NHL: Which of Its Franchises Is the Notre Dame of Professional Hockey?

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NHL: Which of Its Franchises Is the Notre Dame of Professional Hockey?
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Even amidst an NHL lockout, and even though there is a distinct cultural and national boundary between them, there ought to be at least a sprinkling of Canadian hockey fans who are somewhat inspired by Saturday’s Notre Dame football news.

Watching any tradition-laden athletic program in any sport anywhere on the continent renew its championship caliber after a protracted absence is enough to make one think, “My team could be next to do that.”

If anybody with the right to consider itself Notre Dame football’s NHL equivalent is, in fact, next in line, such a development could only be a gift for the game, and will be naturally welcome regardless of how long and damaging this labor stalemate turns out to be.

The Fighting Irish are back in the NCAA’s national championship football bout for the first time since they won their 13th (11th solo), and most recent, title in 1988. The fanbases of at least three banner-rich NHL franchises are entitled to take that development, assess its impact on that sport’s landscape, and fervently dream of a comparable scenario if and when their team does the same.

The question is: Who is the most entitled to compare their current state of affairs to that of the Irish over nearly the last quarter of a century? Furthermore, whose eventual revival can have the most comparable impact on the sport?

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The fact is it’s hard to find a wrong answer in any of these three choices.

The Montreal Canadiens, owners of a peerless 24 Stanley Cups, have neither won a title nor been to a championship round since 1993. In the intervening years, they have missed the playoffs seven times and won only six playoff rounds, going as far as the third round merely once, in 2010.

In addition, the Cup has not gone to a Canadian-based franchise since Montreal last won it.

The Toronto Maple Leafs, the Habs’ Original Six rival and winners of 13 championships, last reached and won the final series in 1967. Another 26 years passed before they even reached the penultimate round, which they would do four times in a losing cause between 1992 and 2002.

The Edmonton Oilers, the non-Original Six team with the most championships, put in six appearances in the finals in a span of eight years and won five in a span of seven, all culminating in 1990. Since then, they have made one Cinderella run to Game 7 in 2006, but that’s it.

They have otherwise rusted their reputation with a dozen missed postseasons, including each of the last six, and 11 sub-.500 records. The Canadiens and Maple Leafs have each posted losing records six times in the past two decades, much like the Fighting Irish have recently had four losing seasons and a slew of ill postseason fortune with only a few small breathers.

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The latter party has bucked that trend by claiming its right to disrupt the string of BCS championships won predominantly by an SEC, Big Ten or Big 12 program. In turn, Notre Dame has indubitably reawakened its love-hate relationship with the collective American football culture.

In that sense, it is merely following the act of baseball’s New York Yankees circa 1996 and the NBA’s Boston Celtics circa 2008. Those teams, too, spent a couple of decades away from genuine championship contention before regaining their old spot among the revered franchises.

Oh, how the people of Quebec, the better part of Ontario and northern Alberta must drool at the dream of their respective teams doing the same favor for the Canadian hockey culture.

For almost any of those teams, a revival in relevance, let alone regality, would most likely have a trickle-down effect across the border. If nothing else, Boston Bruins buffs would instantaneously intensify their animosity for the Habs and Buffalo Sabres fans would do the same for the Leafs, all for two attentive countries to see.

The fans of any party posing a seven-game roadblock for any of the franchises in question has the potential for at least a short-lived but delectably pungent sense of rivalry.

With only an alteration to the outcome, another championship matchup similar to when Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa intersected with more fledgling hockey markets from Tampa Bay, Carolina and Anaheim might work best. An established brand would be prominent again and, in assistance to its adversary, helping to amplify America’s familiarity with the history of the NHL.

Regardless, a return to the top has to happen at some point for these franchises. They were each just offered another potentially imitable parallel from another sport.

Whenever one of them does follow the act of the Irish, the league-wide impact should be nothing short of refreshing.

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