After he’d got what he wanted and been traded to the Canadiens, Jonathan Drouin said what hockey players are supposed to say when they make it back to Canada. Drouin was a special case – a can’t-miss Francophone proto-star who’d grown up outside Montreal.
“It’s all still a dream come true,” he told reporters. “Sometimes I’m just speechless.”
Six years later, Drouin has escaped the boiling pot he dropped himself into and made it over the border to the hockey-lite zone of Colorado. Now he has a different perspective on playing for one of the NHL’s reeling legacy giants.
“Until you live it,” Drouin told ESPN. “No one’s ready for it.”
What a great way to describe the Leafs’ and Canadiens’ teams of the past 25 years or so – the guys living it never seem ready for it.
Per tradition, the two clubs started their season together on Wednesday night at the Scotiabank Arena.
The first impression was the reticence of the Toronto crowd during the dreary introductions. Who plans these things? An undertaker? Toronto does razzmatazz like Utah does Oktoberfest.
During the introductions, newcomers such as Ryan Reaves and Tyler Bertuzzi got big cheers. Holdovers from the last disaster, such as David Kampf and Jake McCabe, were welcomed in near silence.
But the loudest eruption was saved for the visitors – a cascade of jeering that reminded you how muted the cheers had been. As usual, Toronto sports crowds hate with more commitment than they love.
All in all, not exactly a war cry into the new season. T.J. Brodie somehow managing to trip himself and providing an effective assist on the opening Montreal goal didn’t improve the mood.
Things didn’t pick up until midway through the first when Reaves had his first fight of the season. He lost, but the crowd loved it. Reaves alone has more on-ice charisma than the rest of his teammates combined. There’s something to watch for later.
Toronto-Montreal used to be a big deal, back when Pearson was prime minister. Nowadays it’s something the NHL kicks back to the second night of the year. Curtain up is reserved for whoever happens to be the latest player/team to rescue hockey in the United States. This year, that’s Connor Bedard.
Bedard will be hearing a lot of advice in the next while. My own – never leave America.
Canada eats its hockey players, Montreal and Toronto in particular. They go in one end fired by the idea of making history. They come out the other end sooty, with all their clothes chewed off.
Those who leave may get better or worse, but they all have a hollowed-out look for the rest of their careers. Like they’ve seen and heard some things.
The 2023-24 season starts with two national concerns in good form – Edmonton and Toronto. Both are Vegas darlings, and why wouldn’t they be? They take in a ton of action and they never pay out. They’re the bookies’ idea of a fantasy team.
Both teams are slowly trash-compacting the careers of a few of the best players of their generation. How else would you describe Connor McDavid’s time in Edmonton?
After eight years, he has zero Stanley Cups and zero Olympic appearances. The last time he wore a Canada jersey was five years ago. From the perspective of just about anywhere outside Canada, the guy doesn’t exist.
Maybe this is more than an NHL curse. Maybe this is something Canada is doing to itself.
Canada wants its players in Canada playing for Canadian teams and talking about Canadian concerns. But no modern sports icon wants to be confined to any one country, especially one as parochial as our own.
Does the best soccer player in Belgium want to stay in Brussels? Of course not. The idea is ridiculous. So why wouldn’t the best hockey players want to go to America? That’s where the spoils are.
As soon as any player here expresses a bit of wanderlust, Canada begins to resent him. Why doesn’t every Toronto kid want to play for Toronto? Why won’t he just insist on being traded here?
Because when they agree to do that, Canada eats them alive.
This feeling has been exacerbated by the absence of any sort of international play that people care about. Sidney Crosby could return for a couple of weeks every four years and reestablish his Canadianness via the Olympics.
Mitch Marner doesn’t get that benefit. We only know him as a guy who works his tail off from October to March so that he can go on vacation in April. Yet another can’t-miss Canadian non-success story.
Which all-timer of the past couple of generations has been great while remaining in Canada?
Carey Price. That’s the end of the list. (Given how things turned out, one wonders if Price still feels like he played that one right.)
The other side of the ledger is full – Crosby, Patrice Bergeron, Steven Stamkos and so on and so forth. Like a lot of Canadian artists, they had to leave to get their chance at glory.
You don’t need to agree with the premise – Canadian players can no longer succeed in Canada – for the premise to function. It’s been working this way for decades. Amazingly, denying it’s an issue hasn’t solved the problem yet.
After every failed year, people become more enraged about it. How would you define the state of the national game in 2023? A roiling wave of anxiety and frustration. No championships, no Olympics, no outlet except to complain and another generational player lining up to make his name down south.
So as we celebrate the beginning of another NHL season, we celebrate something else as well – the self-inflicted jinx that defines Canada’s favourite sport. May it ever humble us.