How Cities Can Help Take Back the Stanley Cup

Three months into a lockout, NHL labour talks appear to have hit another impasse this week. I think the differences are exaggerated – more negotiating tactics than anything – and we’ll have labour peace by the new year. That said, on the chance that this is a serious blow, it’s time to revisit the idea of awarding the Stanley Cup to a non-NHL club.

Colby first raised this in an excellent column this summer. Stop, read it, then come back to this. He provides justification, both legally and morally, for the Cup to be contested, and a roadmap to secure it as a public asset should the Cup’s trustees not comply.

I strongly support this idea, and here is my idea for what a Cup competition, sans NHL, could look like.

The Cup Before the NHL
It’s likely not well appreciated that the Stanley Cup precedes the NHL (or organized professional hockey, for that matter). In the early years, amateur or semi-pro clubs contested the Cup through a Challenge series, or were awarded it for winning their league.

In fact, 3 organizations who played for The Cup in the Challenge era still exist – unsuccessful challengers Queen’s University and the Winnipeg Rowing Club, as well as Club Sportif MAA (Montreal Amateur Athletic Association), parent organization of the 5-time champion Montreal Hockey Club.

The Stanley Cup Challenge
Running a parallel league is impractical, and would deter both NHL players from participating, and owners/supporters from jumping on board due to a large commitment. What I suggest instead is a one-time challenge tournament, with the winner being awarded the Stanley Cup.

Between 8 and 16 teams (or 24, on the high end), would compete in either a round-robin or a group stage, followed by a 4-8 team knockout round. Think of the format used in soccer tournaments like the World Cup or the UEFA Champions’ League.

This could span 2-3 months, depending on format, and at the very most a team would play 25-30 games in that period of time.

The old Montreal Hockey Club. Is it time they reform and challenge for another Stanley Cup?

The old Montreal Hockey Club. Is it time they reform and challenge for another Stanley Cup?

The City Connection
Now, this would face many challenges in getting off the ground. Chief among them are buy-in from the players, and resources. The former could be won over by communicating the opportunity to play for the Cup against serious competition, and the money they stand to gain through being granted the vast majority of the revenue (which would be drawn from ticket and merchandise sales, and PPV or other TV rights to games).

The resources side is where municipalities come in. Not just civic governments, but civic institutions, and their well-heeled members/supporters, would be crucial for organizing start-up funds, and providing logistical support. In many cases, municipalities would be key for negotiating access to arenas.

More importantly, they would provide legitimacy to any effort to reclaim the Stanley Cup. Legitimate governments and civic institutions would be standing behind the effort to hold a Cup competition.

To further the local connection, teams could be organized around players suiting up for their hometowns (either birth or established residency prior to their junior or college career). Similar to how the CFL allows a certain number of imports, teams could also be allowed to carry a handful of players who do not qualify, but also do not have a hometown club of their own. This would ensure opportunity for those players to participate, while retaining the local character of clubs. Few cities would be able to ice a full 20 of established NHLers, so minor leaguers, other professionals, or juniors would round out the rosters.

Who Would Compete?
Using this map of 2011-12 NHLers by city of birth, we find 18 metro areas in Canada with at least 6 NHL players.

15+: Toronto (62), Montreal (35), Vancouver (27), Edmonton (26), Ottawa (22), Calgary (17), Winnipeg (16)
10-14: London (14), Regina (11), Niagra (10), Saskatoon (10),
6-9: Windsor (9), Kitchener-Waterloo (8), Oshawa (8), Kingston (7), Quebec City (7), Thunder Bay (7), Belleville (6)

Toronto could conceivably field multiple teams; Montreal, Vancouver, and Edmonton too.

If you invite American cities to compete, you’d add another 10 possibilities in Minneapolis-St. Paul (29), Detroit (22), Boston (15), Chicago (10), New York City (9), Pittsburgh (9), Anchorage (7), Buffalo (7), Madison (6), and St. Louis (6).

All of a sudden, we’re looking at a potential pool of 20-35 teams, depending on if American cities are included. Out of these, surely 8-16 could get their act together.

How Would Teams Get Organized?
The start-up cost, compared to buying a franchise, would be low, so private investors would be key, though not the only possibility. Thinking back to the Challenge era gives some other suggestions. It would be unlikely that universities like Queen’s would enter a professional team, but private athletic clubs such as the Winnipeg Rowing Club and Club Sportif MAA would have the infrastructure and well-heeled membership to bring resources together, and provide logistical support. These types of organizations exist in every city.

Some cities also have community-owned sports franchises, like the Edmonton Eskimos Football Club. They could resurrect a hockey cousin, which existed in the previous incarnation of the Esks early in the 20th century and played for the Stanley Cup three times between 1908 and 1923.

