O Canada: The Great White North returns to NHL playoffs
By JOHN WAWROW, AP Hockey Writer
The hockey world has resumed revolving on its normal axis north of the border. A year after being shut out, Canada is making a return to the NHL playoffs in a big way.
O Canada, is the buzz ever back across the Great White North: From Calgary’s Red Mile bar district to Montreal’s rue Sainte-Catherine to Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the landscape for the playoffs includes the big-stage debuts of such young stars as Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews.
“When players get traded here and they talk about how great the Bell Centre is, we always say, ‘Wait ’til’ the playoffs,” American-born Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty said. “There’s nothing like it. It’s like the Super Bowl every day.”
Multiply that by five because that’s how many of the hockey-mad nation’s seven franchises are in the playoffs, which open Wednesday .
There’s an Original Six showdown between Montreal and the New York Rangers.
Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara will face his former team in Ottawa .
The youth-laden Maple Leafs make just their second playoff appearance in 13 years by opening against Alex Ovechkin and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.
In ending a 10-year playoff drought, the Oilers christen their new downtown arena against the defending Western Conference champion San Jose Sharks.
And let’s not forget Johnny Gaudreau and the Flames making just their second playoff appearance in eight years by opening against Anaheim.
The bars will be packed, the fans jacked and so will be Canada’s most prominent TV hockey executive Scott Moore.
A year ago, the Rogers Sportsnet cable network president joked about stepping out on the ledge of his third-floor Toronto office after having no Canadian teams to showcase two years into a 12-year, $5.2 billion (Canadian) TV rights deal.
Last week, Moore was giddily trying to determine whether it was better to have two Canadian teams meet in the first round — because it guaranteed one advancing — before eventually concluding it didn’t matter.
“While I was on the ledge last year, perhaps I knew it was not worth jumping,” Moore said. “There’s lots of peaks and valleys in the world of sports, and it’s never as bad as you think and never as good as you think.”
Through the first five days of the playoffs last year, Rogers drew an average of just 513,000 viewers. That marked a 61 percent drop from the previous year when five Canadian teams made the postseason.
A significant uptick is expected this week, especially with Canadian TV ratings heavyweights such as Toronto and Montreal in the picture.
“Internally, my IQ has gone up 20 points,” Moore said. “I’m not any smarter, but people think I am.”
What’s compelling this year is the emergence of MVP candidate McDavid and Matthews, the rookie No. 1 draft pick.
Both have the potential of making Edmonton and Toronto regular playoff fixtures for many years to come, and left Moore dreaming of an Oilers-Maple Leafs Stanley Cup Final.
“I think I just fainted at the mere mention,” Moore said.
Even NBC Sports executive producer Sam Flood looks forward to introducing McDavid and Matthews to U.S. audiences (Matthews is from Scottsdale, Arizona).
“Last year, everyone was saying there are no Canadian teams. Was that great for the U.S.? No,” Flood said.
“What’s great for the U.S. is great hockey and great stars. It doesn’t matter where they play,” he added. “I think it’s a great opportunity to expose these two young stars.”
No Canadian team has won the Cup since Montreal did it in 1993. And no Canadian team has a longer Stanley Cup Final drought than Toronto, which hasn’t been there since winning the title in 1967.
That’s why the buzz in Canada is peaking in Toronto, where the Mike Babcock-coached team has captured the imaginations of fans like 54-year-old David Menzies.
“I have now come to realize that over the past half-century that it’s way too easy being a Canadiens or a Yankees fan or a Patriots fan in which those teams routinely win championships,” Menzies wrote in an email. “Toronto’s NHL team is that nerdy, awkward goofball that hasn’t scored for 50 years. But you know something? Every dog has its day.”
Just look to Chicago, Menzies said, where the Cubs are World Series champs.
For now, fans will enjoy a first round full of Canadian teams.
“To have a year like last year where none of the teams were in, it was strange and odd,” said Buffalo Sabres forward Tyler Ennis, an Edmonton native. “Playoff hockey is what every Canadian wants to watch, and there’ll be a lot of excitement across the border for sure.”
AP Hockey Writers Stephen Whyno and Greg Beacham and AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.
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