Paul Samborski and his father, Lenn, were at Winnipeg Arena for the original Jets’ final playoff game in 1996 before the team moved to Phoenix. When the NHL returned in 2011, Samborski joined the thousands of fans who signed up for season tickets and brought his dad to the new Jets’ first home playoff game last year against Anaheim.
“I lost my voice in the first period screaming at Ryan Kesler,” Samborski said. “It was a lot of fun. The whole city was buying in. It was all everybody talked about.”
A year later, the Jets are out of contention and a spring of discontent is looming for Winnipeg — and the rest of Canada, too.
None of the seven Canadian NHL teams was good enough this season to reach the Stanley Cup playoffs, a dismal milestone in the home of modern hockey and the first time it has happened since the 1969-70 season.
Back then, only Montreal and Toronto were the only possibilities in a 12-team league. So going 0 for 7 is an unprecedented blow that will be felt not just in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver but nationally.
“It’s painful,” said Rod Appleby, manager of Hurley’s Irish Pub in Montreal. “It’s painful on a fan point and it’s painful on a business point. … We’ve got to keep going, keep doing what we do and watch the playoffs, but the other problem is there’s no Canadian team, so who do we watch?”
It’s not quite the same kind of existential national crisis that comes each time Canada doesn’t win a gold medal at the Olympics or world junior championship. But the phenomenon of a playoff season without a Canadian team is having real consequences.
At Rogers, the telecom giant that shelled out $5.2 billion (Canadian) to buy the national TV rights for 12 years, flagship network Sportsnet is feeling the pinch. Scott Moore, president of Sportsnet and NHL properties for Rogers, says he cheers with his heart for the Canadiens and cheers with his wallet for every Canadian team.
“This has been a tough year,” Moore said. “To have seven Canadian teams out of it – and what really is as difficult or more difficult is they’ve been out if it for weeks, if not months, so the ratings have been a challenge for I’d say, six, seven, eight weeks that the teams have been out of it. That makes it a challenging year for us.”
Rogers Media recently laid off several employees, including Sportsnet on-air personalities Hugh Burrill, James Cybulski and Jamie Thomas. Moore said it has been challenging for the company to get sponsors excited for playoffs.
Last year, five Canadian teams made the playoffs, but Commissioner Gary Bettman isn’t worried about having none this time.
“As long as the hockey is entertaining and exciting and competitive, we’re hoping and expecting that fans will tune in and watch great hockey,” Bettman told The Canadian Press.
Tom Renney, president and CEO of Hockey Canada, said technology allows fans to keep up with non-local teams and players. Moore also said online streaming service NHL GameCentre Live is seeing high viewership.
Yet having no Canadian teams in the playoffs still makes a difference.
“I think that there are ramifications,” said Renney, who has also coached the Oilers and Canucks. “We want someone to participate in the game at all levels, and it matters what’s going on within our borders at the highest level that it’s played, and that is the National Hockey League and our seven Canadian teams.”
Even if there were only realistic playoff expectations in Montreal, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver, the lack of games makes a huge dent in revenue. According to league estimates, each playoff game generates between $1.5 million and $2 million for the home team, and that doesn’t count the impact on local businesses.
Appleby said during the 2012-13 lockout that other Montreal bars were in danger of closing their doors because hockey is such a draw. And the playoffs bring a vibe like few other things in sports.
“The energy, there’s more drinking, there’s more round-buying, there’s more shots, there’s more everything – everyone’s happy,” Appleby said. “Not so much this year.”
Samborski said he will still watch the playoffs but won’t be as engaged as he was last year. Moore knows “hard-core” hockey fans will still watch, and Sportsnet will sell the “March Madness” aspect of the playoffs and hope Canadian-born stars like Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks and Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings attract casual fans who might otherwise turn away.
Moore is optimistic that this 0-for-Canada won’t happen again for a long time and future years will see Canadian teams dominating the playoffs.
“We’re going to have some years where things are out-of-control great,” Moore said. “If the Leafs or the Canucks or the (Canadiens) ever make the final, I always joke there’ll be two parades. There’ll be one for the team and then one for whoever’s sitting in this office at the time because they’ll say, `What a great hockey deal that was.’ I’m hoping I’m still here after this year, so we’ll see.”