Change ahead for Canadian hockey

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By Benedict Reiners

Image by: Mark Burnham

Hockey is a part of Canadian culture. If you ask just about anyone, Canadian or not, they’ll tell you this. Despite this, Canadians seem to be growing tired of their beloved sport, with many choosing to forgo watching the Stanley Cup Finals. Yes, this is largely because of the lackluster performances from the Canadian teams, but if that’s what it takes for us to stop caring, one wonders how much longer hockey will be able to maintain its prominent role in Canadian society.

This has not been a good year for Canadian hockey teams. Yes, the Canucks won the President’s Trophy for a second straight year, but when a team loses to an eighth-seeded team in the first round of the playoffs, that counts for very little.

In addition to this, we saw the most successful hockey team ever in the NHL, the Montreal Canadiens, fall to last in the Eastern Conference, a new Winnipeg team fare little better than they did while they were in Atlanta, and the Maple Leafs do what everyone expects them to do anyways: lose. When the Edmonton Oilers having the first overall pick in the draft once again is the biggest story about a Canadian team in the offseason, there’s clearly reason for fans to be frustrated. But what impact will this frustration have?

For starters, there’s the immediate impact on broadcasters. Canadian broadcasters that hold the rights to the playoff games simply don’t get their money’s worth when Canadian teams aren’t faring well. Companies looking to advertise know that when we don’t have reason to watch, we probably won’t. But what effect does that have on hockey? Well, when it comes to NHL activity in Canada, we may actually see an improvement. It has long been speculated that the NHL has been less interested in developing new teams in Canada when considering either expansion or moving teams, because Canadians would watch the games anyways. If the playoffs this year have proven anything, it’s that this is clearly not the case. If Canadians don’t have an investment in the game, they won’t watch it. Period. Once the league notices this, they may realize that they cannot expect the market to grow if they ignore it like they have in the past.

While increasing teams may encourage more Canadians to watch the sport, the ratings in the playoffs this year have suggested something far more serious: we are no longer watching hockey for hockey’s sake. When we stop watching because our team isn’t in the playoffs, we show that it is not the love of the game that is driving our commitment to the sport, but our love of our team. This change isn’t inherently good or bad, but we must consider what it means for Canadian hockey. If we are no longer paying attention to professional hockey for a love of the game, fewer people will play the sport, and with less enthusiasm. If kids are not raised for the game, but rather for a team, they may follow that team religiously, but will be less enthusiastic to actually play. Again, this isn’t inherently a bad thing, and may aid the profitability of Canadian teams, but it is a serious departure from the past outlook, when we considered it a point of pride that we not only had successful teams, but that we produced successful players. Sure, Lemieux played for the Penguins, Orr for the Bruins, and Howe for the Red Wings, but they were Canadians, so we loved them anyways.

The changing attitude towards hockey in Canada may encourage the NHL to actually pay more attention to the market. But this pales in comparison to a much larger issue that we are facing. As we stop caring about hockey for the sake of hockey, we are turning a page in our county’s culture, forcing us to gauge our priorities: do we want more Canadians in the NHL, or do we want more Canadian teams?