Eighteen and counting.
It is now 18 long years since the Canadian trophy that is considered the epitome of the national game has gone to a Canadian team.
When the Vancouver Canucks fell 4-0 to the Boston Bruins in Game 7 on Wednesday, it marked the fifth time since the Montreal Canadiens won the Cup in 1993 that a Canadian team has come up short in the final. The Canucks, sadly, have now failed twice to grasp what is considered the Holy Grail of hockey, having lost another Game 7 to the New York Rangers back in 1994.
When Alice Cooper sang, "I'm 18 – and I don't know what I want," he certainly wasn't speaking for a great many Canadian hockey fans, whose frustration will now head into the 2011-12 season with the small balm of at least having one more Canadian franchise, Winnipeg, to chase this most difficult of championships to win.
These frustrated fans feel exactly as Governor-General Lord Stanley of Preston did back on March 18, 1892, when he introduced his now-famous trophy and suggested, "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." A good thing indeed, but an increasingly remote thing, as well.
The Canucks' valiant effort in 2011 matched its close call in 1994, but it was once again not to be. The Calgary Flames lost in the finals, also in seven games, to the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, the Edmonton Oilers lost in seven to the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and the Ottawa Senators fell to the Anaheim Ducks in five games in 2007.
So close, but no Stanley Cup ring.
To the lasting credit of the thousands of Canucks fans who stayed to the bitter end, they accepted the loss with enormous grace, cheering loudly as Boston captain Zdeno Chara – looking like Gulliver in hockey gear – leaned down and accepted the Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
The gigantic Chara's scream, which dislodged his cap, underscored what the great Wayne Gretzky once said of that iconic moment when the captain of a team is first to raise the Cup over his head: "I've held women and babies and jewels and money – but nothing will ever feel as good as holding the Cup."
The hometown crowd stood and cheered, as well, when Boston goaltender Tim Thomas was awarded – to no one's surprise – the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of these playoffs.
"Every time we had our backs to the wall," Thomas said of his team's earlier struggles in the playoffs, "we did it."
The crowd reserved a special cheer for Boston forward Milan Lucic, a Vancouver native who grew up dreaming of playing for the team and won a Memorial Cup with the Vancouver Giants in 2007. Speaking to CBC, Lucic gave all credit to his parents, his grandparents, his brothers, his uncles, his former teammates, his current teammates – "Thank you for making me who I am."
Cheering for the visitors, however, was not what the Vancouver fans had expected. The Canucks had taken a 2-0 lead in this 2011 final but sputtered badly in Boston, losing games 8-1, 4-0 and 5-2. In the last two of those contests, goaltender Roberto Luongo, along with Thomas a Vézina Trophy finalist as the best goaltender in the NHL, had been replaced during the games for his faulty play.
As Luongo also had two shutouts in the series when playing at home, the pressing question on the minds of hyperventilating Vancouver fans was whether "Good Lou" or "Bad Lou" would show up this night.
"That's up to him," Boston rookie Tyler Seguin snapped prior to the drop of the puck.
It was indeed up to him, and Luongo seemed determined to deliver, making an early glove save off Bruins forward David Krejci, the playoffs leading scorer. But he could not will his team to victory. Luongo played fairly well the remainder of the game, but if your team fails to score a single goal you are not going to come back.
The Canucks, the NHL's top team this season, must now try and figure out why they came up short and what they can do to remedy matters. In Luongo's case, the overriding question that has unfortunately haunted Canada's 2010 Olympics gold-medal winning goaltender, remains in play: Can he win the Big One?
There is no obvious remedy, but perhaps the best advice to the Canucks and their millions of fans across the country is what former coach and general manager of the Boston Bruins, Harry Sinden, said one year when his team didn't quite get there: "The remedy, right now, is two scotches and an aspirin."