Civic leadership in government could support these organizations, or step in where no one else can. In return, a share of the revenue could return to charitable initiatives in the city (say, supporting youth hockey for kids in need).

Arena access would be the most difficult thing to achieve. Many cities only have one pro-caliber arena, and it’s either owned by or fully leased to the NHL club (Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal). About half of the NHL cities listed above have a second arena in the metro or nearby, while the Junior Hockey cities would all have (smaller) arenas. Vancouver has the Pacific Coliseum, Toronto could use the Ricoh Coliseum or the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton. Ottawa has the Civic Centre. There may even be potential to play a few outdoor games early in the tournament. Add in ~15K seat arenas in Saskatoon and Quebec City, and while not perfect, you have an infrastructure that could easily support this format.

South of the border things look much better. Detroit has The Palace of Auburn Hills, St. Paul has the Target Center, Boston has the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence, Chicago has the Allstate Arena, and New York City has the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

How It Would Play Out
The group stage would see teams split into groups of 4, playing 2 games against each opponent (6 in total). This stage could be compressed (2-3 games per week) or spread out to allow players to keep up a minor or junior league schedule too. The top 2 finishers in each group would advance to a 4-team (out of 8) or 8-team (out of 16) best of 5 or 7 elimination rounds. Games could either be neutral site, or arranged so that teams have a designated “home ice” in a nearby city, if one isn’t available in their own. My ideal schedule would see designated match days, like the Champions’ League, where every team plays Tuesday/Wednesday and Saturday for three weeks.

Following this, 4-5 weeks of the playoffs would ensue. With the Cup removed from the throes of the NHL, a former All-American college hockey player would award the Cup to a deserving champion. This would be the culmination of a 2-3 month period where the Cup challenge captivates the country Tournaments like the Canada Cup have done this for a shorter period. I think that enthusiasm can be replicated on a scale to support this tournament.

Imagine some of the following, all of which would be possible in this scenario:

– Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter convince NHL teammates like Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick to sign up with for their London club so they play for a second consecutive Cup together.
– Jarome Iginla finally lifts the Stanley Cup, as captain of an Edmonton team.
– A Regina team, lead by Ryan Getzlaf and Jordan Eberle, challenges bigger markets in front of a rabid home crowd that resembles a Riders game.
Montreal HC is resurrected, and goes for a 6th Stanley Cup, which would tie them with the contemporary Montreal rival, the Boston Bruins.
– Torontonians team up to create a super-team, like the Miami Heat in the NBA, assuming the role of villain throughout the tournament. Nash, Stamkos, Cammalleri, Spezza, Tavares, Skinner, Seguin, and Subban are just a few of the names that would be eligible.

The Cup challenge would serve players well by providing a revenue source, and allowing them to compete for the sport’s greatest prize. It would serve fans well by providing a competitive tournament with some of the world’s best players. It would serve communities well by creating clubs that they could identify with and rally around. A Cup Challenge would reclaim the Stanley Cup as the domain not of private interests, but that of public good. Government, cities and civic institutions can help make that happen.

We Should All Be Bruins Fans Tonight

The Vancouver Canucks franchise was in its second season the last time the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Tonight, they meet in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. History favours Vancouver as the home team – both on odds, and if you go by recent history, the home team has won every game so far this series.

The other day, one of my favourite sportswriters, Jonah Keri, wrote a piece called Why the Bruins Shouldn’t Win the Stanley Cup. This is a rare case where I disagree. The Bruins are the team anyone should want to win tonight. I’m going to respond to a few of Jonah’s arguments below.

(Full disclosure: I support the Bruins, and all Boston teams. And I’m also a proud Canadian).

No one in Canada wants you to win, of course. Not when a Canadian team might bring the Cup back home for the first time in 18 years.

Yes, this is the case for some Canadian fans, but it shouldn’t be. Also, many Canadians shudder at the thought of how boastful Canucks fans will be after their first Cup win. If you cheer for the Oilers or Flames during the regular season, why should you suddenly adopt their rival simply because they play in Canada? Does this prove we’re somehow superior at hockey because a team that is based in our country, but composed of players from several different nationalities, wins the Cup? Nonsense. We prove our mettle as a hockey nation by routinely winning international competitions. With Canadian born and bred players. Claiming national pride because of the Canucks is based on outdated concepts of nationalism, and as ridiculous as saying Spain is the best soccer country in the world because Barcelona just won the Champions League (on a technical point – they are the best because their national side is the defending Euro Cup and World Cup champion. Just like we’re the defending Olympic hockey champions).

Sure, Boston was once a suffering sports town.

Now? You sound like the douchebag who bitches that(…)

Meanwhile, the Canucks have existed for 41 years and haven’t won jack.

