won the Stanley Cup.


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Both Jack Jedwab, executive director of the Montreal-based Association for Canadian Studies, and Anthony Wilson-Smith, president of the Toronto-based Historica-Dominion Institute, feel that both empirical and anecdotal evidence suggest that Canadians and their connection to hockey is more international in scope.

"I think the issue of Canadian identity and hockey get a bit mixed up," Wilson-Smith said. "Just as free trade has made us more international in economic terms, I think this kind of free trade we have in hockey where the players come from all over the world has given us more of an international outlook as well. So I think the big rallying point is, yes, we have Cup withdrawal syndrome, but we did win the big one in 2010 in Vancouver [at the Olympics].

"Canadians everywhere will unite behind any Team Canada in any international competition. On the other hand, and I'm just saying this anecdotally, if the Maple Leafs continue on this roll and come spring they find themselves in the Stanley Cup Final, are Canadians from coast to coast going to unite behind them? My gut instinct says no."

Some of the research suggests that to be the case.

Last spring, Angus Reid Public Opinion ran a poll for MacLean's magazine to determine the most hated and loved teams in Canada. The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens finished first and second as Canada's most-hated team, at 19 and 15 percent, respectively. But the Canadiens also came first as Canada's most-loved team at 19 percent, followed closely by the Maple Leafs at 17 percent.

That same poll asked Canadians which team they would cheer for in the upcoming 2011-12 Stanley Cup Playoffs. There were only two Canadian teams that qualified for the tournament, and the Vancouver Canucks were the clear winners at 35 percent while the Ottawa Senators were second at 20 percent. Still, 45 percent of respondents opted for an American team.

If the Canadian Stanley Cup drought were something most people wanted to see come to an end, one would expect the Canucks and Senators to receive overwhelming support. But combined they barely registered a majority share of the votes.

"What's changed is that the rivalries that exist within Canada I think have grown greater in importance," Jedwab said. "There was always a strong rivalry between Montreal and Toronto. Even though Montreal and Toronto have not had great success in securing a Stanley Cup, the rivalry remains important. In a nutshell, if the Calgary Flames won the Stanley Cup, I don't know if it would be very meaningful in Montreal and Toronto."

A similar Angus Reid poll conducted in 2010, when the Montreal Canadiens reached the Eastern Conference Finals, suggested they had the support of nearly 70 percent of the country. But as an Original Six team with a storied history of winning, the Canadiens have fans across Canada -- and the world. Conversely, when the Canucks reached the Stanley Cup Final a year later, not only did the country fail to rally behind them, media reports from everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains were ripping them.

"The hostility began building late last season, when Vancouver was absolutely dominant, running away with the Presidents' Trophy, finishing first in nearly every important NHL statistic," journalist Nancy MacDonald wrote in MacLean's last April. "No underdogs, they were never going to get the kind of cheery coverage that greeted Calgary's and Edmonton's plucky, come-from-behind Stanley Cup runs. Columnists began weighing in from across the country, suggesting Canadians support the Bruins."

This lack of consistency among Canadian hockey fans, according to Wilson-Smith of the Historica-Dominion Institute, is in fact what makes them Canadian, far more so than a collective sense of sadness over the country's inability to win the Stanley Cup during the past two decades.

"It's a great microcosm of how we define our national identity. Hockey bites right to the soul," Wilson-Smith said. "We're united by talking about hockey all of the time, and we're divided by arguing about hockey all of the time."

This shouldn't lead anyone to believe that hockey has in any way taken a back seat to much of anything in Canada.

"It's a great microcosm of how we define our national identity. Hockey bites right to the soul. We're united by talking about hockey all of the time, and we're divided by arguing about hockey all of the time."
-- Anthony Wilson-Smith, President of the Historica-Dominion Institute

A June 2008 survey by the Historica-Dominion Institute seeking to identify the 101 things Canadians should know about Canada found that the Maple Leaf was considered the most important, followed by hockey. It finished just ahead of the Canadian flag.

Another survey conducted last November by Jedwab's Association for Canadian Studies asked respondents how important hockey was as a source of Canadian pride, and broke the responses down based on how often the respondents had attended an NHL game in the past five years. Not surprisingly, 88.5 percent of those who said they attended games regularly said it was very important or somewhat important. However, even among those who had never attended an NHL game, nearly 35 percent of respondents gave hockey some degree of importance as a source of national pride.

Yet, for some reason, having a Canadian team win the Stanley Cup does not appear to share the same status.

"There are strong unifying bonds about hockey, it is perceived to be Canada's sport more than any other sport," Jedwab said. "The only potential challenge to that status is soccer ... but I don't think soccer is a sport that unifies Canadians. It unifies people around the globe, whereas there is something that is quintessentially Canadian about hockey.

"But in terms of the NHL, we see hockey as a Canadian export. It may not be a fair way of looking at it, but I think that's the way it is widely perceived."

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