Woe Canada

From 1967-68, the NHL's first season of expansion from the original six franchises, to 1993-94, the first full season in the tenure of controversial commissioner Gary Bettman, teams won 27 Stanley Cup championships. Canadian teams won 16 of them and finished runner-up five times.

In the decade since, not a single Canadian team even has reached the Stanley Cup finals, a dispiriting drought for the hockey-mad country.

Which begins to explain why resentment against Bettman, who gets heckled and booed in most U.S. cities, is particularly strong in Canada.

Bettman's reign of incompetence, marked by blind expansion into non-traditional, Sun Belt markets, has seen revenue disparity widen to such unhealthy levels that the league is facing a lockout that could kill next season. That would send Canadian fans into a complete funk – a long, cold winter without their national pastime.

"The fans look at it as the NHL chased big bucks in the United States and gave up on us," said Sara Buchan, who covers the Maple Leafs for Toronto radio station The Fan 590. "We're not big enough; our suits aren't expensive enough.

"The NHL thought they could jam square pegs into the round holes of markets that are not hockey interested," she continued. "Now they are paying the repercussions."

Under Bettman, out went franchises in hockey-crazed Quebec City (the Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche and won the Stanley Cup in their first season in Denver) and Winnipeg (the current Phoenix Coyotes). In came mid-market, often Southern U.S. towns where ice previously was considered best-suited for chilling sweet tea. As spending on players has skyrocketed, Canadian teams hampered by small markets and a weak dollar have floundered.

Which brings us to the rich possibilities and potential sweet irony of these Stanley Cup playoffs. Five of the six Canadian teams qualified and three (the Calgary Flames, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs) have reached the conference semifinals. The other two lost to Canadian brethren. Toronto eliminated the Ottawa Senators and Calgary dispatched of the Vancouver Canucks, both in dramatic seven-game series.

The chance of an all-Canadian Eastern Conference final between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens remains a possibility, but both trail their series 2-0 as they head back north. Calgary remains the heavy underdog in the West, but the Flames are tied 1-1 with Detroit and have stolen home-ice advantage.

Both Montreal and Calgary host games on Tuesday, and due to the modern competitive realities each city is at the kind of fever pitch that used to be reserved for the Stanley Cup finals, not second-round games.

"It's our Stanley Cup now," said Dale Oviatt, sports editor of the Calgary Herald, whose hometown Flames won the Cup in 1989 but hadn't won a single playoff series since until beating the Canucks earlier this month. "It used to be [Calgary] was expected to get past one series. Now with the economics ... this is what we have to celebrate."

So here in what might be the last postseason before a lockout that many Canadian fans blame on Bettman and his American bumbling, there is still hope that maybe, just maybe a Canadian team – or even (gasp) two teams – will make the Stanley Cup finals.

"If that happened," Buchan said, "I think the country would go ballistic. Nationwide it would be delirium. It would be thrilling."

Oviatt said: "This place would go absolutely nuts. Everyone is already saying, 'Imagine if it's Calgary-Toronto, Calgary-Montreal.' "

Bettman took office in 1993 knowing little about hockey. He previously worked at the NBA.

"I gave Gary a hockey puck once," quipped Pat Williams, one-time general manager of the NBA's Orlando Magic, "and he spent the rest of the day trying to open it."

That didn't stop Bettman from immediately making changes that many fans saw as an affront to the game's rich legacy, from stripping the traditional names of the conferences (Wales and Campbell) and divisions for the generic Eastern, Western and so on, to letting Fox Sports use a ridiculous glowing puck in telecasts. His expansion push (the league has grown from 21 teams in 1990-91 to its current 30) cooled old-school rivalries and watered down the league's talent level, which helped slow play to a dull crawl.

The expansion explosion drove salaries through the roof to the point where two-thirds of the league's franchises are losing money, and the pending labor dispute looms large.

In Canada, competing with the wealthier American franchises has proven so difficult that even the sport's proudest franchise, Montreal, hasn't kept up. The Canadiens won their record 24th Stanley Cup in 1993, but they have won just three series since.

Meanwhile Anaheim, Carolina, Dallas and Florida all have reached the Stanley Cup finals.

For Canadians, that's akin to the Yankees and Expos suddenly switching places.

Which is why in Canada nothing would feel better than a Canadian champion. To end a long drought. To feel some national pride.

And, no doubt, to allow longtime fans to stuff it the face of Gary Bettman just before his expansion-induced lockout silences hockey's roar.