VANCOUVER — Canada has produced some of the finest comedians and comic actors ever, from Mort Sahl, Rich Little, David Steinberg and Leslie Nielsen to the whole SCTV crew (Aykroyd, Candy, Short, Levy, O’Hara, et al), to Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Mike Myers, Phil Hartman and on and on ... there’s just something about Canada that spawns a gift for absurdity.
But the best and currently longest-running laugh riot we’ve got is the annual poll to elect Canada’s greatest hockey team.
The results are in: We don’t have one.
All we’ve got is three teams in the National Hockey League’s second division and four in the third. Or four and three, depending whether you think the 20th-place Ottawa Senators are trending up or down.
And no, we’re not entertaining any suggestions that the Vancouver Canucks (10th overall, as of this writing) are a first-tier outfit. They’re not, although — when weighed against the fact that the only other teams even close (the 12th-place Montreal Canadiens and 13th-place Toronto Maple Leafs) both play in the miserable Eastern Conference — they probably still rate as the least ordinary of the Canadian lot.
But it’s a near thing, and not a lot to write home about.
The Winnipeg Jets (25th), Calgary Flames (28th) and Edmonton Oilers (29th) languish down among the wines and spirits in the cold cellar, which is probably a good thing, because they (and their long suffering fans) need to drink to forget.
Fortunately, they’re good at it.
No one needs to be reminded that it’s closing in on 21 years since the 1993 Habs capped a period of relative Canadian prosperity that had seen teams from the Great White North win eight Stanley Cups in 10 years, including seven in a row (five them by Edmonton, one each by Montreal and Calgary) from 1984 to 1990.
Since the Canadiens came back to beat the Kings in 1993 ... bupkis.
Also, followers will be well aware of all the plausible excuses for this drought that have been thrown at the wall over the years.
Like the Canadian dollar, which was rotten for a long time, and now is sinking again. Or like taxation. Or like weather on the Prairies, making Winnipeg and Edmonton (and to a lesser extent Ottawa and Calgary) difficult to sell as destinations for free agents. Or having to go through customs on every trip to the States (although customs for NHL teams tends to be a wink and a cheery wave) or ... I don’t know, pressure. Remember the Brian Burke/Ron Wilson argument that it’s just harder to play in Canada because this country tends to love its hockey players to death?
Which is why you see Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau sign very franchise-friendly three-year extensions Friday in San Jose, where the weather is nice and the pressure manageable. Meanwhile, our great Canadian players tend to cheer inwardly (or outwardly) when drafted by an American team or bolt to the U.S. as soon as they are able, which is why only four of the 23 players on our Olympic roster — none of them forwards — ply their trade with Canadian teams, and at least one of those four (Roberto Luongo, Carey Price, Dan Hamhuis, P.K. Subban) might never see the ice in Sochi.
Five of the seven Canadian NHL franchises are not represented on the national squad.
So yes, if you are a believer that a Stanley Cup can’t be won without a couple of great Canadians on the roster (the 2008 Detroit Red Wings might be the exception to the rule, in the period since ’93), losing most of the best Canadian talent to U.S. squads certainly lengthens the odds.
The talent drain applies to managers and coaches and scouts, too, of course so if, at times, it looks on draft day as though Canadian teams couldn’t pick their wives out of a police lineup, there might be something to that.
But it doesn’t have to be fatal. Free agents don’t go running in the other direction when approached to go to Vancouver or Montreal or Toronto, all good hockey towns, big revenue teams, all attractive cities.
The excuses really don’t apply there, and shouldn’t in Edmonton, either, where the Oilers have had the most unbelievable run of lottery luck and happy incompetence result in a string of top draft picks, and have next to nothing to show for it.
So how come Canadian teams can’t do better?
Well, in the case of Vancouver, it’s fairly plain. The team’s best-before date passed a couple of years ago, and the evidence points to it being all downhill from here. As soon as the Sedin twins went from 100-point wizards to 75-point producers, even the return to health of Ryan Kesler wasn’t going to be enough to lift the team from its slide toward mediocrity. Add to that the years of ordinary to awful draft picks, and the cupboard was allowed to become bare to the point where, by the time (or if) players like Bo Horvat and Hunter Shinkaruk and Zack Kassian become big-time pros, the nucleus will be well onto the far side of the hill.
The Maple Leafs have been alternately prospering and disappearing under Randy Carlyle, relying on goaltending to bail them out while being outshot and out-chanced consistently, and every time the fans think they’re seeing light at the end of the tunnel, it turns out to be the proverbial oncoming train.
Ditto the Habs, who, like their two best Canadian players — Price and Subban — are equally likely to be the first star on a given night, or the goat. Their roster, like that of the Leafs, looks as though it ought contain the pieces of a better team, but that team is only seen about half the time.
Ottawa has the goaltending but not the horses, Calgary has the work ethic but not much else, and the Oilers have ... well, in theory, they have forwards, but it’s impossible to know how good they might be if the environment were healthier.
On the bright side, the Oil headed into Friday night’s game against Phoenix fully three points* clear of the last-place Buffalo Sabres.
*-Buffalo will have four games in hand on Saturday morning.
© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun