That illustrates just how long the country that invented hockey has been waiting to see its most famous trophy return north of the 49th parallel. When the Stanley Cup finals kick off on Monday with the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning hosting the Habs, millions will be intrigued to see if Carey Price can emulate what Roy did in ‘93 and help his teammates bring the Cup home again.
Back in the Original Six NHL era, it would have been. Led by the likes of Maurice “Rocket” Richard and Jean Beliveau, the Canadiens built fabled dynasties in the 1950s and 1960s, while the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs did likewise in the 1940s and 60s.
Even in the post-expansion era, the genius of Montreal coach Scotty Bowman and GM Sam Pollock, who drafted high-flying talents like Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson, produced another run of four straight Stanley Cups from 1976 to 1979. And the Edmonton Oilers with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier epitomized the peak of run-and-gun hockey with their five Cups between 1984 and 1990. Canada, understandably, had big expectations.
However, in today’s NHL – defined by the salary cap, constant player movement, and 24 U.S. NHL franchises to just seven in Canada, not counting the 2021/22 Seattle Kraken – most Canadian fans are more focused on the success of their individual favourite clubs than on whether just any Canadian team can win the Cup at long last.
“This city has been the best so far,” said rookie sensation Cole Caufield after Montreal eliminated the Vegas Golden Knights on Artturi Lehkonen’s 3-2 overtime semi-final winner on 24 June. “Hopefully we can keep making them happy.”
At the same time, Canadian fans, as a whole, can rest secure in the knowledge that their nation still furnishes more than 40 per cent of today’s NHLers. Canada – even with a less-than-heralded roster under head coach Gerard Gallant – rallied to win the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Riga this month after losing an unprecedented three straight games to open the tournament. At the five “NHL Olympics” between 1998 and 2014, Canada claimed the gold medal three times, while the Czechs and Swedes were their nearest competition with one gold apiece. Canada has won three of the last seven World Juniors and played in five of the last seven finals.
We could go on, but the point is clear: Canadian hockey self-esteem does not hinge on whether underdog Montreal succeeds where Vancouver (1994, 2011), Calgary (2004), Edmonton (2006), and Ottawa (2007) have fallen short since 1993. It would be nice, but not essential.
The last team with an all-Canadian roster to win the Stanley Cup was the 1975 Philadelphia Flyers. The last champion with an all-North American but not exclusively Canadian roster was (wait for it) the ‘93 Canadiens. So fans in Quebec’s biggest city just want to see this year’s Habs climax their Cinderella run – and they will be happy to lord it over fans in other Canadian cities again if the team pulls it off.
In his classic 1983 book The Game, six-time Cup champion Ken Dryden wrote about “the Montreal environment, that conspiracy of expectations, of fans, press, management, coaches, players, that makes losing intolerable.” The bar for success has changed over the years, given that the Habs have missed the playoffs 10 times since 1993. Bringing the Cup home to Canada this year would be a delightful surprise. Tampa Bay started 2020/21 as 10-1 favourites to triumph again whereas Montreal was at 50-1.
If Montreal does win, it will not be a pure exaltation of either national or Quebecois pride, as in the heyday of the “Flying Frenchmen.”
For instance, during this playoff run, Lehkonen and Jesperi Kotkaniemi have emerged as overtime heroes, and if they, along with Joel Armia, hoist the silver mug in July, it’ll be the most Finns on a Cup winner since the 1990 Oilers (Jari Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Reijo Ruotsalainen).
In 1986’s Lions in Winter, authors Chrys Goyens and Allan Turowetz wrote: “One thing that has distinguished the Montreal Canadiens throughout the team’s history has been the almost unbroken succession of superstars who have epitomized the team.” However, that succession was broken more than once after Roy’s 1995 trade to the Colorado Avalanche.
It is Price who has truly taken up the mantle of greatness, posting a 2.02 GAA and 93.4 save percentage through three rounds. Regardless of how strong of a team defensive effort these Habs deliver against the Lightning, it rests principally on the goaltender’s shoulders in terms of whether Canada’s 28-year Cup drought finally ends. Patrick Roy would find that very relatable.