Canada's Cup connection: Is Oilers' run at title really stirring this country's hockey fans?

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FORT LAUDERDALE — Frequent visitor and part-time resident, the Stanley Cup has seen plenty of Canada and Canadians in the past three decades.

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Every summer in fact, Stanley is toted through the hometowns of those good Canadian kids who were in fact good enough to have their names etched in silver and nickel alloy. Managers, coaches, scouts and support staff also enjoy the same day-long visitation perk, so Stanley appears at hockey rinks and baseball diamonds, summer fairs and parades, and once rather famously showed up at a St. Albert, Alta. establishment that featured the considerable spectacle of exotic dance.

Nonetheless, it is important, we are told, that the Stanley Cup comes back to Canada for an extended stay in Edmonton; that cameos with Canadian members of the Florida Panthers will not tide us over for another off-season of wound-licking. Enough, already, of this American monopoly on Canada’s game.

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And it surely seems statistically ridiculous that the Montreal Canadiens of 1992-93 were the most recent of the Great White Northerners to hoist the Cup. But is that absence of chalice cause for another summit? Or is it simply an annoying anomaly?

“I’ll be brutally, brutally honest here, I think some people south of the border are beginning to think they invented the game, with the whole non-Canadian (winners) thing,” said six-time Cup winner Kevin Lowe. “It’s really a petty social media thing, but having said that, well, how come a Canadian team hasn’t won? It’s a law of averages I guess a little bit, and teams have been close.

“I don’t think a lot of people in the hockey world are panicking, but it’s starting to bother people, you know. Let’s put it this way, I was actually cheering for the Leafs to beat the Bruins this year, and I have never cheered for the Leafs ever, so for someone who is around the game, it was starting to wear on me a bit too.”

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The Oilers can shelve the narrative and wipe the slate clean if they wipe the ice with the Panthers for a fourth straight game on Monday night in Sunrise, Fla. Things looked bleak, more bust than Cup, for the group that boldly declared its glorified intentions back in the fall. But that was 18 goals and three wins ago, and now it is time for them to finish the job, for their own good of course, but apparently also on behalf of all those Canadian teams who came before and fell just short.

For the 2004 Calgary Flames, who lost to Tampa; the 2007 Ottawa Senators, who were vanquished by Todd Marchant and the Anaheim Ducks; the 1994 Canucks who lost to Lowe and the New York Rangers and the 2011 Vancouver crew who fell to Boston; the 2021 Habs who were struck by Lightning; and yes, for the 2006 edition of the Edmonton Oilers, who saw their dreams die in Raleigh, N.C., in Game 7.

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Since the Habs’ 1993 Cup victory, 15 different American-based teams have won the Cup. Seven of them — Pittsburgh, Colorado, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago, New Jersey and Tampa Bay — are repeat winners, and the 29-season drought has desecrated those trophy cases in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton that used to have space reserved for Stanley and friends. The Leafs and Canadiens combined to lock it down for comforting stretches in the 1940s and ’60s, and there was that seven-year run engineered mostly by the Oilers, with assistance from the Flames and Habs.

Everybody knows those Cup-winners get rings, and everybody talks about them, because they are gaudy and glorious, bursting with diamonds. But the Cup is the thing, and winners are presented with miniature replicas. Marchant found that out decades after first spying one at a used sporting goods store in Fort Erie, Ont. as a youngster. His family lived in Buffalo and every year they would cross the border to trade in old hockey equipment and buy new stuff at a place called Don Simmons. A former goalie, Simmons won three Cups with the Leafs in the early ’60s.

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“He had one of those little Stanley Cups on a shelf,” said Marchant. “You saw it when you went to the back room. I always saw it there and remember thinking that’s really cool. And I remember being at (Cup-winner Kelly Buchberger’s) house. It might have been for burgers and beers before the playoffs, like we always did, and I saw one of his, and thought again, that’s really cool.”

There are plenty of those mini-Stanley Cups in homes all over Canada, but a growing chorus has been clamouring for the full-size version for three decades now, and the decibel level has reached a pinnacle, especially in Edmonton.

“It’s big for the city,” said Lowe. “I see all the faces, plenty of new Canadians around the Ice District. That’s a whole new generation of fans and people rallying around something together as a common goal. It’s good for the province and the city. Edmonton, Alberta in the headlines, that goes around the world. All that stuff is good.”

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A Stanley Cup playoff run is undeniably good for the bottom line, at least that of the team and its community, such are the economic spinoffs. And there is no doubt Edmonton has been bursting with playoff fever and Oilers pride, but would a Cup win on Monday stir the nation? Is a Stanley Cup victory panacea for whatever wounds have been inflicted on the pan-Canadian psyche, if indeed there is such a thing, by the absence of total mastery on the freeze? Will millions of otherwise occupied people in Ontario and Quebec, the Maritimes and B.C., be overjoyed if the Oilers beat the Panthers? Those people are definitely watching, as Game 6 attracted a Canadian TV audience of 4.4 million, and another 4.1 million Americans.

So, there is interest on both sides of the border. And on Saturday, as a WestJet flight crossed into the U.S. from Toronto, bound for Fort Lauderdale, there were three passengers wearing Oilers jerseys. Jerry Korchinski was one of them, sporting a vivid orange and blue No. 72 with ‘W D Hunter’ emblazoned on the back. That’s in honour of his godfather, the late Wild Bill Hunter, the bombastic impressario who brought the Oilers to life as a World Hockey Association franchise in 1972. As other passengers filed past Korchinski and his wife, one or two offered good luck wishes.

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As Korchinski and his wife entered the airport terminal in Fort Lauderdale, a couple of boos rang out. That too is but the tiniest sliver of the shared experience, and all in good fun. The Korchinskis had been at Rogers Place for Game 6 and headed straight for the airport as the strains of La Bamba filled the air once again.

Fandom can be impulsive like that. It can be thoughtful and measured, consistent and soothing too, and tens of thousands of people in the Moss Pit have been working on theirs for weeks now. Creating memories that will forever enrich their lives? Or just drinking beer outside and watching hockey with friends and strangers who are all apparently named McDavid?

“They’ve already created (those memories), but man, if the team wins on Monday night, that’s a whole other level,” said Lowe. “Where were you in 2024, on June 24th?”

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Thousands will be inside Rogers Place, giving the watch party a voice and life of its own. There will be similar gatherings all over Edmonton, and presumably elsewhere in the country, wherever it matters to someone that a Canadian team wins one again.

That’s what hockey does. It provides connection; a reason to gather somewhere, to celebrate or commiserate, to swill and swear, to know that an Oilers win might not change your life and a loss won’t diminish the city’s love affair with its team, but if given the choice, it would surely be to have Stanley come home.

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X: @sportsdanbarnes

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