Patriot playoff card proving tough to ignore

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

It was another fabulous playoff hockey game. You could feel the intensity in the Edmonton rink 3,000 kilometres away.

This year's NHL, both regular season and playoffs, has produced some of the most entertaining hockey in decades. The games are fast, the plays are breathtaking and the hitting is robust.

And who can't feel good about the underdog Edmonton Oilers, who eliminated San Jose last night to move into the Final Four with their 2-0 victory in Game 6 of the Western Conference semi-final.

So why, oh why, does the whole spectacle seem as flat as yesterday's draft beer to an outsider?

The answer is simple. A lot has changed, and most of it for the better, in the new NHL but you can't change human nature. Nothing can overcome the lack of a local rooting interest.

Here in Toronto, we're experts on this subject. Not only has it been 40 years since the Maple Leafs won a Stanley Cup, but it's been exactly that same time period since the local heroes were even in the finals.

You know the drill. The first round is outrageously exciting because the hockey is good and everything is still possible in your office pool. But by the second round, your attention starts to wander. I mean, how pumped can you get about somebody else's hockey team?

Worse, half the guys you picked in the pool are already playing scratch golf.

The television ratings might lie a little bit but, generally, they tell an honest picture. And that picture is that not many people are watching, outside the towns where hope still lives. Right now, hope lives only in one town in Canada: Edmonton.

At times like these, the only thing you can do is play the patriot card. I know it's tough to do when half the players in the league are countrymen but only a few of them play for a Canadian-based team. And the only Canadian team in sight is the Oilers.

It certainly makes it a no-brainer when the fans are as classy as those who rose and cheered the American anthem last evening, just a few days after San Jose fans had booed O Canada.

And the Oilers themselves? They are an easy team to like. They work hard, they play for each other and their collective performance is way better than their collective talent. How good would it be to see an eighth seed make it all the way? No doubt about it, the Oilers are the most admirable outfit still standing, no matter what their nationality.

From 1982-90, the hey-day of the Gretzky/Messier Oilers, Canadian teams accounted for 11 of the 18 Stanley Cup finalists. That was, of course, a period also when salaries had not yet gone through the roof.

But then the lights went out all over the place north of the 49th parallel. In the past 15 Stanley Cup finals, just three of the 30 competing teams have been Canadian. From 1994 to 2003, we were shut out completely.

During that period, the Oilers, Flames, Senators and even once-mighty Canadiens struggled to survive. Quebec and Winnipeg franchises disappeared, last seen heading south. Despite their obvious wealth the Leafs did nothing more than compete. They couldn't put it over the top.

Now armed with a salary cap, the expectation is that the competitive floor is no longer tilted toward the richest teams. We'll see about that but there is no denying that Canadian teams presented much stronger this year. Four of them made the playoffs and now the Oilers have returned to the conference final for the first time since 1992.

And does anybody think Edmonton would be where it is today without Chris Pronger, who became an Oiler only because of the salary cap?

Two years ago, the Flames became Canada's Team in the Stanley Cup final against Tampa. Maybe Edmonton will duplicate that feat this year. But don't count on it.

Whether Gary Bettman believes it or not, this is a hometown game. We love hockey in this country and we'll watch and feel good about the Oilers as they carry the flag south. But it's not quite the same, rooting from 3,000 clicks away.


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