Canada might be the only nation on earth that invented its favorite sport, has no other sport that’s even half as popular, and remains arguably the best in the world at playing it. How big is hockey in Canada? They put the sport on their five-dollar bill. It has a drawing of kids playing a pick-up game outside, and a quote from a beloved children’s story, “The Hockey Sweater.” It goes like this:
“The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places - the school, the church and the skating rink - but our real life was on the skating rink.” That’s right: on our finski, we put the Lincoln Memorial. They put pond hockey.
That’s why it killed them when they lost the Olympic gold medal – in 1956. I’m not kidding. I was out for dinner with two Canadian friends last week, and they told me it still bothers them. No surprise, then, that it’s a crisis of national confidence that no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since 1993. Despite a little skirmish called the Civil War, the United States is still far more unified than Canada is. Its biggest province speaks French and every few years, threatens to secede.
But hockey – and only hockey -- brings them together. A few years ago, I was in Vancouver on business during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canucks had already been eliminated, but I was stunned to see business signs in the English-speaking city saying “Go Habs!” – the Montreal Canadiens, that is, the last Canadian team left standing that year. You never saw that in the eighties. So great is the Canadians’ desire to bring the Cup home again, they’ll look past language, culture and decades of bitter rivalry just to see their countrymen hoist the grail once more.
That’s why all of Canada was cheering for Vancouver when the Canucks got to the Stanley Cup Finals this spring. They got ahead of the Boston Bruins two games to none, then three to two. The dream was that close. But it came down to a winner-take-all game seven. NBC covered it, which got the highest ratings in the U.S. of any NHL game since 1973. Of course, that still meant it finished behind a re-run of NCIS. I don’t even know what NCIS is. Is it related to CSI? The CIA? The NLRB? I have no idea – but whatever it is, it’s still more popular than the biggest hockey game of the year.
But even those ratings were far better than the Stanley Cup Final ratings a few years ago, which finished behind a Food Channel show called, “How to Build a Better Burger.” Few Americans outside of Boston probably cared, but the Bruins beat the Canucks to take the Cup. Canadians were devastated. The locals trashed the town the way Detroit did when it won the World Series in 1984. (One difference: Canadian parents turn their teenagers into the police.)
But there was a silver lining, made official this week: The NHL approved the sale of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, which had lost its first NHL team to Phoenix back in 1997. Not because they didn’t love them – they packed the place – but because they couldn’t get big the TV money the NHL required in a small market, and the exchange rate was killing them.
They say the rich will find your fun, buy it and sell it for a profit. So it’s good to see the Canadians get some of their fun back.
Go Winnipeg. Go Canada.