Skip to main content
Original Issue


Canadians reflexively refer to hockey as their religion, which, if
true, makes the NHL their church. The believers should be happy.
The 103-day lockout ended two months ago, a regular season that
lasts longer than the Crusades has been compressed into a snappy
48 games, and Hockey Night in Canada now offers Saturday
doubleheaders for convenient home worship. Forum- goers file into
St. Patrick's Cathedral in Montreal to hail Canadien goalie
Patrick Roy, the infernal Flames burn in Calgary, and, as usual,
the Ottawa Senators don't have a prayer.

But this ain't your old-time religion anymore. The NHL has headed
south on Canadians, and it doesn't have a round-trip ticket. The
reality is that while Canada is still hockey's soul, the country
is being buried in a new era of American big money and big
markets. Canadians have not lost the faith as much as their faith
has left them.

Canada, a nation one tenth as populous as the giant on the other
side of the world's longest undefended border, has always viewed
its neighbor with a healthy mix of awe and disdain, envy and fear
-- a metaphorical mouse in bed with the elephant. Of course living
so close to a colossus is fraught with peril, but until now the
worries were mostly about fishing rights or the weekly invasion of
America's Funniest Home Videos, often Canada's top-rated
television show.

Losing hockey was never a concern. Wasn't the game indelibly
stamped MADE IN CANADA? Americans might not know where Peter
Jennings, Michael J. Fox, The Kids in the Hall and Leonard Cohen
come from, but even with the Boston Bruins and the Detroit Red
Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks scattered below the 49th
parallel, there was no question about who held proprietary rights
to the puck.

Hockey isn't everything in Canada, but during the spring, when
the Canadian Broadcasting Company shoehorns its nightly national
newscast around the Stanley Cup playoffs, it sure feels that way.
Canada has the two-time World Series-champion Toronto Blue Jays
and the Montreal Expos and will get NBA expansion teams in Toronto
and Vancouver this fall, but these are American branch plants.
Baseball and basketball have been grafted onto the Canadian
landscape; hockey sprang up on frozen ponds. As playwright Rick
Salutin wrote in the preface of his 1977 play Les Canadiens about
the Montreal team, sometimes in English-speaking Canada it seemed
hockey was ``the sole assurance we have a culture.'' In 1982, 12
years before Canada and the U.S. became partners in the North
American Free Trade Agreement, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau
sagely noted that Canada imports baseball players and acid rain
and exports hockey players and cold fronts. Now 38% of NHL players
come from Canadian spheres of influence like Boston, Moscow and
Stockholm, and this winter has been eerily mild.

For Canada, the center is not holding. Consider the following:

The best two-way player in the NHL is a Russian, Sergei Fedorov
of Detroit. The most dangerous scorer is a Czech, Jaromir Jagr of
the Pittsburgh Penguins. The flashiest players are a Finn, Teemu
Selanne of the Winnipeg Jets, and a Russian, Pavel Bure of the
Vancouver Canucks. The most valuable player in the 1994 Stanley
Cup playoffs was an American, Brian Leetch of the New York

John McCaw, a Seattle billionaire, bought a controlling
interest in the Vancouver Canucks from the Griffiths family last
week. A Yank owns the Canucks -- how's that for cheap symbolism?

Two of Canada's eight teams, the Jets and the Quebec Nordiques,
may relocate to the U.S. if firm commitments to build new arenas
in their cities are not in place soon.

Canadian teams are lagging at the gate, victims, in part, of
lingering alienation over the lockout. Through Sunday the four
Western Canadian teams, Calgary, Vancouver, Winnipeg and the
Edmonton Oilers, were playing to 82% of capacity in their rinks
compared with 92% by the six NHL franchises in warm- weather
states -- California (Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose), Florida
(Miami and Tampa Bay), and Texas (Dallas). Even Quebec, which
filled almost 98% of Le Colisee when it was the worst team in the
NHL five years ago, is drawing only 90% of capacity despite the
best record in the league at week's end.

When the Canadian dollar was worth 15 or even 25 cents less
than the U.S. dollar in the late 1980s, Canadian teams shrugged
off the gap as the price of doing business. But now a flaccid
Canadian buck -- $1.40 of Ottawa's money equals one U.S. greenback
-- has made it prohibitively expensive for teams north of the
border to keep or sign free agents.

