Uh-Oh, Canada!

How would this country's motorheads react if the next three Daytona 500 winners were Romanians driving Russian race cars? What if an NFL expansion team from Amsterdam or Tokyo built a Super Bowl Dynasty? How many tickets would U.S. baseball nuts buy if the World Series featured the Toronto Blue Jays against the Montreal Expos every October?

That's the way aggrieved Canadian hockey fans feel these days. When the New Jersey Devils knocked the storied Toronto Maple Leafs out of the National Hockey League playoffs last week, it doomed our neighbor to the north to a seventh straight year without the Stanley Cup inside its borders. Three Canadian teams had moved on to postseason play, but only the punchless Leafs survived round one, beating Ottawa in the so-called "Battle of Ontario." In falling to the Devils 3-0 in the sixth and final game of the second round, Toronto set several standards for futility: It was the club's 33rd season since winning a championship, and the -- count 'em -- six shots on goal the Leafs managed in three periods of play were the fewest in the club's entire playoff history.

That means the Cup will be held aloft and filled with who-knows-what again this year by an American team -- a notion abhorrent to 28 million Canadians, for whom hockey is a national religion. If the Devils or the Philadelphia Flyers win, Canada may grin and bear it. But if the Dallas Stars repeat as NHL champions, that will be irksome: Five years ago, after all, the only ice in football-crazed Texas consisted of the cubes in your Wild Turkey and water, and "hooking" was something working girls did at business conventions in Houston. Meanwhile, if Colorado Avalanche players add a second Cup win to their resumés, a lot of people in eastern Canada may go ballistic over their blanquettes de veau. Because the Avs are in truth Canadian-born and bred -- the former Quebec Nordiques, who spent sixteen futile seasons banging the puck around Quebec City. As most Canadians see it, the team was simply torn from its roots in 1995 and transplanted to hockey-ignorant Denver in the name of higher revenues and better TV contracts. In a particularly cruel twist, the Avs promptly won the Stanley Cup, delighting the innocent masses here with the ease of it all. If Patrick Roy and company have the nerve to win again this spring, the pain of loss and the sting of anger will surely be redoubled along the St. Lawrence.

"The first time was bad enough," Quebec restaurateur Rene Lichine lamented last Thursday. "This year, impossible to contemplate." A gentleman, Monsieur Lichine did not even point out that Colorado also spirited away Canada's best-ever baseball player, Montreal outfielder (and ex-junior goaltender) Larry Walker, the very same year.

I don't know about you, but I was rooting like crazy for the Maple Leafs last week. It was in the spirit that impels your hope for an Italian to prevail at bocce or for a good ol' boy from Arkansas to catch the biggest bass in the lake. But my cheering was also tinged with feeling for the underdog. Hockey and Canada go together, fused by a passion for the game and a depth of knowledge about it that few Americans can imagine -- least of all the denizens of rodeo bars in Dallas. But as a result of new market realities, the Golden Age of Canadian hockey is over. The once-mighty Maple Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967, and a real possibility now looms that no Canadian team will do it for another three decades. From 1956 to 1990, Canadian clubs won the championship 26 times in 35 years, but since the great Montreal Canadiens (the New York Yankees of hockey, with 23 Cups!) last did it in 1993, no Canadian team has been close. Meanwhile, Quebec and the Winnipeg Jets relocated to the American Southwest, hastening the demise of Canada as the wellspring and the Mother Country of a great sport. Some hockey folk, including Toronto GM and coach Pat Quinn, sadly acknowledge that Canada could lose more of its six remaining NHL teams to expatriation -- until only the original franchises in Toronto and Montreal remain.

The villain is money, of course. More specifically, the power of the U.S. dollar. Just as in baseball, the four surviving teams in this year's playoff picture all rank in the league's top six in terms of player salaries: Dallas is fourth with $44 million in paychecks, Colorado fifth with $43 million. By contrast, Toronto ranked only eighth ($36 million), and three other Canadian teams were in the bottom eight. Colorado stars Peter Forsberg, Patrick Roy and Ray Bourque earned a total of $22.5 million this year -- more than the entire payrolls of either the Ottawa Senators or the Edmonton Oilers.

There's also the matter of American urban glamour -- or what's perceived as glamour. When the greatest Canadian player of them all, Wayne Gretzky, moved on from sleepy Edmonton, Alberta, to happening Los Angeles, and then to teeming New York, many Canadian hockey fans saw the writing on the ice: Free tickets to the calf-roping at the Calgary Stampede don't cut it compared to dinner and glitzy night-clubbing on the Sunset Strip. The Mother Country's dominion over the pro game has been further eroded by a huge influx of American and European players -- particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union. All those Fetisovs and Larionovs and Kamenskys playing in the NHL these days learned one thing in a hurry: Dollar-bill green is a bigger inducement than Russian red when it comes to bashing your brains out against the boards. And America is where the cash was.

Canadian purists have virtually no hope of winning the war for hockey's soul -- Canadian players certainly aren't declining fat U.S. contract offers for the sake of nationalist pride. But that doesn't keep northern fans who love the game from feeling more used and abused than ever by rampant plutocracy in the NHL. And it hasn't kept them from lashing out against what they see as the essential greed, coarseness and arrogance of American culture. Witness that new ad campaign by Canadian brewer Molson, the one featuring a plaid-shirted Everyman named "Joe," whose now-famous "rant" assails everything crude about life in the U.S. and exalts everything glorious about his homeland. "I'm not a lumberjack or a fur trader," Joe begins. "I don't live in an igloo, eat blubber or own a dogsled. I have a prime minister, not a president...I believe in peacekeeping, not policing; diversity, not assimilation." As his voice rises and a maple leaf fills the screen, the voice of Canadian outrage closes the deal: "Canada is the second-largest land mass, the first nation of hockey and the best part of North America. My name is Joe," he shouts, "and I am Canadian!"

At the Ottawa-Toronto playoff series, "Joe's Rant" (which is not aired in the U.S.) was broadcast on the Jumbotron to waves of thunderous shouting and applause, setting loose pent-up resentment about everything from the northern nation's devalued currency, to the brain drain caused by its college graduates moving south of the border, to U.S. jokes about Canadian pro football and the U.S. defeat of the Canadian women's hockey team at the Nagano Olympics. The ranters were doubtless crying out against "Blame Canada," the satirical, Oscar-nominated song from the recent South Park movie, the still-vivid loss of the Great One (who's now doing Budweiser ads, of all traitorous things) and the carelessness of those Americans who regard Canada as some oafish cousin -- unwelcome in their thoughts, much less the NHL playoffs.

Certainly, thousands of home-grown "rants" compiled on Molson's "I Am Canadian" Internet site reflect a fierce, sometimes belligerent, pride in all things Canadian -- especially the nation's most beloved sport. "I am Canadian," assorted contributors say, "because I can swear in French and English," "because I can skate on the road," "because my thermometer's scale makes sense" and, inevitably, "because we have one week of summer and 51 weeks of hockey."

However, it's also hockey season now in previously iceless climes like Tampa, Miami, Phoenix and Nashville -- and some of those infidel cities have a better shot these days at going Cup Crazy than fabled Montreal or Gretzky-less Edmonton. That deeply wounds the Canadian soul. But even the odd American with an ounce of fellow-feeling in his heart can sense the cruelty of history that now afflicts an entire nation, British Columbia to Nova Scotia, and feel a pang of loss. If the Avalanche win the Cup this year, they ought to take it back to Quebec for a few days and let the locals fill it with onion soup.

Or their tears.


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