Sure, Boston has won in other sports, but many fans support the Bruins in the way they don’t for other local teams. It would be like saying “I don’t feel so bad for the Expos losing in the ’81 playoffs because the Habs just won 4 Cups in a row”.

Also, looking at their past experience, it’s clear that Boston fans have had it worse. Vancouver has 4 decades of middling management, with a couple of lucky runs involved. Boston has had good teams that couldn’t quite get over the hump, and in some cases lost in heartbreaking fashion.

In their first Stanley Cup finals appearance (1982), Vancouver had a losing record (and overall, 11th best out of 21 teams). They got swept by the New York Islanders, the 3rd of 4 consecutive Stanley Cups they would win. In their second appearance (1994), the Canucks were the 7th seed in the West, and made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the New York Rangers – who had the best record in the league that year. Neither result says “tortured” as much as it says the team overperformed, and ultimately probably didn’t deserve a better result.

Now compare that to the Bruins. They’ve appeared in 5 finals since, and respectively those teams finished the regular season in 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 1st overall. Each time they were a worthy finalist, but couldn’t get over the hump against some of the best teams of all time – the ’75 Broad Street Bully Flyers, the Habs dynasty in ’77 and ’78 (the ’77 club is considered the best of all time) and the ’88 and ’90 Oilers – the ’88 version was Gretzky’s last year with the club, and the ’90 version had much of the dynasty still in tact, and Bill Ranford playing out of his mind in goal.

Now you want to talk torture? Two of their great players – Bobby Orr and Cam Neely – saw their careers cut short due to knee injuries. In Neely’s case, it was after a knee on knee hit from notorious cheap shot artist Ulf Samuelsson. How about the ’79 semi-final, where Game 7 against Montreal turned on a critical too many men on the ice penalty. How about last year’s playoffs, where they led Philly 3-0, lost Game 4 in overtime, then blew the series after also holding a 3-0 lead early in Game 7.

I watched a Bruins-Lightning game this year from the nosebleeds with the diehard fans. It was awesome.

This Vancouver club had the best record in the regular season, but Boston was tied for 7th. Neither is in the final by fluke. You could argue this is the first time the Canucks had a club that legitimately could have expected to reach the final. Maybe they’ve suffered through 40 years of bad management, but so do many teams. This is nothing compared to what Bruins fans have endured.

Those cities have seen enormous sports heartbreak, their spirits deflated as they trudge through January blizzards waiting for their shot at the big one.

That quote is in reference to places like Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Buffalo. Some cities have truly endured heartbreak with their teams. Buffalo lost 4 Super Bowls in a row, when they probably had the better team at least twice. They lost the ’98 Cup final because Brett Hull kicked in the winning goal. Minnesota, the most hockey-mad state in the US, suffered through mediocre management of the North Stars, got lucky and made the final in ’91 (against a much better Penguins team, led by Mario), then watched the team move to Dallas just as Mike Modano was coming into his prime (they won the aforementioned ’98 Cup). In their first decade, the expansion Minnesota Wild have been nothing short of uninspiring.

No one will likely ever be tortured more than Cleveland fans, who came a game short of the Super Bowl twice in the ’80s, losing in such heartbreaking fashion that each game can be described in two words (The Drive and The Fumble), then watched a potential baseball dynasty break up in the ’90s (losing one World Series on a critical error by their 2B). This century? They only had the best athlete to play in Cleveland since Jim Brown break up with them on a nationally televised program.

What do Vancouver fans know about suffering? Maybe losing Game 7 at home, especially if it’s in heartbreaking fashion, will teach them what fans of other teams have gone through. Until that happens, the Vancouver Canucks will remain an unlikable, dirty hockey team. Seeing them win the Cup isn’t something anyone but the most hardcore Canucks fan should want to happen.

What’s so unlikeable about this Canucks club, you ask? I’ll leave the final word to Jonah:

This series should have reinforced pro-Bruins sentiment. Vancouver’s Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron’s fingers was a punk move, one that would have been handled with a flurry of right hooks to the head if this were 30 years ago and the game hadn’t turned away from fighting. Maxim Lapierre’s Game 2 taunt, where he stuck his fingers in Bergeron’s face and dared him to bite back, wasn’t much better.

And there’s The Hit. Five minutes into Game 3, Aaron Rome lined up Nathan Horton, watched him get rid of the puck, took three strides, dipped his shoulder, leapt for the head, and blew him up. However you felt about the hit, you had to feel for Horton, laid out on the ice, his teammates and 17,565 spectators looking on in horror, medics fumbling with a stretcher, trying to stabilize the big Ontarian before the frantic ride to Mass General.

Go Bruins.