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Gauging the interest of this NHL post-season devoid of Canadian franchises

With the best Canadian teams currently playing sports other than hockey, is the national passtime in danger of losing its mantle?

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Here we are in the Stanley Cup Final! Though the hockey world is still hoping to spend about one final fortnight focusing on the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the San Jose Sharks, and while a great many Montreal Canadiens fans will be shifting their attention between the Final and anticipating the great many moves that they hope will be made during the now kickstarted 'Summer of Marc Bergevin,' I've felt compelled to look backwards just a little bit.

It wasn't all that long ago when hockey fans north of border started to grapple with the reality that not a single Canadian-based team was going to make it to this year's playoffs. In the days and weeks that followed this news, panels were struck and comprehensive analyses were performed to assess the factors that contributed to all Canadian teams failing to qualify for the first time in 46 years.

Beyond looking at the various on- and off-ice challenges, media discussion also addressed the damage that would be done to TV viewership, and hence to revenue for the fledgling Rogers national broadcast deal. And, of course, CBC radio played its instinctive culture-protection role by asking experts to consider the risks that a playoff season without Canadian teams would pose to our national psyche.

While early reports revealed a mixture of fan disappointment and indifference, and despite the fact that public chatter on this issue mostly dried up, I've been curious about Canadians' thoughts and feelings now that they've made it through three rounds and are currently watching the last two teams battle for the championship.

Now, I know that Eyes on the Prize readers will have most certainly suffered from this Habs-less playoffs, but in the absence of teams from Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, and Ottawa, do hockey fans in Canada feel as though they were robbed of the chance to share in their fellow citizens' socially meaningful sporting experiences? Or, is the simple reality that Canadian hockey fans neither like to follow teams from other Canadian cities nor require exposure to those teams' peculiarly local storylines to fully enjoy the post-season of their national sport?

Interest in a post-season with no Canadian franchises

To help untangle my question of just how Canadian the hockey playoffs have to be for today's Canadian fans, I have turned to a keen set of hockey observers. And, while most of the observers agree that there are downsides to not having any Canadian teams in this year's post-season, this has neither been catastrophic for them nor for the state of the game of hockey in the country as a whole.

Dan Robertson just finished his second season calling play-by-play for the Montreal Canadiens on TSN 690 radio in Montreal. While the Trenton, Nova Scotia native would most definitely prefer to have been covering the Habs this post-season, he says he wasn't all that concerned about the failure of all Canadian teams to qualify for this year's playoffs.

"It bothered me for fans in the given cities. I felt bad for them," Robertson said. "But, personally, I don't care. To me, Vancouver is the same as San Jose. I don't look at it as a Canada-U.S. kind of thing. Where I grew up, there was no team close by, so [it wasn't] that if they didn't make the playoffs, then people totally lost interest. And, the people that I talk with today, they're still interested in the post-season, even though there's no Canadian teams. I don't really think it's a factor at all."

Having grown up in small town Nova Scotia as a fan of both the Habs and the Penguins, Robertson's interest in hockey wasn't premised upon strict geographic affiliations. Aside from having empathy for the fans in the cities outside of Montreal whose teams also didn't qualify for the post-season, it didn't particularly bother Robertson that the Canadian-based teams were left behind when the playoffs got underway.

Andie Bennett is another local professional sports commentator who had no opportunity to report on the daily ups and downs of a Canadiens playoff run this year. Yet, despite this absence, Bennett, a sports reporter for CBC Radio's Daybreak in Montreal, says she felt little when she first realized there would be no other Canadian teams in this year's post-season.

"Honestly, I could not care less about no Canadian teams," Bennett wrote in an e-mail. "Over the years, the Habs have built up better rivalries with American teams anyway, so those are the teams I end up invested in. I worry for the bigger effect on local businesses in Canadian towns that depend on the fervour to survive, but other than that, as a fan, I want the best teams with the best players in the postseason. Often [those players] are Canadian, even if they lace up for a team south of the border."

"The climax of the NHL season is NOT the awarding of the Stanley Cup. It is the first two rounds." - Roy MacGregor

Having moved around as she grew up, Bennett has split her hockey partisanship between the Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers. Noting that not having the Canadian-based teams she likes to root for in the playoffs doesn't mean not having the best Canadian players to watch, Bennett, like Robertson, expressed only mild regret for lost business in the cities whose teams are outside of this year's post-season action.

Holding a professional responsibility for objective reporting, perhaps it's unsurprising that members of the media would put a little distance between themselves and social developments surrounding one of the sports they cover. Yet, an identical suspension of sentimentality regarding a lost playoff year for Canadian teams was shown by the non-media member with whom I consulted as well.

Kyle Rousselis a Montrealer, and a diehard fan of the Canadiens. Roussel says that he hardly batted an eye when he realized no Canadian teams were making the playoffs this year.

