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Bring Stanley home

After two disappointing years, Ottawa has fielded Canada's best chance to claim the Cup

Colby Cosh - June 18, 2007

A Canadian franchise last won the Stanley Cup on June 9, 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens defeated Wayne Gretzky's L.A. Kings 4-1 at the old Montreal Forum. Exactly how long ago was that? It's the NHL season that was bookended by the Eric Lindros trade and by Teemu Sel?nne setting the rookie scoring record in Winnipeg. Brian Mulroney was prime minister of Canada, the Unabomber was still abusing the mails, River Phoenix was still alive, and David Letterman was on NBC. And let's recall that Montreal's championship season began in a strange way--with a 5-3 defeat at the hands of a brand new expansion team, the Ottawa Senators.

By the time you read this, those Senators will have either broken Canada's Stanley Cup jinx or become the third Canadian team in as many NHL seasons to have reached the final only to be liquidated within sight of the Grail. Either way, the outcome is likely to be bittersweet for western fans. The playoffs take on more of the character of a patriotic mass movement every season as Canadians grow ever more desperate to retrieve the Cup. But we'd surely each like our own team to be the one that captures those lucrative bragging rights. And Lord knows Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton have had their chances.

Let's be frank, though. Edmonton's 2005-06 Stanley Cup finalist was, as the subsequent season proved, a mediocre team upon which one supremely talented but secretly disgruntled defenceman, Chris Pronger, was covering for a multitude of weaknesses. Fan energy took those Oilers as far down the playoff road as it ever can, or ever will, in professional sports. Calgary's '03-'04 club, which captured the country's imagination, made the happy discovery that the third-string goalie it had purchased from San Jose for a handful of beans was actually the lightning-fast genius that the team's moat-building style required in net to prosper. But Miikka Kiprusoff, like most brilliant goaltenders who come out of nowhere to take over the league and who aren't named Dominik Hasek, looks just a little bit more human with each passing month. The moment is ebbing away for the Flames.

Whether they win or lose this time around, Ottawa's karmic credentials seem much stronger after years of playoff struggle against the Maple Leaf b?te noire. No other Canadian NHL city, aside from Toronto, has any established historic beef with the Senators the way they do with each other; because all these cities are unified in loathing for Toronto, an Ottawa victory seems like a relatively satisfying outcome according to a crude Benthamite fan calculus. Yonge Street and North York would never, ever live down a Senators victory. And the Sens' roster is deep with Westerners like Chris Phillips, nephew of the Oilers' beloved radio voice Rod Phillips, or Wade Redden, who packs up his hockey bag every summer and returns to the oil-rich knolls of Hillmond, Sask., to see how the calving has come along.

It's surprising how little attention is paid to the organizational quality of the Senators, who just keep coming up with solid NHLers in the draft, year after year. Since the Alexandre Daigle disaster, which probably still haunts their reputation somewhat, their record in talent assessment can be matched only by Detroit and New Jersey. They grabbed Daniel Alfredsson in the 6th round in 1994; he may be remembered as the greatest player in that draft class. They took Bryan Berard first overall in '95, and when Berard held out, they actually improved on their position by trading him for Redden. In the deep 1997 draft, they snagged Mari?n Hossa 12th, after other teams had bet the farm on players like Daniel Tkaczuk and Jason Ward. In 2001 they selected Jason Spezza and Ray Emery, two crucial elements of the current roster. Useful NHLers like Sami Salo, Pavol Demitra, and Andreas Dackell began their careers as late-round Sens picks.

In other words, this is not a franchise trying to capture lightning in a bottle; it's one that has laboriously manufactured its own power over a long period of good judgment. If merit means anything, there is bound to be a reward--sooner or later--for what is, in some ways, Canada's strongest pro hockey organization.

More articles by Colby Cosh