The stereotypes that first come to mind when I think of Canada are snow year-round and hockey. But, after an American team took home the Stanley Cup for the 30th year in a row, I have questions. Just how Canadian is Canada’s national sport?
The Montréal Canadiens were the last Canadian team to take the trophy home in 1993. Understandably, Canadian fans went into the 2023 Stanley Cup playoff season rooting for a familiar team to finally make it to the finals. Thanks to the Edmonton Oilers’ and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ impressive 2022-23 performances, it seemed like a home win may have been possible — and after the Maple Leafs made it through the first round for the first time in almost 20 years, things seemed even more reassuring.
Much to the disappointment of Oilers and Leafs fans alike, however, both teams fell short. The two teams who ended up in the finals — the Vegas Golden Knights and the Florida Panthers — are both American.
Clearly, the lack of Canadian teams winning the most important championship in the sport doesn’t look good for Canada’s hockey reputation. But just because American teams win the Stanley Cup doesn’t mean that Canadians have lost their grasp on the game. In fact, taking a closer look at the rosters of the so-called American champions reveals just how Canadian the hockey industry remains.
In the 2019-20 season, 42.7 per cent of players in the National Hockey League (NHL) were Canadian. As well, the two teams that made it to the finals this year rank among the teams with the most number of Canadian players.
In fact, the Vegas Golden Knights are at the top of the league with regard to Canadian players. On their roster of 34 players, 16 are Canadian. Similarly, the Florida Panthers have 17 Canadian players on a team of 25.
Funnily enough, while the cup may have been won by an American team, it’s being paraded around Canada during the Vegas Golden Knight’s Stanley Cup Championship Tour. Traditionally, the cup makes the rounds to the hometown of each player and coach that helped win it. Since there is a high proportion of Canadians on the team, the so-called Vegas-won trophy is spending a lot of time with its neighbour to the North.
Clearly, it is true that hockey is becoming a more international sport. This is making the NHL more international, too. Players are joining the league from Finland, Sweden, Russia, and, of course, the US. In fact, since the 1990s, when draft picking became more international, the number of Canadian players in the NHL dropped from a shocking 96.1 per cent in the 1970s to not even half the league in 2023. Although Canada still makes up much of the league, their hold is slowly dwindling.
In spite of all of this, the Canadian hockey fanbase stays strong — but not just for Canadian teams. Over 20 per cent of Canadian hockey fans tend to support an American team. It’s clear that the spirit of hockey is alive and well in Canada. Canadians supporting American teams doesn’t necessarily disprove this fact. Since there are so many Canadians playing for American teams, Canada is still represented in the sport — no matter the location.
On top of the players being spread across the league’s teams, the game itself has origins in Canadian soil. Because of this history, hockey has a connection to Canada that can never be taken away.
Hockey can be traced back to a game played by Indigenous Peoples. The Mi’kmaq invented a game called ricket in the land now known as Nova Scotia during the late 1600s. The game includes players wielding sticks who hit a puck made from cherrywood. Thus, the connections between this game and hockey, while debated, are certainly understandable.
Canada’s hockey pride remains high, and so does the proportion of Canadian players in the NHL. Even if American teams continue to win the Stanley Cup, hockey will always be Canada’s national sport. Despite 30 years of consecutive losses, Canadian players continue to have an unmatched hold on the hockey industry.
Canadians may not have the trophy, but they played an invaluable role in its win, regardless of what city ultimately claimed it. That’s got to count for something.