Like Bennett and Robertson, Roussel was unperturbed by the lack of Canadian teams. "Sure, I miss the unmistakable atmosphere that Canadian teams bring, no doubt aided by Canadian broadcasters," he said, "But if the Canadiens aren't going to win the Cup, then I don't want any other Canadian teams winning it, either!"

Lest we hastily conclude that there's absolutely nothing to the claim that Canadians have been unaffected by not having any of their local teams in the playoffs, there was some provocative insight expressed by the veteran of the group of observers with whom I spoke.

Roy MacGregor is an award-winning columnist at the Globe and Mail and member of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Known for writing passionately about the relationships between the sport of hockey and old-time Canadian values, perhaps it's not a surprise that MacGregor offered a rich perspective on the consequences of Canadian teams missing this year's post-season.

"I personally despise June hockey. The season should be over, as it once was, in April," MacGregor wrote. "Canadians suffering cabin fever have diminishing interest in the playoffs as they roll along. The days are longer and warmer, the evenings have light. The climax of the NHL season is NOT the awarding of the Stanley Cup. It is the first two rounds. By the time the Cup is raised, we've largely tuned out.

Photo credit: Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports

"Unless, of course, there's a secondary interest. Can Edmonton pull it off? Will Vancouver fans riot again? What is playoff fever doing to Calgary? There being none of this this year, I would suggest that Canadian interest in the dreaded third and fourth rounds of a playoff season is at its lowest ebb ever."

Premised on a careful distinction between caring and interest, MacGregor argues that, while most Canadians were neither emotionally nor culturally troubled by a 'down year' in which none of their teams made the post-season, the lack of compelling Canadian-centred stories is undoubtedly deflecting their attention away from hockey this May and June.

Whether it's been Steven Stamkos dramatically playing in a game seven of the Conference Final, the counter-narrative role being played by Phil Kessel, or even just the up-and-down hockey promised by matchups between the league's top offensive players and teams, the playoff viewing decisions described to me by the more junior hockey observers with whom I spoke defied MacGregor's theory that the non-local nature of this post-season's storylines would fail to spark late-round interest in Canadian fans.

Yet, while Robertson, Bennett, and Roussel all claim to have been paying reasonably close attention from Round One through to the Final, I couldn't help but ask them if their interest wouldn't have been just a little bit more intense if some of the on- and off-ice scripts were being written by players and coaches representing Canadian-based teams.

I was nearly laughed right out of the room!

Interest in a post-season with at least one Canadian franchise

Speculating out loud on how he might have felt had a sampling of different teams made the playoffs, Dan Robertson concluded that the 'Canadian Question' is a complete non-issue for him.

"If I know it's a Canadian city, like Calgary, I'd be happy for the fans there, but I just see it as another city in the NHL," Robertson said. "On the flip side, say the Eastern Final was Carolina or Columbus, I wouldn't watch three seconds of it. When it's what I consider to be a non-traditional market, I really find that disinteresting.

"Now, I look at Toronto, and I was disappointed the times I've been there to call games because it's one of the worst atmospheres in the NHL. With Winnipeg, however, I've called two games there, and the atmosphere was awesome. I would be glad had they made the playoffs. Not because it's a Canadian city, but because it's a city that really cares about its hockey."

Combining the viewpoints of both a fan and an observer whose job it is to describe the action to listeners at home, Robertson's hypothetical scenarios suggest that playoff excitement for him is much more contingent upon the ambiance and tradition offered by specific arenas and cities than it is upon an automatic connection to teams in his own national community.

If it was Carolina or Columbus, I wouldn't watch three seconds of it. - Dan Robertson

While Andie Bennett laments the absence of a certain collective 'swagger' that comes from seeing Canadian teams do well, she also denies that her interest would have been higher had more Canadian-based teams made the playoffs.

"Maybe [I'd be more into it] if it was Edmonton. But, again, I think it has more to do with following their top draft picks, and maybe being mired in the basement for so long," Bennett said. "Sorry, but personally, the Canadian pride when it comes to hockey for me only comes into play with the international tournaments. I feel no more attachment to the Jets than to the Rangers or Penguins."

Similar to Robertson and Bennett, Roussel insisted that his interest wouldn't have been any higher had teams from the Canadian cities qualified for this year's post-season. But, when he told me that a Leafs-Canucks Final very well might have turned him into a 'hate-watcher,' I was certain I lured him into admitting that the amplification of emotion caused by seeing two Habs rivals in this most unlikely matchup shows that the particular involvement of Canadian-based teams would generate exceptionally compelling fan experiences.

No such luck!

