"I have for some time been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion."
Lord Stanley of Preston, March 18, 1892
One hundred and twenty years on and it is safe to say the Dominion is hurting.
Lord Stanley's sons, Arthur and Algernon, had persuaded their father to donate something worthwhile to honour the fast and ferocious game they had learned to play in Canada. At a hockey banquet held at the long-lost Russell Hotel, the Governor-General's aide, Lord Kilcoursie, read out the letter from Lord Stanley that promised the challenge cup. Shortly afterward, the Governor-General would purchase a silver bowl in London for 10 guineas, roughly $48.67, and offer it up to the best hockey club in the land, as "There does not appear to be any such outward sign of a championship at present."
At present – 120 years later – one is sorely tempted to say the same thing.
It is three weeks to the day since this column suggested "There could be – with a lot of puck luck required – as many as five Canadian teams in the postseason, or as few as one, the Vancouver Canucks. A fair, if rather disheartening, bet would be that there will be just two, one from the Western Conference, Vancouver, and one from the Eastern Conference, either the Ottawa Senators or the Winnipeg Jets."
Disheartening appeared to be winning over this past weekend.
The Calgary Flames fell 4-1 to Dallas on Saturday and Monday were to meet the Stars again. Having fallen to 11th in the Western Conference, the Flames would virtually need to run the table over their final six games to have a chance at the eighth and final playoff spot.
The Winnipeg Jets – Cinderella story in their first season back where they belong – fell to Nashville and to 10th place in the east, six points back of two surging teams, the Washington Capitals and Buffalo Sabres.
Monday in Winnipeg, the Jets had a chance to gain some ground, but only at the expense of the Ottawa Senators, now sitting precariously in seventh place after losing ground to the Capitals and Sabres. Ottawa held but a two-point cushion going into the Jets match.
Not completely disheartening, but also not very encouraging.
Lord Stanley's trophy designating "the champion hockey team in the Dominion" was first presented to Montreal AAA in 1892-93. Canadian teams won the next 31 Cups before a U.S. team, the Seattle Metropolitans, won in 1916-17, the last season before the NHL was formed. It took until 1928 before a "non-Dominion" NHL team, the New York Rangers, won it.
The recent history has not been encouraging for those who still like to think of Lord Stanley's gift as a Canadian icon. The last Canadian team to win was the Montreal Canadiens in 1993, nearly two decades ago. The Edmonton Oilers, once a Stanley Cup dynasty, have not won in 22 seasons. The Calgary Flames not in 23 seasons. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been barren 45 years. The modern Ottawa Senators and the Winnipeg Jets, both old and modern, have never won.
Of the seven Canadian franchises, one, the Vancouver Canucks, is considered a genuine contender, having made it to the finals last year and strong again this year. In a worst-case scenario, the Canucks might yet be the only "Dominion" team to enter the playoffs.
Why is this?
It cannot just be bad luck – the Canucks, Senators, Flames and Oilers all reaching the finals, but failing, over the past decade – and it cannot be blamed entirely on the various general managers and coaches, though both Toronto and Montreal have lately been trying their best.
Many theories have been put forward, none of them rock-solid. It has been said – and is often said privately by management – that the better free agents tend to avoid Canadian teams for factors that are not related to money: weather, the opportunity to live a more private life, a partner who might be U.S.-born and reluctant to move to another country.
There is some thought – especially in Toronto, partially in Montreal – that life in the media fishbowl exacerbates the natural rhythms of any team. A few losses becomes a full-blown crisis, a few wins a Stanley Cup parade; players not scoring get pressed about it so much they cannot score; players who excel get so much spotlight they often whither under it.
Yet what then explains the record of the Winnipeg Jets, who went from empty seats and no media interest in Atlanta to the loudest rink in hockey and media obsession? Inspired by a fanatical following, they have a Stanley Cup record at home and a bottom-dweller's record on the road.
There may, in fact, be no pure explanation, just an accumulation of circumstantial evidence that is natural, given that there are more than three times as many NHL teams south of the border as north.
It may be that the U.S. domination of the past 20 years is but a blip in the long history of "the Dominion championship" – a blip that conceivably end this spring.
Or, it could be something else….