Kelly: Why the NHL should pay more respect to Canada

About a month ago, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about the potential return of five Canadian franchises to the playoffs after 2016’s blank slate.

You knew the question irritated Bettman because of how broadly he smiled as it was being asked. He’s the sort of business executive who’s never more terrifying than when he’s trying to be gracious.

“So last year when everybody was saying it was the end of NHL hockey in Canada – what a difference a year makes,” Bettman said, in what sounded like a rehearsed line. “But that’s a testament to our competitive balance and how anything can happen any year, any night, and that’s what’s great about the game.”

The end of NHL hockey in Canada? There was plenty of whining and garment-rending, but I can’t recall “everybody” talking about packing it in on the national game and giving roller derby a try instead.

Bettman is confusing what happened with what he thought he heard – a common mistake made by people with an agenda.

Based on his rare, clenched-jaw pronouncements north of the border, one also suspects Bettman’s kind of had it up to here with Canada never shutting up about hockey, and its place in hockey, and hey, what are these guys doing to hockey? Just look at him. This is not a man who goes to work happy.

Instead, Bettman’s a daycare worker with 35 million kids and he can’t understand why they don’t want to help him move the preschool to Seattle.

Five of seven Canadian teams will take part in the playoffs this year. There is a (very slim) possibility that all five could make the second round of eight.

That’s good for Canada and good for the game. It’s just a little galling that it lets the NHL off the hook.

It’s been obvious for some time that Canadian hockey succeeds despite the league, rather than because of it. No other organizing body in the world works so hard at ignoring its base in order to reward people who’ve shown little or no interest in their sport.

It’s an axiom of business that any endeavour that is not expanding is, in fact, contracting. The NHL works this rule in reverse. It’s ruthless drive to grow the game by shaking a few bucks from the pockets of warm-weather rubes may in time be its undoing.

Regardless of the marketing synergies or expansion fees accrued, it still boggles the mind that there will soon be NHL hockey in Las Vegas – a place where the second-best ice surface in town is at a casino and only open around Christmas. They’ve already had a pro hockey team. It folded two years ago.

One can imagine the English Premier League saying to itself, “You know who else needs our brand of tough-minded British football? Pakistan. Wait, what? They already have their own sports? Well, I’m sure they’ll be happy to change for us.”

If the NHL had the international run of things, there’d be a hockey team in the Gobi Desert. Because one presumes nomadic herding tribes must want nothing more than a little of that Big League Feel.

Last week, the NHL kicked Canada in the nethers again by deciding to give the Olympics a pass. The calculus of that decision presumably went like this: Americans won’t care and Canadians won’t complain too much. (Credit where credit’s due – they got that one right.)

Because who wouldn’t rather see a dreary, mid-season Carolina/Florida matchup than a knockout game featuring the best players in the world competing for something that matters more than an extra night of concession receipts?

The World Cup of Hockey won’t fill this rooting void (and especially so if Russia sends its best team to Pyeongchang).

All the NHL has managed to do is fracture its most compelling argument for global relevance into competing once-every-four-years tournaments. Two showcases cannot make up in quantity what the Olympics alone showcased in terms of quality.

Instead of a great uniting whole, Canada is reduced once again to its city-based tribes. And though few of them feel particularly warmly toward each other, it’s hard not to view the postseason to come from the perspective of Us v. Them.

You know what the NHL wants here – Pittsburgh against Washington, Chicago against New York, New York against anybody really. They want the league running tight with the NBA playoffs in America’s biggest media markets. With the Knicks and Lakers out of it, this is hockey’s big chance – again. They want a storyline that features U.S.-based teams with pedigree, one that might finally be noisy enough to distract a few of the kids drifting toward soccer and e-sports.

You know what the NHL fears – a run that features multiple Canadian teams in the final few groupings. God forbid, a Calgary or an Ottawa or some other city most of our southern neighbours can’t find on a map (which, in fairness, includes all of them).

From our perspective, a Canadian resurgence in the NHL is a return to high form and to the league’s foundation. From the Avenue of the Americas view, it’s a retreat into parochialism. It’s a time-travel machine whose landing co-ordinates are advertising disaster. Regardless of the entrants, the NHL playoffs always appeal to Canada because they are full of Canadians. As long as that’s the case, the jerseys they’re wearing will only matter so much.

But it is important to occasionally remind the league where its bread is buttered. Canadian teams matter not just because they make more money or draw more viewers, but because they bring the sport to markets willing to put hockey at the centre of their civic culture. Not one of the 23 (soon to be 24) American teams can make the same claim.

A number of Canadian storylines make this postseason a little more interesting than most – the debut of Connor McDavid, the Leafs’ return, the potential for provincial showdowns, the reasonable hope that the Canadiens are good enough to compete for a championship.

But none is more compelling than the reminder that just seven teams give the NHL its organizational rationale.

If the NHL folded tomorrow, Canadian hockey would not end. But without Canada, the same cannot be said of the NHL.

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