The National Hockey League’s oldest team just keeps breaking new ground. Last week, the Montreal Canadiens claimed the Clarence Campbell Bowl for the first time in franchise history because that award — since the spring of 1982 — has been given to the club that advances to the Stanley Cup Final through the Campbell/Western Conference path. This is Montreal’s fourth trip to the showcase series since then, but of course, their typical non-pandemic route is via the Wales/Eastern Conference, where you get to decide whether or not you want to touch the Prince of Wales Trophy.
The Canadiens are also simultaneously playing the role of Canada’s team for the first time, though any serious partisan can tell you that’s a casual-fan construct meant for people with loose club affiliations who only really poke their head in on hockey at playoff time. Canada’s team for hardcores with inter-generational NHL allegiances is a group of guys born in Canada who wear red and white and compete internationally. An NHL outfit based in Canada you don’t support that is on the verge of a championship — especially one from your geographical region — is something that prompts you to paint your face in honour of your new, temporary favourite squad.
If you listen carefully, you can likely hear the brush strokes of Senator and Maple Leaf fans putting on Bolt Blue right now.
So how did this concept of an NHL team representing an entire nation take hold and does it in any way apply to the 2021 Habs? To answer that, we need to break Canada’s almost-30 year Cup drought into a couple chunks and explore the two 10-year periods when no team from north of the 49th even made the Final.
The reason this is Montreal’s initial experience being dubbed Canada’s team is because this is its first time playing in the Final when it is considered novel to have a Canadian squad among the last two competitors standing. The Canadiens haven’t been in the playoffs’ ultimate series since winning their 24th title in 1993. At that point, all but six of the previous 21 Cup Finals had featured at least one Canadian squad (often Montreal). Having a team from this nation going for the Cup was about as headline-worthy an occurrence as eating toast.
Of course, that all changed after the Vancouver Canucks lost to the New York Rangers in 1994. By the time the Jarome Iginla-led Calgary Flames pushed through three rounds in 2004, Canada was getting pretty defensive about its national sport being stolen away. In the decade between Vancouver’s Nathan LaFayette ringing a potential Game 7 equalizer off the post behind Mike Richter in ’94 and the Flames getting hosed on what should have been a Cup-winning goal in overtime of Game 6 in 2004, Canada saw both the Winnipeg Jets and Quebec Nordiques leave this country entirely. The economics of the game coupled with a struggling Canadian dollar made it feel like teams other than Toronto could not compete with the U.S.-based behemoths. Of course a lot of people — easterners, anyway — could get behind the relentless Flames; it really did feel as though that would have been a symbolic win for the country.
Two years later — after the lockout cost us a 2005 Cup — it was Northern Alberta’s team playing the role of unlikely heroes, as the Oilers barely scraped into first salary-cap era playoffs, then went all the way to Game 7 of the Final before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes. Again, there was deeper meaning involved. Chris Pronger probably could have won the Conn Smythe Trophy that year playing for the losing side and it was just mind-blowing and so exhilarating that the league’s new economic landscape allowed for a small market like Edmonton to go out and acquire a Hart Trophy winner in his prime before the season began. (And, as I recall, everything worked out great long-term there, right?) How could non-Flames fans not cheer for this Oilers team that was living the idea anything was possible in a league with an upper cap limit of $39 million?
By the time a long-underachieving Ottawa team made the Final one year later, though, things were changing. This was now the third straight post-season with a Canadian squad in the mix, so the novelty was wearing thin. Also, the city that houses the federal government tends to naturally court derision from other parts of the country. As for the 2011 Vancouver Canucks: Put it this way, the Boston Bruins team Vancouver lost two has some very long-standing rivals in Ontario and Quebec and I suspect many Leafs and Habs backers were still kind of pulling for Boston.
Ten years on, there’s no real financial imbalance — unless you count higher tax rates — to blame for the fact we haven’t seen a Canadian squad back in the Final. If the Canadiens are going to win any new supporters, it’s likely through some combination of this being a first-in-a-decade run coupled with their underdog status and the story of some of their players.
Yearn for old-school hockey? Shea Weber, a.k.a. “The Mountain Man,” should hold some appeal. Think life is about squeezing the most from whatever you got? Meet Brendan Gallagher, who was five-foot-two playing midget hockey in Western Canada. Speaking of overcoming the odds, how about a goal-scorer who has been hearing Hobbit jokes his whole life; Cole Caufield probably just laughs along with them because who really cares as long as you keep filling the net? Maybe you’re the talent-trumps-all type, only feting those so elite they stand out even among the kissed-by-God crowd. In that case, how could you not be hoping for Carey Price to get his Cup after turning in MVP-level play for years that was never offensively supported?
If we call those 2004 Flames the original Canada’s team, there’s a little symmetry in that Calgary lost that year to the same Tampa Bay organization Montreal faces now. Like the Flames, Montreal will enter the series with the odds stacked against them and there would certainly be no shame in losing to the defending champs.
That said, you’ll notice that none of the Canadian clubs that have made the Final since 2004 have managed to turn the trick again. The lesson there applies to teams from any country in any league: When you get this close — regardless of what you’re up against — you better move Heaven and Earth to make it happen.