Even Canadian players have scant loyalty to their native land.
``If you had a choice between an ideal situation in Canada and
an ideal situation in the States,'' says Canadien captain Kirk
Muller of the Kingston, Ont., Mullers, ``90 percent of the guys
in this room would be out of here. Just like my friends who have
businesses in Kingston. A lot of them are trying to move 35
miles over the border because it's cheaper to function in the

The collective bargaining agreement that ended the lockout did
not solve the disparity of dollars or aid to ``small markets''
-- NHL-speak for Canada (except Montreal and Toronto) and
Hartford. The league subsequently hired a Denver consulting
firm, Bortz and Co., to tackle the difficulties of the have-
nots, but there is no deep reservoir of feeling for the NHL's
Green Bays, four of whom -- Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and
Winnipeg -- came into the league in the 1979 merger with the
World Hockey Association. The problem was poetically outlined
during the recent labor negotiations by New Jersey Devil owner
John McMullen, who reportedly said, ``To hell with the small

Canada was hit right where it lives. Hall of Fame right wing Guy
Lafleur predicted only three Canadian franchises would survive the
next 10 years, and broadcaster and former coach Don Cherry, a
nationalist to the point of xenophobia, mournfully went Lafleur
one better, saying Vancouver might not make it, either. One day
Canada's NHL might again be only Toronto and Montreal.

``Of course Canada is losing the NHL,'' says Montreal managing
director Serge Savard. ``Look at the shift in franchises. In
California there are three teams, and they're selling out. The
Florida Panthers are getting nearly 15,000 a game. Back when I
started playing, if you told me there'd be a franchise in Miami,
I'd have laughed.''

``Canadians are paranoid, but it's a justifiable paranoia given
the game's visibility there,'' says Brian Burke, the NHL director
of hockey operations, who has worked both sides of the fence as an
executive with Vancouver and Hartford. ``I view the migration of
teams and star players south of the border like a mother putting
her baby up for adoption. Canadians don't want to hand that baby
over to anyone but a Canadian.''

Canada had seemed delighted with the results of its recent
proselytizing, flattered that the NHL was attracting marquee
owners like The Walt Disney Company in Anaheim and Wayne Huizenga
of Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. in Florida, gratified that
Americans, too thick to grasp the joys of hockey even after the
Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Olympics, were finally coming around.
But as McMullen's words reverberated and commissioner Gary
Bettman and NHL Players Association executive director Bob
Goodenow dug in during the lockout, Canadians replied with unusual
vitriol by the favored means of communication in the late 20th
century -- talk radio. In the U.S., where hockey is just one more
form of entertainment, cities were without one of their sandbox
toys. In Canada, a spiritually essential industry had been taken

But, Salutin noted, no one could quite identify the enemy. Was it
America? Or was it money? ``Canadians aren't sure if it's the War
of 1812 again,'' he says, ``or whether it's simply the octopus
quality of business, the tentacles clutching the game.'' Canada
might simply mourn the passing of the mom-and-pop NHL, where the
only marketing was at the corner store for cold beers after a
game. Instead of comparing Gordie Howe with Rocket Richard, or
Wayne Gretzky with Mario Lemieux, four of the bargainers during
the NHL lockout sat around during a break in the negotiations and
compared old law- board scores. ``Want to know the problem?'' says
Christie Blatchford, a Toronto Sun columnist who grew up in
northern Quebec and fondly remembers the Noranda Copper Kings
juvenile team practicing spearing in the warmups to intimidate the
opponents. ``The Toronto Star ran a chronology of the Monday night
they settled the lockout. It says at nine o'clock NHL staff
ordered out for Chinese food and watched college basketball games
on ESPN. College damn basketball games?''

``Certainly the lockout hit Canadians more than Americans because
the elements of national culture and mythology are more fragile
here than in the U.S.,'' Salutin says. ``In the U.S. they have
baseball, but they also have lots of other stuff. In a general
sense hockey is one of the few things that makes this place
coherent. In the U.S. there's no worry the country will cease to
exist. Here, there's a sense the country is falling apart. With
free trade, the threat of Quebec separation [later this year
Quebec will hold a referendum on separating from the rest of
Canada], issues of national sovereignty, hockey assumes a sense of
national loss.''

Although Canada's small markets are fighting seemingly unwinnable
economic wars and its kids want to grow up to be Russian Rockets
like Bure, in some ways Canadi- an hockey never has been stronger.
Find a Canadian-based Ken Burns to pan black-and-white still
photos of Jacques Plante and present 98 different versions of
Stompin' Tom Connors' The Hockey Song over 18-1/2 hours, and the
hosers would feel better.