"If the Leafs or Sens were involved [in the Final], I'd probably be more inclined to stay away entirely, or at least at arm's length. Hate-watching the Leafs would probably ruin the playoffs because of the negativity that I'd be feeling all series long. I'd be pulling so hard against the Leafs that I would be stressed out and less likely to enjoy myself. In this instance, the likelihood that I tune out is actually higher than it is for Pens/Sharks."

As you can see, the results are quite clear. The observers neither feel a sense of existential loss over the lack of Canadian-based teams in this year's playoffs nor believe that Canadian-centred playoff storylines are more attractive than those that emerge from non-Canadian communities.

I was definitely happy to see such confidence being exuded by my observers as they delivered their post-nationalist attitudes, but I was still left feeling a little uneasy.

The Toronto Raptors and the rapid ascent of lone Canadian teams in other sports

With no Canadian teams in the playoffs, and with Canadian hockey fans quite unalarmed, are we not possibly on a slippery slope towards collective apathy? Furthermore, with the national ascendance of the Toronto Raptors, and growing out their recently concluded and patriotism-inspiring playoff run, there's been a growing debate over whether basketball might eventually replace hockey as our national pastime as younger generations of sports fans become increasingly visible and influential in the national sporting scene. As if to allay my own fears, I felt compelled to ask my observers how they felt about the idea that the NHL, especially with the Canadian-based teams at an all-time low, may be vulnerable to being eclipsed by the NBA in Canada.

Of all the hockey observers with whom I spoke, Andie Bennett expressed the most enthusiasm towards the Raptors and towards the sport of basketball. Describing herself as attracted to most sports that provide energy, commitment, speed, and skill, Bennett's thoughts also demonstrate some of the specific areas of appeal that basketball seems to be offering to younger sports fans in Canada.

"I have totally been watching the Raptors." Bennett said. "I think [basketball] will always have an economic attraction, like soccer. Hockey is not an accessible sports for many families. There is something beautiful and pure about a sport where you just need a ball and a net. And, of course, when a local team has success, that garners interest from the younger generation. The Raptors really did something special this year. Who doesn't want to be a part of that?"

Unlike Bennett, Kyle Roussel didn't tune in to the Raptors as they played their way to the third round of the NBA playoffs. And though he recognizes its growing popularity and potential threat to the business of hockey in Canada, Roussel has little fear that basketball will overpower hockey as Canadians' favourite sport.

Photo credit: Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports

"The growing popularity of both basketball and soccer nation-wide should concern the NHL at least a little bit considering that a huge chunk of their revenue comes from a small percentage of their teams," Roussel said. "As a hockey fan, I'm not really concerned. I think hockey is so deeply entrenched in Canadian culture that it will not be challenged for at least a couple of generations, if not longer."

Though Dan Robertson echoes Roussel's sense that Canadians aren't about to abandon hockey for basketball, he nevertheless believes that the NHL can learn something about how to appeal to socially diverse young generations of Canadian sports fans from the NBA and the Toronto Raptors.

"If you look at the Raptors games, and at Jurassic Park, it's a really diverse crowd. Not everybody's milky white. Everybody's out there together, and I think that's great," Robertson said. "So, maybe basketball could take away some fans from hockey in the Toronto area, but it's just so ingrained in this country. It's the love of hockey, and I don't ever see it changing to where they're losing considerable amounts of fans. But, basketball does a good job of marketing to younger fans, and I think that's a smart way to go."

While most of the observers gave at least a tip of the hat to basketball's refreshing qualities, and even acknowledged that the sport's effervescence may offer something uniquely attractive to Canadian sports fans that hockey currently does not, does the veteran MacGregor believe that basketball could become more popular than hockey in Canada?

"Not a prayer. That's a Toronto-centric argument at best, but it's not much of one," MacGregor said. "The culture of this country is inextricably tied to hockey. Even if the other sports grow -- and good for them if they do -- and even if cheap soccer enrolment surpasses hockey, the game of Beliveau-Howe-Hull-Lafleur-Gretzky-Lemieux-Crosby, and so on, will rule for as long as we can see into the future."

That's it! As I was reflecting on the defiantly emphatic nature and content of MacGregor's sentiments, it finally hit me.

The security of the national game

While there are all sorts of cultural-nationalistic reasons for expecting Canadian hockey fans to especially value and desire the participation of Canadian-based teams in the NHL playoffs, and while many Canadian sports fans may have been rather intoxicated by the Toronto Raptors this season, it's the very confidence they have in the status of hockey in their community life that's protected them from experiencing significantly adverse reactions to the full failure of their country's teams to appear in the post-season.

Now, throw another few years of playoff drought for our teams, an NBA expansion into Canada, and a return of the Expos to Montreal into the mix, and all bets are off. But, at least for the time being, Canadians are secure in their belief in their favourite national sport, even if the very best that it has to offer is currently only going down outside their national borders.