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Who's to blame for Canada's Cup drought? Could it be the fans?

Jason Kay
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Author: The Hockey News

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Who's to blame for Canada's Cup drought? Could it be the fans?

Jason Kay
By:

Canadian teams have faced an uphill battle in winning the Stanley Cup; compared to U.S.-based clubs, there are far fewer of them. Still, at least one of them should have captured a championship since Montreal did it in 1993. The math says so, loudly and clearly. Maybe the tipping point are fan bases north of the 49th parallel that love too much and forgive too easily.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing and navel gazing about why no Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the week Jonathan Huberdeau was born.

Theories include poor management, less hunger due to profitable businesses, an inability to attract top free agents (taxes, climate, fishbowl pressure – take your pick), the curse of Marty McSorley’s illegal stick.

Another factor in the mix is basic math. Fewer clubs = fewer cracks at Lord Stanley. For much of the era, U.S.-based teams have dwarfed Canucks between 3 and 4:1.

Still, no matter how you dissect it, one of the franchises from the land of Tim Horton should have rolled up the rim to win by now.

Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight blog did a thorough and thought-provoking study on Canada’s drought around this time last year for the New York Times, leaning heavily on metrics, probabilities and analytics to paint the picture.

In the piece, he explains that if you chose a random champion in each of the 20-plus years the study covered, the chances Canada would not have produced at least one winner was 0.8 percent. Taking into account relative strengths of those teams during that span – that is, how the Canadian franchises stacked up against their American counterparts on paper – that probability nudges upwards to 2.5 percent. Or looked at from the other end of the wedge, there’s a 97.5 percent probability a Canadian team would have won the Cup since the Habs did in 1993.

Silver also concludes that, like a couple of authors from the Conference Board of Canada announced recently, the Great White North could support more NHL franchises.

Their approaches and projected number of markets differs, however; here’s what each says in a nutshell:

Mario Lefebvre and Glen Hodgson, the authors of the Conference Board book entitled Power Play: The Business of Economics in Pro Sports,” believe Quebec City and Hamilton have the necessary climates to support NHL teams at some point in the next couple decades. They’re not as bullish right now on a second team in Toronto (though that could change); they also aren’t particularly keen on Saskatchewan or the Atlantic provinces.

Silver’s view is more expansive. He runs numbers on the “avidity” of NHL fans in various markets by evaluating how many of them searched the term “NHL” in Google. Using this methodology, he concludes there are slightly more NHL fans overall in the United States than Canada (about 23 million vs. 18 million), but far, far more per capita north of the 49th Parallel. For example, the Toronto area (which includes the Niagara region for his purposes) has in excess of five million hockey fans, more than twice that of any other current NHL market.

As such, based primarily on the calculated number of serious fans per region, Canada could, he says, support several more franchises.

Of course, that doesn’t take into account economic factors such as corporate engagement, household income and the fluctuation of the Canadian-American exchange rate. Still, it’s a good read and an interesting theory, under which Silver fancifully suggests second teams in Montreal and Toronto and also adds clubs in Hamilton and Quebec City.

So, if Canada were to see its numbers bump from seven to the Conference Board’s nine or Silver’s 11, the country’s chances at icing a champion should jump significantly. Shouldn’t it?

Back in the real world, you never know. Canada has beaten the odds resoundingly for more than two decades and the fans continue to lay down their dollars, moreso than ever.

And perhaps that’s the X-factor: we’re too forgiving. We love too much.

The 2004 lockout was a fascinating case in point. Predictions of doom for the NHL following a canceled season were shockingly wrong, especially in Canada. The indifference that was predicted instead surfaced as pent-up demand. Canadian fans came back with a vengeance. The same was not true in the United States. Americans were far more skeptical and slower to return.

Similarly, Canadians fill NHL arenas, regardless of how well their team performs. They buy the merchandise and watch on TV. Rogers wouldn’t have paid $5.2 billion over 12 years if that weren’t the case.

As a result, there’s little economic pressure, comparatively, in the seven Canadian markets. It’s not that the franchises don’t want to win as badly as the 23 in the U.S. The players and executives share the exact same dream on both sides of the border.

But if the profits roll in regardless of on-ice success, does it invite even a smidgen more complacency to set in? Does the culture become a little too comfy, are some employees held a little less accountable? It might not be quantifiable or even very discernible, but in an era when parity is pervasive and the line between winning and losing is razor-thin, it just might carry enough weight to tip the scales of probability.

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Who's to blame for Canada's Cup drought? Could it be the fans?