There are seven NHL teams based in Canada (23 based in America), including some of the proudest franchises in the sport (Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, etc.) The 2014 playoffs begin on April 16 — so in about a week — and right now, there would be one Canadian team in the entire field (Montreal). The last time a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup (also Montreal) was 1993, meaning we’re going on two decades without a champion from the part of North America more associated with hockey. Given that the only officially eliminated teams in the Western Conference right now are all from Canada, it’s safe to say that this might be the worst year ever for Canadian teams in the NHL.
So what exactly is going on here?
Nate Silver actually wrote a whole thing on this back when he was still at The New York Times, and he does point out one economic factor:
Second, the N.H.L.’s economic structure changed at an unfavorable time for Canada. During the first half of the 20-year drought, the league allowed teams to spend freely, but Canadian teams were hampered by the weak Canadian dollar. Since 2005, the Canadian dollar has recovered substantially, and Canadian teams are now turning large profits. But they are limited in their capacity to invest those profits in superior players because the league has instituted a hard salary cap.
It should be noted that a major factor here is luck; very non-traditional-type hockey markets have won Stanley Cups since 1993, i.e. Tampa Bay, FL and Anaheim, CA. You’d expect it to happen sometime in 20 years. Teams make runs, etc. So bad luck is at play.
If you look at the NHL landscape since 1993, here are the Canadian teams who had the best shot of winning the Stanley Cup each season (with percentages):
The 2006 Ottawa Senators and 2011 Vancouver Canucks were Canada’s truly best shots; the Buffalo Sabres eliminated those ’06 Senators in the Eastern semi-finals, while the Canucks made the Stanley Cup Finals but lost to the Boston Bruins in seven games (one of five times since 1993 that a Canadian team has made the Stanley Cup finals, again going back to the bad luck aspect).
There’s more to all this — in Canada, being a hockey player is closer to a celebrity thing than it is in the United States. This is part of why Danny Briere turned down a contract with the Canadiens to sign the Flyers, apparently. Then check this out: this 2011 poll asked players “which team would you least like to play on?” Half the top responses were Canadian teams. Maybe it’s that some of the top players are from there, or have a lot of experience with Canada around tournaments, etc. and would rather base themselves somewhere else. Look at this list of 25 top free-agent signings of all-time; nothing in the top 10 involves a player going to a Canadian team — in fact, the biggest signing ever was probably Canada-to-US (Gretzky) and some would argue the last major signing of a big name by a Canadian team was Curtis Joseph to the Maple Leafs (which happened in 1997, and CuJo had been on Edmonton immediately prior). The Leafs made the Eastern Finals twice while he was there (’99 and ’02), but he eventually left for … a US team (Detroit).
So the factors seem to be (a) bad luck, (b) some economics, and (c) less desirability for the top players. Canada only has one shot this year — unless Toronto sneaks in — so the drought will likely continue for one more season, but it’ll end eventually. It has to, right?