Is Lord Stanley spinning in his grave?

Believe it or not, hockey wasn’t Canada’s official national sport until that nation’s parliament passed the National Sport Act of 1994. That bit of vital legislation officially declared lacrosse, which had previously been the national sport, to be the Dominion’s official “summer” sport, while hockey was officially deemed official “winter” sport. This confirmed that when it comes to having elected officials eager to posture and grandstand by spending time and public monies on legislation with no actual meaning (aside from getting the egocentric politicians involved some extra time in front of the cameras), the United States is not alone.

In reality there was never any question about what Canada’s de facto national sport is. Canadians still follow hockey in general (and the ongoing Stanley Cup playoffs in particular) with the same sort of fervor Americans lavished on baseball’s World Series for the first three-quarters of the 20th century, until television and a variety of other factors relegated the nation’s nominal national pastime to something to look at occasionally between Super Bowls.

Professional hockey’s holy grail is the Stanley Cup, which goes to the winner of the National Hockey League’s post-season playoffs each year. Players have spit out numerous teeth, taken hundreds of stitches, and played on fractured limbs for a chance to win the replica of the original Cup that was donated by Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada’s governor general and an enthusiastic fan of the then-nascent game in 1893.

For 25 years starting in 1942, hockey was almost purely Canadian. During that time the National Hockey League consisted solely of franchises in Montreal, Toronto, Boston, New York, Detroit, and Chicago. But even though two-thirds of the teams played their home games south of the United States border, in 1967 just two of the approximately 120 NHL players, Detroit’s Doug Roberts and Boston’s Tommy Williams, were Americans. Every other player in the league was Canadian-born and raised. The league’s first European player, Ulf Sterner, lasted all of four games with the New York Rangers in 1965 before, after some over-the-top brutal treatment by hyper-territorial North American opponents, he decamped back to Sweden.

The 1972 summit series between the powerful Soviet National team and a Canadian all-star squad composed of NHL players was followed more passionately by Canadians than any event since World War II. For fans on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean the series confirmed, albeit barely, North American hockey superiority. More significantly, though, it illustrated just how important hockey was (and is) to Canada’s national identity.

These days hockey is a far more international game. At the start of the current season just 41.4% of the NHL’s players (294 out of 711) are Canadian. There are 202 Americans; the other 215 hail from 18 different European countries.

As this is written four teams remain in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Las Vegas and Dallas are duking it out in the west, while in the east it’s Carolina (Raleigh) vs. Florida.

Would Lord Stanley be excited if he knew that sometime next month the cup he donated will be awarded to a team representing a place at least 653 miles south of the Canada-U.S. border, a locale where ponds, if there are any, never ice over? It’s hard to say, but if baseball’s World Series was going to feature the winner of the National League championship series between the Moscow Czars and the Beijing Wallbuilders against the survivor of the American League Championship series between the Sydney Outbackers and the Johannesburg Afrikaaners, there’d likely be more than a few Americans pining for their sport’s “good old days.”

Andy Young
May 16, 2023

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