More than five million Canadians -- one in every five -- are
involved in hockey as players, coaches, officials or parents who
shiver at dawn on Saturdays driving their children to the rink.
Canada won the 1994 World Championship. It has won five of the
past six World Junior Championships. The women's national team
will be the prohibitive favorite for the 1998 Olympic gold medal.
Canada has owned the Canada Cup, the our-best-versus-their-best
tournaments last held in 1991. While hockey has settled into
places where ice previously had been reserved for bourbon, the WHA
merger and the NHL expansion have also stretched big league hockey
from Quebec City to Vancouver. With European emigration and the
evolutionary growth of U.S. hockey, the percentage of Canadian
players has fallen from 96.7 in 1967-68 to 62.3 this season, but
nearly three times the number of Canadians earn a living in the
NHL than in the days of the original six teams.

``We tend sometimes to get a little overprotective of our sport,''
says Gretzky. ``More and more Americans are playing it, more and
more are watching it, and consequently we're expanding into more
and more cities in the United States. But I think Canadians should
feel safe in that hockey will always be a Canadian sport.''

Gretzky is Canada's gift to the U.S. On Aug. 9, 1988, as America
fretted over the introduction of lights at Wrigley Field, Edmonton
gift wrapped its legacy and shipped him to Los Angeles. The news
was stunning, and attention quickly focused on Peter Pocklington,
the slick Oiler owner who was so far ahead of the curve he was
dumping a salary back in the days when payrolls averaged only $5
million. For hockey's greatest scorer, Pocklington received $15
million, two players and three first-round draft choices from the
Kings. Typically, most of the Canadian outrage was over the terms
of a hockey deal and not the fact that Canada was exporting an

In their altruism, Canadians outside of Edmonton actually thought
it was wise to send their hero to California. If anyone could lay
a hockey foundation on the beach, it was the Great One. He did.
Two years after Gretzky joined the Kings, San Jose entered the
NHL. A year later Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Miami and Minnesota's
relocation to Dallas gave the NHL a strong warm-weather presence.
In-line skating boomed; NHL jerseys, thanks to the Sharks' cool
teal logo, became fashion statements; the Fox network signed on
for five years at $31 million a season; salaries jumped to an
average of about $600,000; and the Rangers bought their way out of
a 54-year hex by winning the '94 Stanley Cup with a nucleus of
players Edmonton no longer could afford -- including Mark Messier,
Esa Tikkanen and Kevin Lowe. The message was obvious: The Cup was
pricing itself out of Canada's reach. But instead of mourning a
dismantled Oiler franchise that won five Stanley Cups between 1984
and 1990, Canada fixated on the Cup's appearance on Late Show with
David Letterman. Dave is cool, the Cup is on his show, ergo hockey
is cool. The Rangers' win was good for hockey.

Hockey's manifest destiny was being realized, but it wasn't until
the lockout that Canadians began to wonder if they shouldn't say
to hell with the big-market teams. Curiously, almost as much
attention was lavished on the U.S. citizenship of Bettman and
Goodenow as on their bargaining. Former NHL president John Ziegler
was every bit as much a Yankee-Doodle during the 10- day player
strike in 1992, but like Goodenow, a former player at Harvard,
Ziegler had been around hockey a long time. Bettman, who became
commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993, was different. He was Son of Salary
Cap, an NBA recruit. He once committed the solecism of saying
players were having a morning ``skate around'' -- horrors! a
hoopism -- instead of a morning skate. Canada collectively

Bettman, however, genuflects toward the north. ``We're the
national sport of Canada, not the national sport of the U.S.,'' he
says. ``No matter how large we grow, we won't turn our back on our
roots. And our roots are up in Canada.'' Bettman, in fact,
preaches trickle-up economics. ``The issue is a well-run NHL,'' he
says, ``not Canada versus the U.S.'' Bettman feels that if the NHL
prospers, Canada will share the wealth.

But a league that gets 65% of its revenue from the gate needs
spiffier digs, especially in hockey's homeland. Calgary and
Edmonton are refurbishing their rinks, and Montreal, Ottawa and
Vancouver all will move into new, state- of-the-art buildings by
the end of 1996. But without new arenas in Quebec and Winnipeg,
Bettman says, the NHL will walk from those cities. ``I don't view
this as blackmail,'' Bettman says. ``My discussions with the
mayors [of Quebec and Winnipeg] have pointed out that if they want
to have a sports franchise in the 21st century, they must
appropriately house them. If they choose not to, that doesn't make
it a bad city. The cities are simply making a business decision on
whether it's worth having a sports franchise.''

