Will Tampa preserve the Cup and the game?

Updated: May 24, 2004, 10:10 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- It would be incorrect to assume that those in the birthplace of hockey will only celebrate if the Calgary Flames successfully retrieve Lord Stanley's trophy and bring it back to the Great White North.

But aren't the Flames now Canada's team? To some extent, yes, but the diverse nature of the country and its regions means it's not automatic that a fan in British Columbia or New Brunswick will back a team from the oil patch.

Would every American cheer for the Yankees in a World Series against the Blue Jays? Most would, but certainly not all.

In this case, a fair number of Quebecois will be rooting for Tampa Bay Lightning center Vincent Lecavalier, a player who wears No. 4 in honor of one of the greatest Montreal Canadiens of all time, Jean Beliveau. Martin St. Louis is also from La Belle Province, and appeals to a constituency that still loves to see the little man flourish.

Brad Richards is from Canada's smallest province, Prince Edward Island, while aged wonder Dave Andreychuk is from southern Ontario, the most populous area of the country, and was once the featured sniper of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

No, if this Stanley Cup final offers special meaning to Canada, it goes beyond the mere presence of an Alberta-based franchise, even one pilfered from the fine state of Georgia more than two decades ago.

It's a little more complicated than cheering for the home team. This is about roots -- the roots of the game, and how far those roots have stretched, and whether it has been for the good or detriment of the game.

Canada, after all, has grown accustomed to having its favorite sons play the sport far from home. In the 1940s, Canadians from northern Ontario would travel to Hollywood to play in a Pacific league that was one step below the American Hockey League.

In the Original Six, four teams were U.S.-based. When the NHL expanded by six, none were from Canada. By the early 1990s, eight of the 21 NHL clubs were based in Canada, as large a share of the league as that country had enjoyed since the days when the cities of Toronto and Montreal had two franchises each.

Then the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado and Winnipeg shifted to Phoenix, and all the Canadian teams began to feel threatened and unloved. At the same time, European and American players were flooding the market, reducing the proportion of Canadian players.

For years, Canadians had whined that Americans should accept the game. Then the game began to be accepted, or at least owned, by large American cities, and it didn't produce a sense of contentment or satisfaction.

Wayne Gretzky was in Los Angeles, but now Canada's teams were in jeopardy. First the Vancouver Canucks were sold to an American, and then the fabled Canadiens as well. None of the six Canadian teams, meanwhile, could manage to qualify for the Stanley Cup final after the Canucks made it in '94, and it became an open question whether any would anytime soon.

The greatest fear of Canadians, that we would become merely a branch plant of American culture, was now being felt in hockey.

In the past two or three years, the pendulum has started to shift back. Ottawa was bolstered by deep-pocketed ownership, while Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary began to capitalize on their hockey-mad markets in ways they had not previously.

This season, it seemed all six clubs might make it to the playoffs until the Oilers faltered, and now Calgary has fought its way to the final.

It is a remarkable accomplishment for the Flames, a triumph for the small market psyche.

The opponent in the final, though, is also a small-market club, a team that plays in one of those distant virgin territories that once promised so much but in recent times has seemed part of the problem more than the solution.

Canadians wanted the U.S. to embrace the sport, but then didn't like what became of it when 11 new American markets, many of them in the southern U.S. and some for a second kick at the can, came on line in the 1990s.

Which brings us to today. The league is threatened by labor strife that may wipe out next season, and U.S. network and cable television has all but turned a cold shoulder to the NHL.

Many of the teams that were supposed to make the NHL big league are enormous money losers. The league seems swollen and unmanageable, uncertain of its future.

My guess is that Canadians would be happy to see the Lightning win if they were convinced that the team would prosper over the long haul and that the city would love hockey for keeps.

For many teams -- Washington, Florida, Carolina -- a trip to the Cup final has represented a fling. When more success didn't follow, the fans in those cities abandoned ship and the teams remain in considerable financial peril at the same time the Canadian clubs have managed to get their economic acts together.

Now, it's the Bolts, another one of those franchises, a team from an undeveloped hockey market that came along when it appeared the league was on the road to prosperity, but instead became part of a malaise that still impairs the league's ability to grow.

So Canadians aren't just cheering on the Flames. Folks on both sides of the border love the way Tampa Bay plays. Up north, they're cheering on the game and to some degree the industry, hoping against hope this isn't just another dalliance with a temporary hockey city doomed to end in disappointment.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.

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