Inside the NHL

Seattle-area hockey fixture Jamie Huscroft chuckles knowingly at the reality of another year without a Stanley Cup championship north of the border.

For new NHL fans unfamiliar, it’s become a yearly tradition to note that no Canadian city has won a Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. The Vancouver Canucks on Friday were this year’s final Canadian contender eliminated.

British Columbia native Huscroft, 53, who played in Canada for the Canucks and Calgary Flames, as well as the U.S.-based Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning, then-Phoenix (now-Arizona) Coyotes and New Jersey Devils, understands his homeland’s Cup drought angst.

“The average American fan, we love our hockey, but not like in Canada,” said the onetime Seattle Breakers and Thunderbirds junior star, now facilities director with Sno-King hockey association. “They’re anxious about it because they’re very prideful when it comes to their national sport. They’ll gather on a Saturday night and watch a doubleheader of NHL games on television with the whole family because that’s what they’ve always done. It’s just a way of life.”

It’s a way of life that once included Canada-wide mockery of the Toronto Maple Leafs going Cup-less since 1967. Now, the entire country must make fun of itself, instead of just one team, while casting an anxious eye to the south.

Why is this a thing? Well, unlike other “Big 4’’ major professional sports, the NHL is the only one where Americans are a minority — comprising about 26% of players. Canadians have dwindled, but still lead all nations at 43%. 

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Sportsnet’s television rights deal in Canada generates more NHL revenue than NBC’s in the U.S. Every major individual NHL player trophy is named after a Canadian, except the Lady Byng — donated by the British wife of Canada’s onetime governor general. Of 289 players in the Hockey Hall of Fame, 258 are Canadian and only 16 are American, even including dual-citizens.

So, the lack of recent championships for the seven Canadian teams is viewed with consternation by hockey’s birth country. It shouldn’t matter — U.S.-based champions are always loaded with Canadians — but it’s angst rooted in the reality an NHL once 90% Canadian as recently as the 1970s is now half that.

Conversely, optimistic American fans view it as a further sign of league parity and diversity.

Interestingly, what kept Vancouver alive until Game 7 was San Diego-born backup goaltender Thatcher Demko. An NHL player hailing from San Diego — let alone a goalie — was akin to a quarterback from Bolivia until defenseman Chad Ruhwedel joined Pittsburgh in 2012, followed by Demko’s 2018 debut.

It helps that both got teenage development within an L.A. Junior Kings youth program that only blossomed once Wayne Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988. Gretzky’s arrival not only transformed the NHL in California, but the youth foundation beneath it.

Demko is one of 14 Junior Kings alums in the NHL, including Spokane native Kailer Yamamoto. The Kings’ Under-12 team last year won the Quebec International PeeWee Tournament — a global preteen showcase of future NHL talent.

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There were 4,483 registered hockey players in California within two years of Gretzky’s arrival. Today, there are nearly 33,000.

Those running Washington state’s hockey programs hope it won’t take decades for the Kraken to transform things here. The Kings existed 20 years before Gretzky’s arrival, while the California Golden Seals played in the Bay Area from 1967-68 through 1975-76 with little impact on hockey growth.

One difference? Washington already had 10,941 registered players last season, more than double California’s numbers in 1990.

Huscroft said the pandemic hasn’t slowed Sno-King registrations. The association has a new ice arena opening in Snoqualmie in a few weeks, where limited player practices will occur — but no games yet — under COVID-19 safety restrictions.

“By the time this whole pandemic lifts, it’s really going to explode,” he said of registrations. “And we’ll be ready for it.”

Huscroft remembers playing an exhibition game with the Capitals against Chicago in Columbus, Ohio, before it became an NHL city.

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“It was not a hockey town — it was an Ohio State Buckeyes town,” Huscroft said. “Everybody there was for the Buckeyes and hockey wasn’t even top-10. Now, you go in there, it’s like the Blue Jackets control one half and the Buckeyes the other. It’s become a hockey town.”

Huscroft said the NHL has learned to “do it right” in quickly building such markets. And unlike Columbus, he expects Seattle to have an immediate Canucks rivalry stoking local interest.

The Kings didn’t really gain a “cool” factor until Gretzky got them into the 1993 final against — interestingly — Montreal, whose eventual win remains the last by any Canadian squad.

In five subsequent finals featuring Canadian teams, Vancouver lost in 1994 and 2011, Calgary in 2004, Edmonton in 2006 and Ottawa in 2007.

The weaker Canadian dollar initially played a role in the Cup drought, though subsequent salary caps eased many competitive disadvantages. But Huscroft said that, as a free agent, he factored in Canada’s higher taxes and cost of living when deciding where to play — as some top players today undoubtedly will.

Continuous league expansion since 1967 from six teams during Montreal and Toronto’s “Original Six” heyday, to 31 today — 32 once the Kraken launches — also increasingly lowered the odds of a Canadian-based championship. 

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But even the FiveThirtyEight statistical website concluded in 2013 there should have been a 99.3% chance of a Canadian team winning at some point since 1993 if champions were picked by annual lottery.

So, there’s luck involved.

Still, even patriotic Canadians grudgingly concede their game benefits from having players from Europe, U.S. Sunbelt states like California, Arizona and Florida and nontraditional northern markets like Washington. More so than the NHL’s prior overwhelmingly-Canadian and tiny Northeastern U.S. demographics.

“It’s a better game now,” Huscroft agreed.

It’s just come, apparently, at the cost of Canadian cities not celebrating a Cup. So, as we crown this year’s champion from either the New York Islanders, Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights or Dallas Stars, take it easy on ribbing our neighbors to the north.

 After all, their loss has been this country’s — and the sport’s — gain.