An idea for a Prime Ministers' Trophy, and why this is the best season for it

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Ideas about how the 2020-21 NHL season could look have floated about like globs in a lava lamp for the past few months, grabbing to one another here and there, taking a variety of shifting shapes, never quite locking into anything permanent or recognizable. But as we’re moving closer to crunch time clearer pictures are finally emerging, and a couple items look all but certain.

One is that there’s going to be a season. Whether it starts January 13 or after, you can be confident they’re going to play.

The other is that there’s going to be an all-Canadian division, something that’s going to simultaneously delight and torture Canadian fans. If this is going to be a one-off for a year as it appears, these bragging rights could last for an awfully long time.

It was with that in mind that a tremendous idea was assembled in the brain of Sportnet’s own Brent Gunning, and presented to me while he was hosting on Sportsnet 590 The FAN with Sam McKee.

The NHL currently hands out the Presidents’ Trophy, awarded to the team with the best record during the NHL season. Would this next season, with an all-Canadian Division, not be the perfect time to introduce the Prime Ministers’ Trophy, awarded to the Canadian team with the best record each year?

There’s a truth that most Canadians know, but a portion of the hockey media seems oblivious to. When there’s a Canadian team left in the playoffs, the bulk of Canadian hockey fans are not rooting for them, not at all. Few north of the border are ambivalent enough to hope the Stanley Cup simply “comes back to Canada.” Oilers fans would rather see the Seattle Kraken win the Cup in 2022 than the Flames. Habs fans might rather see the league shut down for a year than see the Leafs win the Cup. That’s not even a joke.

There’s a competitive fire here, and it’s better stoked than smothered.

It’s high time we leaned into our cross-national sports rivalries a little. To hell with your team. We pit these Canadian teams against one another in theory anyway, why not openly crown the best each year, starting with the one where they’ll face each other more than ever? Soccer is a great example of a sport where one team aspires to earn multiple trophies each season, and it doesn’t diminish the value of the biggest one at the end of the road.

Going back 20 years, below are the Canadian teams who would’ve won the Prime Ministers’ Trophy, along with their corresponding records since 2000. The table is summed up by our friends at Sportsnet Stats:

Teams in the second column had fewer regular season points, but advanced farther in the playoffs. Any regular season ties in points were broken by playoff advancement or wins.

Just going back 20 years, every Canadian team would’ve claimed at least one Prime Ministers’ Trophy. Given the ebbs and flows of franchises, all seven winning at least one is pretty cool.

Two notes here: First, I’m not married to the title “Prime Ministers’ Trophy,” though I do like it. Gunning and McKee also had a listener suggest the “Canadian Chalice.” Second, 2015-16 was bleak, eh Canada? I’m pretty sure if the best team wins it with less than 90 points the previous winner should retain it or something.

If you take it back 40 years to 1980-81, here’s how many Prime Ministers’ Trophies each franchise would’ve claimed.

(Note: every Canadian team currently in the league existed in 1980-81 with the exception of Ottawa, which joined in 1992. Winnipeg took a cool 18 years off before re-joining.)

Edmonton: 9
Montreal: 8
Calgary: 7
Ottawa: 6
Vancouver: 5
Toronto: 3
Winnipeg: 1

What preceeded those 40 years, asks every Habs fan and exactly zero Leafs fans? If you extended it back to the beginning of the league (to when there was really just the Habs and Leafs for long stretches), Montreal would’ve claimed the previous 30(!), save for one.

The Leafs outperformed the Habs numerous times in the playoffs, but the Prime Ministers’ Trophy totals weren’t close. Here’s every year back to the beginning if you’re interested, with shout-outs to the Hamilton Tigers and other iterations of Toronto teams. Again, teams in the second column had more post-season success that the best regular season Canadian team.

The regular season dominance by the Habs leaves the Prime Ministers’ Trophy totals at:

Montreal: 48
Toronto: 16
Ottawa: 12
Edmonton: 9
Calgary: 7
Vancouver: 5
Winnipeg: 1
Hamilton: 1
TOR St. Pats: 1
TOR Arenas: 1

Maybe the Habs could have another three-hour pre-game show when they win their 50th, why not?

There’s another layer to this, though. The league is missing a chance at event-creation by not leaning further into the realities of these rivalries. Right now on American Thanksgiving, the day is built around football and the NFL, because the NFL made it so -- much like the NBA claimed Christmas Day as theirs. There are three football games in a row as background to the glorious gluttony, and it’s what the family does while they gather for the day – they sit around the TV and watch the Detroit Lions lose.

Well, why deny hockey fans the right to watch the team they hate most lose every year? Why not have four staggered start times with the seven Canadian teams (with maybe Seattle as a dance partner for Vancouver?), and have hockey all day long on Canadian Thanksgiving? On that day, the league could formally hand out the previous season’s Prime Ministers’ Trophy.

We’re all out here at our family gatherings trying to find something to talk about. A terrible Leafs power play may be just what we’ve been missing.

If this is the only season the NHL is going to offer up a Canadian Division, it’s the perfect time to introduce a new trophy dedicated to just those teams. With it being a one-off, this would undoubtedly be the year the trophy carries the most cachet, giving hockey fans north of the border more incentive than ever to tune in each night.

And I have to imagine, given the state of pro sports right now, that would hold no small amount of appeal for all involved, the players, the fans and the league included.

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