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Stanley Cup Finals: Edmonton remains Canada’s Cup hope

By The Associated Press - | Jun 13, 2024

Fans inEdmonton cheer on the Oilers during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.Game 3 of the Finals is tonight vs. Florida in Edmonton. (AP photo)

EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Connor McDavid on the ice is an electrifying, must-watch sensation fit for the big screen. Off the ice, he does not think there is much “Hollywood” to him.

“Just a Canadian kid,” McDavid said.

A Canadian kid who has led the Edmonton Oilers to the Stanley Cup Final, four wins away from bringing hockey’s hallowed trophy back to the birthplace of the sport for the first time since 1993 — four years before he was born. While fans in Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver might not be rooting for a hated rival to win it all, the Oilers have as good a case as anyone in recent NHL history to get this close to ending the drought and truly call themselves Canada’s team.

The Edmonton roster has the highest makeup of Canadians of any Cup finalist over the past two decades. The lineup that takes the ice Thursday night for Game 3 in front of a raucous crowd starved for a championship could include as many as 16 of the 20 natives on the team.

“It gives you extra motivation, extra passion to do it for your country,” said defenseman Brett Kulak, who along with goaltender Stuart Skinner is from Edmonton itself. “Very few guys on the team who aren’t Canadian. We all kind of can get behind that.”

Locking down games and dominating late has become a hallmark for the Florida Panthers

Longtime NHL forward Ray Ferraro, a native of Trail, British Columbia, who now lives in Vancouver, argued before the series that Canada as a country is not getting behind the Oilers. He likened it to the New York Yankees reaching the World Series and not counting on much support from American League fans elsewhere.

“There’s nobody in Vancouver cheering for the Oilers just because we all live in Canada,” said Ferraro, who’s broadcasting the final for ESPN. “Edmonton is Edmonton’s team. And it is a source of pride. We’d like to get, I’m sure, in this country a Stanley Cup champion again, but it is city by city.”

Kulak, who also played for Calgary and Montreal, nonetheless hopes the rest of Canada is pulling for the Oilers. Jason Demers, who played briefly for Edmonton last year before retiring, is a bit biased based on his personal connections but would like to see the run of 29 consecutive U.S.-based Cup winners come to an end.

“We haven’t had a Cup in 30 years,” said Demers, who is working the series for NHL Network. “Why wouldn’t we be cheering for them as a country? Because the U.S. has all but dominated it. Obviously, there’s Canadian players (who have won), but having a team, an organization and everything, I think it’s really good for us.”

The 1993 Montreal Canadiens remain the last team from Canada to hoist the Cup. That capped an 10-year run with eight Canadian champions, including the Oilers winning it five times from 1985-90.

As recently as 2004-07, one of the NHL’s seven Canadian teams made the final three straight times, but it’s been rare ever since. Vancouver lost to Boston in seven games in 2011, Montreal in five to Tampa Bay in 2021 — and that’s it.

Hall of Famer Mark Messier captained the final title team of the Oilers dynasty after Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles, a move that set the stage for U.S. Sun Belt expansion and made it possible for teams like the Florida Panthers to thrive in so-called nontraditional markets. The native of St. Albert, just outside Edmonton, marvels at how far hockey has reached beyond Canada but is still glad there are so many homegrown players in this final.

“The stories are rich with great Canadian players who’ve played the game,” said Messier, who’ is providing analysis for ESPN during the final. “Being a Canadian on a Canadian team in the finals (looking for the first championship) since 1993, it’s incredibly exciting. We as Canadians have always had a lot of pride at the international level.”

At the international level, Canada has thrived, including back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2010 and ’14 when NHL players participated. Edmonton’s Corey Perry played an important role on each of those teams; now he is the only Canadian on the roster old enough to remember Patrick Roy, Chris Chelios and the Habs beating Gretzky and the Kings in ’93.

Even though the Oilers have one of the oldest teams in the league, a vast majority were not alive for the Canadiens’ record 24th Cup celebration. Since then, there have been plenty of near misses: Calgary lost to Tampa Bay in seven games in 2004, Edmonton to Carolina in seven in ’06, Ottawa to Anaheim in five in ’07 before the Vancouver and Montreal trips to the final. The latter came when an all-Canadian North Division guaranteed one team from the country a spot in the semifinals.

That was also during the pandemic, and restrictions in Canada at the time limited attendance to 3,500 at Bell Centre. Rogers Place will be packed to the brim for Game 3, with Oilers fans fired up to see if their team can rally down 0-2 to the Panthers.

“I can only expect pandemonium and the most crazy party you could see because it’s high time that it came back,” Demers said. “The city just is cuckoo for hockey, so they’re going to absolutely love it.”

Players can feel that energy, including journeyman American Derek Ryan, German star Leon Draisaitl and a trio of Swedes, Mattias Ekholm, Mattias Janmark and Philip Broberg. But that’s it for foreigners because everyone else on the Oilers, plus coach Kris Knoblauch from tiny Imperial, Saskatchewan, is Canadian. Their journey has been even more special as a result.

“Obviously being a Canadian kid myself, you know how much hockey means in Canada, and I think a lot of the guys who grew up in Canada know that, as well,” Alberta native winger Dylan Holloway said. “That’s pretty cool to think about and, yeah, to bring a Cup back to Canada would mean a lot to a lot of people.”

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