Left Out in the Cold

Canadians try to keep their cool over being shut out of last season’s NHL playoffs, but the prospect of missing out again gives them chills
Left Out in the Cold

Illustration by Jane Feindt

At this time last year, the Montreal faithful were dusting off their engraving tools, ready to etch the Canadiens’ name on the Stanley Cup for the 25th time. The team’s record 9-0 start and eventual 19 wins in their first 26 games led local sports DJs and opposing teams to assume a long playoff run at the very least. They appeared unstoppable, led by Carey Price, the planet’s best goalie; a gritty yet talented offense and P.K. Subban, the league’s millennial poster boy and 2013 recipient of the Norris Trophy, presented to the NHL’s top defenseman every season. 

Little did we — full disclosure: I’m a lifelong Canadiens fan — know boom was about to go bust, literally, when Price suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team’s malaise proved so sickening, come summer they traded away Subban. But Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge (like most fabled franchises, the Canadiens possess myriad monikers) were hardly alone. Every other Canadian city also booted the playoffs, leaving this hockey-crazed population with nothing more to do last spring than watch the snow melt. 

To get a sense of how horrific Canada can be without a playoff team, imagine if the former Montreal Expos were to play the Toronto Blue Jays in the World Series, then multiply that one series by four over the course of 10 weeks. 

“Hockey is so central to Canadian culture,” explains Vancouver-based Lucas Aykroyd, a hockey contributor to The New York Times. “Paul Henderson’s winning goal against the Soviets in 1972 is still considered Canada’s ‘Where Were You?’ moment. It’s not at all far-fetched to compare it to the USA moon landing or even the JFK assassination.”

Canada’s relationship to hockey is unusual, transcending race, gender and class, according to Aykroyd. Unlike American sports, almost everyone in Canada has some association with pro hockey. The statistics bear this out. Canada has just over 10 percent of the U.S. population, and more than 80 percent live in -cities. About 50 percent of NHL players are Canadian, inferring a small degree of separation from the national pastime. (Note: Lacrosse is Canada’s official national sport.)“Almost everybody who’s born here and played hockey knows someone who played or plays in the NHL,” declares Mitch Melnick, host of the “Melnick in the Afternoon” drive-time show on TSN 690 radio in Montreal. Of course many of these players ply their craft in U.S. cities, but this personal connection indicates the urban dweller’s affinity for the sport.

So how will Canadians, renowned for their polite demeanors, react this season after the “Great Shutout of 2016?” Look no farther than forlorn Montreal, a city so ingrained with “le Club de hockey Canadien” that signs leading to Centre Bell, the city’s primary arena, display the Canadiens’ crest in lieu of the arena’s actual name. 

“When you define Montreal as one of the great cities on the planet,” implores Melnick, “in addition to the restaurants, festivals and the Mount Royal Cross, you include -- the Canadiens.”

Melnick grew up in Montreal, where he’s occupied the prime sport-radio spot for decades. Known for his three passions: the Canadiens, the defunct Expos and music — especially Bob Dylan — he endured a press-box seat to the team’s demise last season. His frustration transcends his professional obligations.

“You don’t have to be my age to know how great Canadiens teams have been. In short, what began as a historic season of optimism last year ended up being an epic season of disaster. None of us had ever seen a team collapse like this.” 

Only New York Yankees fans breathe the same rarefied air as Montreal supporters. If you’re in your 60s or older, you watched Jean Béliveau win 10 Stanley Cups. -Fifty-year-olds followed Ken Dryden (his ’70s dynasty claims half a dozen). Even 40-somethings saw Patrick Roy hoist the Cup a couple of times, the last one with the Canadiens in ’93 against Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings. 

But if you’re a millennial, well, “No Cup for you!” 1993 was the last time La Sainte Flannelle (lots of nicknames, remember?) or any Canadian city raised a banner to the rafters.

Like at the start of every season, Canadian fans remain (cautiously) optimistic about this year. 

“Edmonton is like Toronto,” Melnick observes. “They’ve been bad so long, drafting generational players Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews has led to some optimism.”

“Winnipeg should be wonderfully entertaining,” adds Aykroyd, “Calgary has a bunch of talented young forwards, and it’s always fun to watch Ottawa. Vancouver, I’m afraid, is still reeling from the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals loss.”

“As for Montreal,” Melnick concludes, “we’re just holding our breath Carey Price stays healthy.”

In the end, the Montreal sports jock previews the season with his familiar blend of Canadian kindness and DJ verve. “The long-suffering fans of Canadian teams just want to know their team is doing everything in their power to win. That’s sports — it’s not about loyalty — get it together and win!”  

O Canada, how we missed you

As hard as it was to believe, not one of the NHL’s seven Canada-based teams made the playoffs following the 2015-2016 season. The only other time Canada was shut out of the tournament was in 1970, when there were only two teams north of the border — the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs — and only 12 NHL teams total.

Since then, 18 teams have entered the league (five in Canada and 13 in the U.S.), with an additional franchise set to begin play in Las Vegas in 2017. Two teams, the Arizona Coyotes and the Colorado Avalanche, started in Canada (in Winnipeg and Quebec City, respectively) before moving to the U.S., while two others, the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets, each started in Atlanta before eventually heading north of the border. (Hey, at least the Braves open a new ballpark next year.)  -—TRAVIS KINSEY