Seven of the 31 current National Hockey League teams are Canadian. That is, Canadian teams make up about 30% of the teams, and so, on average, they should make up about 30% of the Stanley Cup winners. Stated another way, a Canadian team should win the Stanley Cup about once every three or four years. So how do we explain the fact that no Canadian team has won the Cup for the last 27 years, since Montreal in 1993? In the intervening years, 14 US teams have won the Cup, and only 10 US teams have failed to do so. The chances of reaching the Stanley Cup final series should be twice that of actually winning the Cup (since there are two teams in the final), so a Canadian team should reach the final series about every other year. But only 6 Canadian teams have reached the final series in the 27 years since 1993, and none of them has won.
The NHL headquarters are in New York. Gary Bettman is an American and has been NHL Commissioner since 1993, the last year a Canadian team won the Cup. His goal is to position the NHL alongside the big three American sports monoliths, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and major league baseball (the National and American leagues). When he hears “National Hockey League,” Canada is not the “nation” Bettman is thinking of. This is why Bettman tried so hard to prevent Winnipeg from getting an NHL team. It is why, while the NHL has granted franchises to eight American cities during his tenure, it has denied franchises to Quebec City, Saskatoon, Hamilton, and Toronto from getting franchises. (I am not slamming the Maple Leafs here, but referring to the proposal that Toronto get a second team, which admittedly would have improved Toronto’s chances.) This is also why Bettman insists on keeping struggling teams in US cities such as Phoenix, Arizona. Bettman would not be terribly upset if Toronto or Montreal won the Stanley Cup occasionally, but his worst nightmare would be for two Canadian cities that most Americans have never heard of to be competing for the “national” championship. Think Ottawa-Winnipeg or Quebec-Saskatoon. How would Bettman sell that to American TV networks? How would he sell that to American TV audiences?
So, is there a conspiracy to keep Canadian teams from winning the Stanley Cup? How would that work? What power does the league have that could determine who wins?
Could the draft lottery be fixed? That might explain why the Vancouver Canucks have never drafted first in their entire 51-year history. But it wouldn’t explain why the Edmonton Oilers drafted first 4 times in 6 years. Besides, the draft lottery only affects a handful of teams at the bottom of the standings. Most of the draft order is determined by how well teams played the previous year.
Then there is scheduling. Most years, the Vancouver Canucks have racked up the most travel mileage of any team in the league. But that is a product of geography. Other Canadian teams, especially in the east, don’t have that problem. Teams have also complained about the uneven number of back-to-backs teams have to play (the number of times a team has to play two games in two days, sometimes with the second game being against a team that has not played the night before). Game timing can also be a problem, with the a west coast team playing “afternoon” games in the east, which can mean games as early as 10:00 a.m. for a west coast team. Playoff games are often scheduled in eastern time slots (for television) even when they are played in the west. But again, that affects only some Canadian teams, as well as some US teams that have won the Cup.
Then there is refereeing, including player suspensions. While the refereeing was considered consistently inconsistent in this year’s playoffs, it does not appear that this incompetence was directed at Canadian teams. The difference between Tampa Bay and Montreal in this year’s final was much greater than a couple of bad calls. Vancouver Canucks fans might have a better argument that refereeing tipped the balance in their close 2011 final series loss to Boston. But that is Vancouver, which has had a history of feuding with referees and the league officials who determine suspensions. And none of the Canucks’ four losses in that series were close games. Refereeing cannot explain why no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup in 27 years.
Are there other factors? Free agency gives players some say in where they play. Some American-born players have refused to play in Canada, as have some star Russian players seeking better opportunities for fame and endorsement deals in the biggest American cities. But some Canadian players (and perhaps some Swedish players) have preferred to play in Canada.
There are financial considerations. Players are paid in US dollars, and a few decades ago, when the Canadian dollar was trading for just over 60 cents US, this was a problem for Canadian teams. US tax rates on players’ salaries are also generally lower than Canadian ones. But the salary cap implemented a few years ago has levelled the playing field, and most Canadian franchises are among the most financially solvent in the league, largely due to their rabid fan bases.
So, how do we explain why Canadian teams are not winning the Stanley Cup more frequently? The best explanation is small sample size. If you flip a coin 10,000 times, heads will come up about half the time. But if you flip it only 10 times, the result could be drastically skewed one way or the other. Twenty-seven years is not a very large sample size. And winning is affected by more than statistical averages. Winning is determined by millions of decisions by players, coaches, referees, scouts, general managers, and others, not to mention injuries, illnesses, bad bounces, broken sticks, and other factors. It is impossible to control all of those variables. This is why the NHL could not be preventing Canadian teams from winning the Stanley Cup. And why it is so difficult for a team, any team, to guarantee it will win.