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CALGARY, Alta. /Troy Media/ – This time last year, fans of the seven Canadian NHL teams were looking at a nuclear winter – or at least a nuclear spring.
None of the teams in the nation where hockey is religion was headed to the post-season. Think of the odds. Seven teams in three National Hockey League divisions and four time zones had all found a way to wilt. With the resources available to most of them, it seemed unbelievable.
And they all lost out on the precious post-season revenue.
Large markets like Toronto or Montreal could afford that loss (even though Toronto has made the post-season just once in 12 seasons). But for smaller markets like Ottawa, Winnipeg and Edmonton, losing playoff profits combined with a drop in the Canadian dollar was bracing financial medicine.
The absence of Canadian teams in the post-season was also a major sting for Rogers Media, which sold the farm a couple of seasons back for the NHL’s Canadian TV rights. As a result, multiple bodies – on and off the air – hit the floor in austerity moves at the broadcaster. (The Blue Jays’ huge ratings in the summer saved a few jobs, however.)
There was some luck and more than a few injuries to explain the Year From Frozen Canadian Hell. As I wrote at this time last year:
Let’s just say it’s hard to look at these seven and see an ETA for success. Several have plans but no players. Some have players but no apparent plan. In real business, there’d be For Sale signs on the office windows.
This being Gary Bettman’s league of socialist splendour, however, most of them will be rewarded for the abject incompetence with a top prospect.
As they say, if you want more welfare cases, just keep giving out welfare.
Sure enough, the 2016 draft came along with Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine, some key players healed, and the leavening effect of the NHL meat grinder has produced a bounce-back result for Canadian NHL fans. Rogers might actually get some of its money back after all.
One Eastern Conference Canadian team, Montreal, is pretty much a lock to give Rogers some partisan rooting interest when the playoffs open in mid-April. They’re up about a dozen points on the ninth-place spot in the East. But success wasn’t achieved without the usual Habs drama. Coach Michel Therrien was fired when the Canadiens went brain dead in mid-season.
The Edmonton Oilers, who haven’t been in the post-season since Madonna was cool, are also going to have to do a lot wrong to miss the playoffs in the Western Conference. Connor McDavid is simply too brilliant a player for even the Oiler curse to slow him down. Or maybe it was their sparkling new arena?
Only one Canadian team, the Vancouver Canucks, seems a definite miss for the post-season – although they keep embarking on spurts of competence to keep even that faint hope alive.
In between are four teams that could all make the post-season – or four teams that could grab an anchor and sink with the Canucks to non-contender status.
The Ottawa Senators, always getting by on less, changed coaches to Guy Boucher and now control their own fate in the East. They’re up about a half dozen points on ninth in the conference – which could set up a Hab-Sens series come April.
Translation: ratings gold.
The Calgary Flames have wobbled at times this season, but their recent winning streak has given them a comfortable cushion over ninth in the West.
Despite all the talk about the Battle of Alberta, the Flames and Oilers have not met in a post-season series since 1991. If these two can somehow find a way to meet in the playoffs at the same time as the Habs and Sens tangle, Rogers stock might well be worth an investment.
No team in Canada has to get by with less than the Winnipeg Jets, but they still find themselves within striking distance of the final berth in the Western Conference. If they don’t make it, they can blame a mediocre home record (so far) for losing the chance to cash a needed playoff cheque.
Which leaves us with the team everyone outside the Greater Toronto Area loves to hate. The Toronto Maple Leafs have adopted a long-term development plan, drafted like aces with their many high picks and excited their fans with the prospect of a return to respectability. For a franchise that hasn’t even been to the Stanley Cup final series since Canada celebrated its Centennial in 1967, that’s cause for delirium.
They are in ninth in the East, within reach of eighth place – and that’s after a 3-4-3 stumble in a recent 10-game stretch. With a very young roster and a fluid goaltending situation, anything could happen in the final month. But if the young Buds turn in a long run in the post-season, Rogers might get the entire $5.2-billion TV investment back in one year.
And there might be something other than Toronto Raptors to fill the nation’s playoff gap.
Troy Media columnist Bruce Dowbiggin is the host of podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. His career includes successful stints in television, radio and print. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster. Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.
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