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Top Shelf: Fighting to be hockey’s flagship franchise

Ryan Dixon
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No team in NHL history has raised more Cups than the Montreal Canadiens, including this one in 1978 held up by Larry Robinson, Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Top Shelf: Fighting to be hockey’s flagship franchise

Ryan Dixon
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One of sport’s great venues, Yankee Stadium, will close up shop Sunday. “The House that Ruth Built” is being boarded up.

For the first time since 1993, the Yankees won’t be part of baseball’s post-season. That will absolutely crush a legion of fans and positively delight another huge portion of people.

That’s because New York, despite not winning a World Series since 2000, is baseball’s flagship franchise. They play in North America’s biggest market; they’ve not only won championships, but put together dynasties in numerous eras and they spend money with the same care the rest of us put into tossing garbage.

For those reasons – and many others – the Yankee pinstripes are equally adored and abhorred.

All this got me wondering: Is there a hockey team that equals the Yankees’ all-encompassing presence?

No, at least not to the same degree. For that reason, I don’t think one NHL team can lay legitimate claim to being hockey’s one true flagship franchise.

However, four teams can make a pretty good case. Here they are, alphabetically listed, with the attributes that warrant their inclusion and the warts that prevent them from being the only team mentioned.

Detroit Red Wings
The best-run team in hockey, end of non-existent discussion.

Detroit is the model other teams aspire to and success is a huge part of being a sport’s defining club. But how many arenas in the league are more electric than Joe Louis? A handful, anyway.

Is a Red Wings championship still the top sporting story in Detroit if the Pistons win the NBA title or the Tigers claim the World Series? Heck, a winning season by the NFL’s Lions would create as much madness in Motor City as another Wings Cup win.

Even if the New England Patriots had gone undefeated last year, the Dallas Cowboys would still be “America’s team.” Detroit and New England have so many good things in common, but the teams are also similar in that if they all suddenly became average, their caché would drop immensely.

Montreal Canadiens
They’re obviously the most Yankee-like in that they’ve won far more championships than anybody else. Had Montreal sprinkled one or two Cups in over the past 15 years, they’d be the runaway winner as hockey’s premier franchise.

However, an extended period of mediocrity caused the Habs to lose their love-to-hate-them factor and that’s a key component in this assessment.

There’s a hands-across-Canada movement these days that wants nothing more than to see the Cup return to its birthplace. That sentiment, and the fact the Habs were utterly benign for a long stretch, has changed the mentality of some fans from, “anybody but Montreal” to, “aw, it’d be good for hockey and fun to watch.”

A 25th Stanley Cup in year 100 would not only resurrect the mythical torch in Montreal, but also restore the team’s lost status as hockey’s flagship franchise.

New York Rangers
No team has the ability to raise the profile of the entire league continent-wide like the Rangers. There are certainly teams that are more beloved in their own city, but New York is New York. Make it big in Manhattan and the world pays attention.

But it’s been a while since Mark Messier took the Cup from the commissioner in 1994 and the Rangers didn’t play a playoff game between 1997 and 2006.

Another thing working against the Rangers is they’ve never had a real dynasty or a defining player. Messier certainly comes close, but half his accolades came with another team before he got to New York.

Bobby Orr created a core of Bruins fans, not just in Boston, but around North America. Ditto for Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman in Detroit, where both men played on clubs that won multiple championships. The Hawks had Bobby Hull and really cool uniforms, and that alone seems to have created a smattering of Chicago fans in the U.S. and Canada.

The Rangers went Cupless from 1940 to 1994, were awful for long stretches during that time and never had that one homegrown Blueshirt that people outside of New York really latched on to.

Toronto Maple Leafs
Just by typing those three words, I’ve already justified the Leafs’ inclusion on this list. They may not be able to match the Yankees’ glory, but Toronto is the only team that can equal the Bronx Bombers in terms of being able to spontaneously incite so much love and so much hate.

And no team, as has been pointed out in The Hockey News before, has done less to elicit such severe responses.

Everybody knows how terrible Toronto has been and how bad the Leafs are now. No team that’s a punch line for decades can reasonably take the mantle of a sport’s preeminent franchise.

But based on the sheer volume of their fans, the Leafs cannot be ignored. They play in a hockey-mad country’s biggest city and have more supporters than any team on skates. There is seemingly no correlation between Toronto’s record and its relevancy: No matter how poor the Leafs are, they’re followed with ferocity.

And if somewhere down the road fortunes turn, Leaf Nation might take over the hockey world.

Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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Top Shelf: Fighting to be hockey’s flagship franchise