Whenever Eric Desjardins reunites with his 1993 Montreal Canadiens teammates, the topic of Canada’s ongoing Stanley Cup drought doesn’t come up in conversation.
”We don’t see it that way. Canadian team, American team, it’s just that we were part of the NHL,” the former star defenseman said. ”Sure, it’s been a while in Montreal, but we don’t really talk about the 26 years.”
That’s right. With the NHL playoffs set to open Wednesday, it will be going on 26 years since the Canadiens – or any other Canadian team – brought home the Cup.
Desjardins, who enjoyed a 17-year career split between Montreal and Philadelphia, chalks up the drought to NHL expansion across the United States and league-wide parity ushered in with the introduction of the salary cap in 2005.
”It’s supposed to be our national sport, and we’re supposed to be the best at it,” said Desjardins, who’s from Montreal. ”But now, the way the league’s structured I think it could go anywhere. … I think anybody can win it now. And I think it makes it more interesting.”
Still, the 49-year-old acknowledged a quarter century between Cups in Canada is far too long, and Desjardins can see himself rooting for any Canadian team making it to this year’s Final.
”If the Final’s between Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, yeah I would root, even though I like Pittsburgh,” he said. ”But yeah, against Calgary, Winnipeg, I would cheer for the Canadian team.”
Canada’s Cup hopes this spring rest on three teams – Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto – to end the drought. Of course, most current Canadian-born NHL players weren’t alive to see Desjardins and Co. celebrate their five-game series win over the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings.
Sabres forward Jason Pominville is among the exceptions.
He was 10 when his hometown Habs won, and Pominville still vividly recalls Game 2 of the series in which Desjardins scored all three goals in Montreal’s 3-2 overtime win after the Canadiens lost the opener.
”I remember watching that and celebrating in my living room, and fist-pumping when he scored,” Pominville said. ”I was a big fan of Gretzky, too. But when you’re in Montreal, it’s tough not to root for that team when you’re growing up.”
In Montreal, there was a time when winning the Cup was considered a birthright. The Canadiens still top the list with 24 championships, 23 coming after the NHL was founded in 1917.
And yet, Montreal hasn’t reached the Final since ’93, while only five Canadian teams have done so; Vancouver is the only one to make two appearances during the drought, in 1994 and 2011.
Then there are the Maple Leafs, who haven’t reached the Final since winning the Cup in 1967, the last year of the NHL’s Original Six era.
The low point might have been the 2016 playoffs, the first since 1970 to not feature a Canadian team
This was not always the case. From 1927 to 1995, the lengthiest stretch for a Canadian team not appearing in the Final was two years. It last happened in 1991-92, when Pittsburgh won consecutive championships by beating Minnesota and Chicago.
As for Canada’s lengthiest Cup drought before the ’93 Habs, it was a six-year span from 1936-41.
The current drought has gone on for so long, former executive-turned broadcaster Brian Burke said the math simply doesn’t add up.
”It doesn’t make sense. There’s 31 teams, so seven out of 31 teams, a Canadian team should win every four-and-a-half years,” said Burke, who has worked in the front offices in Vancouver, Toronto and Calgary.
The problem, Burke said, is Canadian teams are at a disadvantage because many players don’t want to play north of the border for several reasons.
The first, he said, is a lack of privacy and the amount of pressure placed on players to win north of the border. Burke said a large number of players, including Canadians, often list all seven Canadian teams on the no-trade clauses of their contracts.
”Even in Calgary, we had our lists where players got to put 10 teams on a no-trade list, and all the Canadian teams were on those lists,” he said.
The second issue is Canada’s taxation rate.
”There’s no privacy. Horrible personal criticisms on social media, and then you take home way less money, so it’s pretty easy,” Burke said.
He can only imagine how much national attention will be paid to the next Canadian team to win it all.
”The next GM that wins a Cup in Canada, they’ll be naming schools after him, and streets,” Burke said.
Don’t think Flames GM Brad Treliving hasn’t given ending the drought some thought.
”Hey, that’s all you dream about,” he said, while attempting to keep the pressures of winning in Canada in perspective.
”You got to bed at night and it’s no different than any other manager or any other person involved in the game: That’s what you want to accomplish” Treliving said. ”If you really put the energy and the effort into doing the right things, the results will come.”
Having lost in the Final twice, Desjardins can’t remember a sweeter moment than winning the Cup.
”It’s a reward that’s indescribable,” Desjardins said. ”When you win, you can share it. You share it with your teammates, you share it with the coaching staff.”
In Canada, it will be shared with an entire nation.
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed.