It will be 46 years ago this spring that Boom Boom Geoffrion helped pioneer a certain vein of hockey comedy.
The occasion was a mostly meaningless regular-season Maple Leafs game in April of 1970. Geoffrion, the Montreal Canadiens great, had been watching from the press box in his role as assistant general manager of the New York Rangers as the Leafs, mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, were handily beaten by Gordie Howe’s playoff-bound Red Wings.
Though Geoffrion didn’t have a dog in the fight, the six-time Stanley Cup champion took offence to what he saw as Toronto’s laissez-faire demeanour. He expressed those feelings to a reporter. The day after the game he was quoted in these pages labelling the Leafs’ effort “a disgrace.”
“Do those guys know their golf season doesn’t start until Monday?” Geoffrion said.
Linking the Leafs to April tee times has been a staple of NHL humorists ever since. But it’s easy enough to forget that, in those days, it wasn’t. The 1969-70 season was only a few years removed from the end of a dynastic 1960s that saw Toronto bring home four Stanley Cups.
It was also a once-in-a-century moment in Canadian hockey history. The spring of 1970 remains the only one in the 98-year history of the NHL when the playoffs proceeded without a Canadian franchise in the mix.
Which brings us to the current state of affairs on Canada’s NHL landscape. Thanks in part to the ongoing freefall of the Montreal Canadiens, who plummeted out of the playoff picture after Tuesday’s 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins, Wednesday’s standings saw all seven of the northland’s franchises on the outside of the post-season scenario. As the Elias Sports Bureau pointed out, the moment marked the first time since the conclusion of the 1969-70 campaign that there were zero Canadian teams holding a playoff spot so late into a season.
There’s plenty of reason to believe this moment won’t hold. Even if the dismal quartet of Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto were, heading into Wednesday’s games, respectively holding down 25th, 26th, 27th and 29th in the overall standings, all three of Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver were residing on the post-season bubble.
Still, none of the seven can consider themselves a lock to get in. And if all seven continue their on-the-outs existence, the ramifications wouldn’t be pleasurable for more than a few citizens of the hockey planet.
If certainly wouldn’t be good for the league’s hockey-related revenue. Given that a vast percentage of league’s profits pour in from this side of the border — and given that the inflated playoff ticket prices that are paid in Canada’s rabid hockey markets are a boon to those revenues — it’d make for a big financial hit.
And it wouldn’t be good for Canada’s hockey broadcasters. As Joffrey Lupul, the Maple Leafs forward from Edmonton, was saying on Wednesday: “It would suck for Hockey Night in Canada in the playoffs.”
Said Brad Boyes, another Maple Leafs veteran: “You see the coverage that comes from the Canadian side, and they always feature the Canadian teams. And if that’s not the case, it would be odd. When you watch the playoffs, when you watch CBC or TSN or Sportsnet, or whoever’s covering it, it feels like the Canadian team’s the home team. If there wasn’t a Canadian team, it would be so different.”
Maybe not all that different. A Canadian team hasn’t actually hoisted the Stanley Cup since 1993. And this is a league in which the serious Cup contenders of recent vintage — Chicago and L.A., to name a couple — have mostly been based in the U.S.
That’s not to say Canada is in any danger of slipping into icy irrelevance. The home of the two-time defending Olympic men’s gold medallists put five teams into last spring’s NHL post-season.
But Canadians are getting ever more accustomed to their not-so-dominant position in the game they once ruled. Canada failed to win a medal at the world junior championship. Canadian prospects aren’t shaping up to be the big buzz names at June’s NHL draft, where U.S.-bred Auston Matthews is expected to go number one. And to pile on the misery that can’t be laid at the feet of the domestic developmental system, Canada’s next great prodigy, Connor McDavid, is expected to remain sidelined by injury for the bulk of another of Edmonton’s runs at the draft lottery.
On Wednesday, Mike Babcock, the coach of the Maple Leafs and many incarnations of the national team, sloughed off a request for his thoughts about Canada’s NHL franchises on the wrong side of the postseason struggle.
“I never thought much about it. But I don’t look at it like Canadian or American. I look at it like the NHL,” Babcock said. “The great thing about the league is you’ve got to earn your right to be in a playoff position. It’s hard to be in.”
It’s not that hard. More than half of NHL teams earn a berth in the Stanley Cup tournament. Back in 1970, eight out of 12 made it, and yet the only two Canadian concerns, the Leafs and Canadiens, did not.
In those days, of course, shinny-loving nationalists could console themselves with the knowledge that every team was almost wholly Canadian in one way — some 95% of NHL players were born and developed north of the border. This year marked the first time in NHL history that the season began with Canadians not making up the majority of its roster space — a moment that passed with only the faintest of hand-wringing. If the day ever comes when all seven of Canada’s teams find themselves on various golf courses come mid-April, it’d be safe to expect a national reaction that goes Boom Boom.