More than five million Canadians—one in every five—are involved in hockey as players, coaches, officials or parents who shiver at dawn on Saturdays driving their masses. children to the rink. Canada won the 1994 World Championship. It has won five of the past six World Junior Championships. The women's national team will be the prohibitive favorite for the 1998 Olympic gold medal. Canada has owned the Canada Cup, the our-best-versus-their-best tournaments last held in 1991. While hockey has settled into places where ice previously had been reserved for bourbon, the WHA merger and the NHL expansion have also stretched big league hockey from Quebec City to Vancouver. With European emigration and the evolutionary growth of U.S. hockey, the percentage of Canadian players has fallen from 96.7 in 1967-68 to 62.3 this season, but nearly three times the number of Canadians earn a living in the NHL than in the days of the original six teams.
"We tend sometimes to get a little overprotective of our sport," says Gretzky. "More and more Americans are playing it, more and more are watching it, and consequently we're expanding into more and more cities in the United States. But I think Canadians should feel safe in that hockey will always be a Canadian sport."
Gretzky is Canada's gift to the U.S. On Aug. 9, 1988, as America fretted over the introduction of lights at Wrigley Field, Edmonton gift wrapped its legacy and shipped him to Los Angeles. The news was stunning, and attention quickly focused on Peter Pocklington, the slick Oiler owner who was so far ahead of the curve he was dumping a salary back in the days when payrolls averaged only $5 million. For hockey's greatest scorer, Pocklington received $15 million, two players and three first-round draft choices from the Kings. Typically, most of the Canadian outrage was over the terms of a hockey deal and not the fact that Canada was exporting an icon.
In their altruism, Canadians outside of Edmonton actually thought it was wise to send their hero to California. If anyone could lay a hockey foundation on the beach, it was the Great One. He did. Two years after Gretzky joined the Kings, San Jose entered the NHL. A year later Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Miami and Minnesota's relocation to Dallas gave the NHL a strong warm-weather presence. In-line skating boomed; NHL jerseys, thanks to the Sharks' cool teal logo, became fashion statements; the Fox network signed on for five years at $31 million a season; salaries jumped to an average of about $600,000; and the Rangers bought their way out of a 54-year hex by winning the '94 Stanley Cup with a nucleus of players Edmonton no longer could afford—including Mark Messier, Esa Tikkanen and Kevin Lowe. The message was obvious: The Cup was pricing itself out of Canada's reach. But instead of mourning a dismantled Oiler franchise that won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990, Canada fixated on the Cup's appearance on Late Show with David Letterman. Dave is cool, the Cup is on his show, ergo hockey is cool. The Rangers' win was good for hockey.
Hockey's manifest destiny was being realized, but it wasn't until the lockout that Canadians began to wonder if they shouldn't say to hell with the big-market teams. Curiously, almost as much attention was lavished on the U.S. citizenship of Bettman and Goodenow as on their bargaining. Former NHL president John Ziegler was every bit as much a Yankee-Doodle during the 10-day player strike in 1992, but like Goodenow, a former player at Harvard, Ziegler had been around hockey a long time. Bettman, who became commissioner on Feb. 1, 1993, was different. He was Son of Salary Cap, an NBA recruit. He once committed the solecism of saying players were having a morning "skate around"—horrors! a hoopism—instead of a morning skate. Canada collectively cringed.
Bettman, however, genuflects toward the north. "We're the national sport of Canada, not the national sport of the U.S.," he says. "No matter how large we grow, we won't turn our back on our roots. And our roots are up in Canada." Bettman, in fact, preaches trickle-up economics. "The issue is a well-run NHL," he says, "not Canada versus the U.S." Bettman feels that if the NHL prospers, Canada will share the wealth.
But a league that gets 65% of its revenue from the gate needs spiffier digs, especially in hockey's homeland. Calgary and Edmonton are refurbishing their rinks, and Montreal, Ottawa and Vancouver all will move into new, state-of-the-art buildings by the end of 1996. But without new arenas in Quebec and Winnipeg, Bettman says, the NHL will walk from those cities, I don't view this as blackmail," Bettman says. "My discussions with the mayors [of Quebec and Winnipeg] have pointed out that if they want to have a sports franchise in the 21st century, they must appropriately house them. If they choose not to, that doesn't make it a bad city. The cities are simply making a business decision on whether it's worth having a sports franchise."
Winnipeg has been inching toward replacing the outdated 15,393-seat Winnipeg Arena, which has 20 "luxury" boxes that could double as bunkers in a War of 1812 replay. Quebec, the NHL city with the smallest population base (645,000), is more problematic. Marcel Aubut, who owns 20% of the Nordiques, has proposed a 19,000-seat arena with 80 luxury boxes, an $86 million project that would be principally financed by a provincially run casino or lottery, an arrangement the NHL will not comment on. Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, who is spearheading the referendum, wants to build Quebec City into a national capital; losing the only spoils franchise in a hockey-mad town, one with an annual $64.3 million economic impact on the province, would be a lousy first step. Aubut has had overtures from seven U.S. cities, including Atlanta, Denver, Houston and Phoenix, to relocate the Nordiques.
Quebec City mayor Jean-Paul L'Allier has been cool to the arena proposal because he fears it will divert federal funds from other municipal needs like a new exhibition center. "This is a Canadian problem, not just a Winnipeg-Ottawa-Quebec problem," L'Allier says. "Hockey is part of the Canadian sports heritage. The federal government acts to protect cinema, books, magazines. What have they done to save the hockey heritage? We have the majority of small markets. If the NHL leaves Quebec, in a few years they'll probably leave Winnipeg as well."
The Canadian government indeed has done precious little about its multibillion-dollar hockey industry. "We've always talked about hockey's cultural role because Canadians are so emotionally involved with it," says Dennis Mills, a member of Parliament for Broadview-Green-wood, a Toronto riding. His son, Craig, a right wing with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League, was Winnipeg's fifth-round draft choice in 1994. "It's time we look at it as an industry. If we thought General Motors was going to pull a van plant out of Oshawa [Ont.], we'd go crazy and make sure it didn't happen. We can tell you in forestry and automobiles how many jobs, skilled and unskilled, there are in every sector. Ask about hockey, and we draw a blank. If we, as policymakers, lose hockey because we've been asleep at the switch, we're losing a big job-creation project." Mills says he will convene a hockey task force of government members by the end of April.