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Piquen' your interest

Go Hockey Team

When the Toronto Maple Leafs shattered like a carbon fibre hockey stick in Game Seven against the Philadelphia Flyers, I went into a brief but intense period of mourning for my team.

Hog town, the hockey capital of the world, was denied the taste of victory once again, bringing our sad tally to 36 years without a Stanley Cup. Sadder still, after so many years, there aren’t that many people out there who can even remember what it tasted like.

And before any Canuck bandwagoneers try to claim their supremacy as a hockey town, may I remind them that this is Vancouver’s best year for attendance in team history, with only four games not selling out. Where were all these rabid face-painting, car-flag planting, Ed Jovanovski shirt-buying fans five years ago when the dollar took a nosedive and Canadian teams started to lose money? Where were they last year, which was another money-losing year for the franchise?

According to Canucks General Manager Brian Burke, a bitter, humourless man who always seems on the verge of biting the nose off the nearest sports reporter at press conferences, the team needed two post-season games this season to break even this year. To get the franchise totally back in black, hey-hey, hey-hey, it will take about 10 years of this kind of fan support.

Meanwhile, Toronto has been sold out every single night since 1963. Everyone I know in the city has a jersey or two lying around, and although history always proves otherwise, every year the fans believe that this could at last be THE YEAR.

We endured the Harold Ballard years, and his refusal to allow any Russian bloc talent to play for the Buds. We endured Wayne Gretzky’s high-stick on Dave Gilmour in the Bud’s 1993 run for Lord Stanley’s Cup. We have endured senseless trades and unfortunate injuries in the playoffs. We have endured the hate of every team and city in the NHL, and have risked our teeth cheering on the Leafs in Vancouver, Montreal and other venues where the fans can get ugly.

And we’ll do our best to endure the latest insult – the sale of team ownership to tip the balance in favour of the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan. I kid you not. A bunch of investment bankers, representing a bunch of teachers, now has majority ownership of one of the original six hockey teams.

I have no confidence in this set-up, because every good team needs a billionaire owner who’s ready to take a few losses here and there and will break the bank if that’s what it takes to make a run for the Cup. Somehow I don’t see the Pension Plan, wealthy as it is, making that kind of investment.

Now that my beloved Buds are gone for the season, the Vancouver fans who have told me point blank that their favourite team is the Canucks and whoever is playing the Leafs, are expecting me to root for Vancouver.

I’m torn, and I’ll tell you why.

First, it would be nice to have the cup come back to Canada. After losing a couple teams in the last decade, and struggling to compete with powerhouse payrolls like Dallas, Colorado and Detroit, the 2003 Stanley Cup race is wide open. And who, really, wants the Cup to go back to New Jersey? Or to Disneyland?

Minnesota is a slightly different story, and that’s because they also lost a team once, and they play almost as much hockey in those parts as we do in Canada.

But let me ask you this – If I cheered for Vancouver, would I be cheering for a Canadian team, or for Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment? Did I ever cheer for the Leafs, or was it always Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd.? If you’re rooting for a corporation anyway, then who do you root for – The one with the best environmental record and employee benefits, or the one in your home town?

Greed is ruining the game. Once upon a time the only relationship that mattered was between the players and the fans.

Although this year is an exception, these days it’s all about money – what owners have it, and how badly they can raid the rosters of losing teams before the trade deadline. Every hockey hero, from Gretzky to Messier, is for sale to the highest bidder, the only exceptions being those few players who move teams so they can have one last shot at the Cup.

Team owners say that 18 NHL franchises will lose money this year, and owners and general managers will likely be pushing for salary caps and luxury taxes when the NHL Player’s Association contract with the league expires in 2004. That will probably result in a strike, a lock-out, and quite possibly a lost season of hockey.

So who do I cheer for (understanding that it’s still up in the air for the Canucks and Wild at press time)?

To be patriotic, I could go with Canadian content and root for the team with the most Canadians on its roster.

Vancouver has 14 Canadian starters. The New Jersey Devils have 13, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks have 13, and Ottawa has 12. The upstart Minnesota Wild lead the way 15 Canadians, including (pause for effect) five hard-core B.C. boys – three more than the Canucks have.

The Wild and Anaheim are also the underdogs in these playoffs, which has a certain appeal, but both the Canucks and Senators would be breaking new ground if they went on to win the Stanley Cup.

There is also a very real possibility that Vancouver and Ottawa could face one another in the first all-Canadian Stanley Cup since Calgary beat Montreal in 1989. And what a series that was.

Of course, it would have the lowest television ratings of any Stanley Cup in recent history, which wouldn’t help the league land the U.S. network TV deal that small market franchises like Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa need to compete financially, but it would still be nice.

But let’s say I root for Vancouver over the Wild and Anaheim, and Ottawa over the Devils – which do I cheer for in the Cup? I do live closer to Vancouver, but I grew up closer to Ottawa.

What to do, what to do. I suppose the best way to pick one team to root for would be to pick a name out of a hat and put down $500 on it to go all the way. Unfortunately I don’t have that kind of money.

After weighing the pros and cons of each and every team in the playoffs, post-Maple Leafs, all I can say is "Go Hockey Team, Go!"

I really hope we see a few more fights in the next round. Compared to last year, the play-offs have been a real snooze fest.