Winnipeg has been inching toward replacing the outdated
15,393-seat Winnipeg Arena, which has 20 ``luxury'' boxes that
could double as bunkers in a War of 1812 replay. Quebec, the NHL
city with the smallest population base (645,000), is more
problematic. Marcel Aubut, who owns 20% of the Nordiques, has
proposed a 19,000-seat arena with 80 luxury boxes, an $86 million
project that would be principally financed by a provincially run
casino or lottery, an arrangement the NHL will not comment on.
Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, who is spearheading the
referendum, wants to build Quebec City into a national capital;
losing the only sports franchise in a hockey-mad town, one with an
annual $64.3 million economic impact on the province, would be a
lousy first step. Aubut has had overtures from seven U.S. cities,
including Atlanta, Denver, Houston and Phoenix, to relocate the

Quebec City mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier has been cool to the arena
proposal because he fears it will divert federal funds from other
municipal needs like a new exhibition center. ``This is a Canadian
problem, not just a Winnipeg- Ottawa-Quebec problem,'' L'Allier
says. ``Hockey is part of the Canadian sports heritage. The
federal government acts to protect cinema, books, magazines. What
have they done to save the hockey heritage? We have the majority
of small markets. If the NHL leaves Quebec, in a few years they'll
probably leave Winnipeg as well.''

The Canadian government indeed has done precious little about its
multibillion-dollar hockey industry. ``We've always talked about
hockey's cultural role because Canadians are so emotionally
involved with it,'' says Dennis Mills, a member of Parliament for
Broadview-Greenwood, a Toronto riding. His son, Craig, a right
wing with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, was
Winnipeg's fifth-round draft choice in 1994. ``It's time we look
at it as an industry. If we thought General Motors was going to
pull a van plant out of Oshawa [Ont.], we'd go crazy and make sure
it didn't happen. We can tell you in forestry and automobiles how
many jobs, skilled and unskilled, there are in every sector. Ask
about hockey, and we draw a blank. If we, as policymakers, lose
hockey because we've been asleep at the switch, we're losing a big
job-creation project.'' Mills says he will convene a hockey task
force of government members by the end of April.

Canada had better address its problem, because it can't expect the
NHL to do so. ``This league always has operated on the principle
of grab whatever you can,'' one hockey executive says. While all
teams share equally in the $86 million in national TV contracts
(Canada's national television rights bring in $55 million a year
for the league) and the $1.1 billion in gross retail licensing
sales last year -- that's about $3.5 million in TV and $810,000 in
licensing royalties per club -- the primary revenue source, the
gate, is not shared. While the NFL has a 60-40 home-visitor split
during the regular season, the NHL is unlikely ever to directly
compensate the Winnipegs of the world. ``I thought communism
died,'' says Bruin president Harry Sinden. ``You won't see it
revived in the NHL.''

Things can't get much worse for Canada, but things probably won't
get much better. Crowds are down, taxpayers might have to build
high-income-producing hockey arenas, the Canadian buck can't
bench-press Gretzky's stick, and some owners won't help small
markets come hell or frozen water. Karl Marx is out. Charles
Darwin is in. The 1980 move of the Atlanta Flames to Calgary, a
city that bleeds hockey, was an anomaly. In the future any traffic
will be headed the other way. The national anthem for the next
millennium will be Go Canada.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO [vacuum cleaner wearing stars and stripes top hat sucking inhockey player, Stanley Cup, and money]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO The heavyweights of the NHL are no longer always homegrown onCanadian rinks. [Canadian hockey player facing huge robot players wearing uniforms from other countries]

COLOR CHART:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO It's All Downhill This chart shows just how dramatically the proportion ofCanadian-born players in the NHL has dropped since 1967-68, when it was 96.7%. [text not available--graph with baby in diapers and hockey helmet holding hockey stick]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO The NHL's recent expansion into sun-drenched cities at first gave Canadians a warm feeling. [hockey player holding a drink while standing next to palmtree on a sunny beach]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO The Great One was gift-wrapped and dispatched to Los Angeles, where he converted the masses. [caricature of Wayne Gretzky skating on the road to L.A., with a bow on his head and holding a suitcase]

COLOR MAP:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO South of the Border Canada's game is played primarily in U.S. cities, and the nextwave of expansion in the NHL will do nothing to reverse that trend. [map of United States and Canada showing locations of current and possible future NHL teams]

COLOR ILLUSTRATION:ILLUSTRATIONS BY PAUL CORIO Aubut is threatening to say au revoir to Quebec and its tattered arena, and hello to the U.S. [caricature of Marcel Aubut leaving Quebec's arena with plane tickets in one hand and a suitcase in the other]