Canada’s unthinkable Stanley Cup drought has reached 30 years

The Vegas Golden Knights could well bring home the Stanley Cup, delivering the first NHL championship to a city that didn’t have a single major professional team until five years ago. Despite Thursday night’s 3-2 overtime loss in Game 3 of the finals, they still have a two-games-to-one-lead over the Florida Panthers, who began play in 1993-94, a season in which the Montreal Canadiens were the defending Stanley Cup champions.

“It’s been a long time, 30 years,” said Patrice Brisebois, a Montreal native who was a defenseman on that team. “But in my mind, it’s like it was yesterday because it’s such great memories.”

All Stanley Cup championships mean something to the players who win them, the franchises for which they play and the cities they call home. But that Cup for the Canadiens — the 24th in their storied history — may just mean something to an entire country. There is no sport that is more important to most Canadians than hockey. But whatever the outcome between Vegas and Florida — Vegas and Florida? — no team from Canada will have won the Cup since those Canadiens three decades ago.

“O Canada?” Try, “0 Canada.”

“I live in Montreal, and I finished my career in 2000, which is seven years later,” said Guy Carbonneau, a center who grew up in the province of Quebec and spent 13 of his 19 NHL seasons with the Canadiens. “I would meet people, and everybody was talking about ’93. It was such a fun year. The event was kind of unbelievable for everybody.

“And you wake up one day, and it’s 15 to 20 years later, and somebody starts to think about ‘Nobody in Canada has won the Cup since ’93. And then after that, every year people were talking about it — 21 years, 22 years, 25 years. Now it’s 30, and it’s still the same.”

The math is rather staggering. In the 30 seasons that ended with the Canadiens’ last Cup, Canadian teams won 20 championships. Yes, that’s in part because Montreal was a dynasty in the ’60s and ’70s, and 12 of those Cups belong to the Canadiens. But Edmonton (five), Toronto (two) and Calgary are all represented in that span, so the wealth was at least somewhat spread out.

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For Canadian kids such as Brisebois and Carbonneau, there’s no overstating the importance of hockey — of the NHL, of the Canadiens, of the Cup. In the ’60s and ’70s, the centerpiece of any kid’s week was “Hockey Night in Canada,” the national, Saturday night broadcast of a game of the week. So often, the game featured the Canadiens. There weren’t regional sports networks broadcasting 82 games a year. This was the chance to figure out who your heroes would be.

“Everybody’s dream when you’re a kid is to win the Stanley Cup,” Carbonneau said. “You kind of work hard for it. Everybody expects in Canada, where our winters are long, to be playing and skating every day. Everybody played in the street thinking you’re Maurice Richard or Guy Lafleur.”

Given that backdrop — so many great teams defined by so many great players — the present drought seems inconceivable. Canada is home to seven NHL franchises — six of which have been there during the entire span. (The original Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, and the current Winnipeg Jets moved from Atlanta in 2011.) Factoring in the lockout that wiped out the 1994-95 season, that means seven Canadian franchises have played 189 NHL seasons without winning the Cup.

In the meantime, 14 different U.S.-based teams have won at least one Cup. Vegas or Florida will become the 15th — and the sixth winner that either was born or moved to its current city since the 1992-93 season that produced that most recent Canadian championship. The list of Canadian cities that haven’t won the Cup in those three decades all read as hockey hotbeds — not just Montreal and Toronto but Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Vancouver and Winnipeg. Cast those cities — where the sport amounts to something of a way of life — against places that have paraded the Cup through their streets, and the contrast is stark: Dallas and Tampa, Los Angeles and Anaheim, St. Louis and Raleigh, N.C.

“I really think it’s a coincidence,” Brisebois said. “The Ottawa Senators went to the Stanley Cup finals. The Vancouver Canucks did. Montreal two years ago. They just can’t close the deal. It’s as simple as that.”

Still, a random generator would probably yield more than six Canadian finalists in those 30 years — Calgary, Edmonton, Montreal and Ottawa once apiece, Vancouver twice. In digging for reasons, Canadians point to inherent advantages enjoyed by some American franchises. The weather in, say, Tampa or Raleigh could be one because it would be conceivable to play golf in the middle of the season. But another more important one, particularly as it pertains to the teams in Ontario and Quebec, is the high tax rates.

Carbonneau pointed out that Lightning star Steven Stamkos — an Ontario native — can take a lower salary with Tampa Bay because Florida has no state income tax. Because the NHL has a salary cap, that leaves the Lightning’s front office more money to pay solid role players down the roster.

“If you’re the Maple Leafs or the Canadiens,” Carbonneau said, “you kind of have to overpay some players.”

True. But the Toronto Raptors face those challenges in the NBA — and won a title anyway.

What’s unarguable is, as every season passes, the pressure on those Canadian franchises mounts. The Canucks failed to win when they had the Sedin brothers, a transcendent pair from Sweden. The Oilers have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who between them have three Hart Trophies as the league MVP at age 26 and 27, respectively. The Maple Leafs are built around Auston Matthews, who won the Hart when he was only 24.

There are stars. There are expectations. And they’re not always realistic.

“Even when we had some tough years in Montreal and didn’t make the playoffs, you never pronounce the word ‘reconstruction,’ ” Brisebois said. “Every year, you have to make the playoffs, and you’re supposed to win the Stanley Cup.”

Not this year, Canada. Again. Welcome to another summer without the Cup. It will be carried through the streets of Las Vegas or South Florida, where hockey is new, while Montreal and Toronto — where hockey is as essential as air — wait for their turn.

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