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Lightning’s Stanley Cup journey runs right through ice hockey’s homeland

Don’t expect Tampa Bay to enter the sport’s birthplace and just skate away with the Cup.
A Montreal Canadiens fan waves a flag before Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Monday. No team from Canada has won the Cup since 1993.
A Montreal Canadiens fan waves a flag before Game One of the Stanley Cup Finals at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Monday. No team from Canada has won the Cup since 1993. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jul. 1
Updated Jul. 1

As a kid growing up outside Calgary in rural western Canada, Bobby Taylor would peer at his family’s backyard vegetable garden, longing for the spring day when it would yield a rink instead of roughage.

Tom Taylor, a janitor who worked night shifts, would pile dirt around the garden in clumps about 6 inches high, forming a trough of sorts. When the initial freeze hit, he’d break out the hose and fill the trough.

A 100-watt bulb on the back porch illuminated the fresh sheet of ice. Voila, another hockey night in Canada had manifested itself.

“Everybody had their own backyard rink, or it seemed like everybody did,” said Taylor, a former NHL goalie and longtime Lightning studio analyst known universally as “Chief.”

“I never played indoors until I was 14 years old.”

Contemplate, for a moment, the passion, tension and unbridled zeal that ferments in the South when college football kicks off. Now multiply that by 10, Taylor says, and you might have an idea of Canada’s hockey obsession.

Canadiens fans Ellen Canuel and Angie Kantor share a moment at Amalie Arena's Thunder Alley before Game 2.
Canadiens fans Ellen Canuel and Angie Kantor share a moment at Amalie Arena's Thunder Alley before Game 2. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

“It’s a culture, even more so than any sport in the U.S.,” said Ontario native Gordie Zimmermann, CEO and co-owner of Wesley Chapel’s AdventHealth Center Ice, one of the Southeast’s largest ice-sports facilities.

“The U.S. has multiple sports that are popular, but in Canada, it is hockey.”

For all the Lightning’s dominance of Montreal in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals, any presumption they’ll cross the border and dispatch the Canadiens in short order may be a tad misguided.

Pride doesn’t backpedal or concede the blue line, especially to outsiders. In Canada, you learn to skate before you learn to spell. Among the country’s most valuable exports: crude oil, cars and centers who deliver blistering one-timers. Couples remain wary of scheduling a winter wedding in conflict with Hockey Night in Canada (Saturday night NHL broadcasts).

Only a few days ago, StubHub indicated the cheapest secondary-market ticket for Game Three at Montreal’s Bell Centre was going for $3,600 (U.S. currency). By contrast, a ticket for Game One at Amalie Arena could be found for $266.

“If you had a birthday in the winter, it was probably being held at some sort of ice rink,” said Ontario native Kristen Shilton, Toronto Maple Leafs beat writer for TSN, Canada’s English-language sports specialty channel.

“We actually had a rink (where) we would go for gym class to skate. There were so many rinks around when I was younger, we actually had one right next to our school. So we would go over there, and instead of having gym inside, most days we’d just go skate.”

Montreal Canadiens players stand on the ice as the national anthem is played before the first period in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals against the Lightning on Monday at Amalie Arena.
Montreal Canadiens players stand on the ice as the national anthem is played before the first period in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals against the Lightning on Monday at Amalie Arena. [ GERRY BROOME | Associated Press ]

A survey earlier this year conducted by the Angus Reid Institute — a non-profit, public opinion research foundation — found nine in 10 Canadians say hockey provides a sense of identity and community in the country. The same survey showed 82 percent of the respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed that hockey is too dangerous for kids under 14.

“We never thought of growing up to play Major League Baseball or basketball or football,” said Taylor, who learned to skate when he was 3. “You played for the Stanley Cup every spring when you were out on the driveway or on the roads.”

A Cup drought notwithstanding (no Canadian franchise has won it since 1993), generations of Canadians have been reared to believe ice hockey not only is their sport, but their sport to rule.

The country’s nine Olympic gold medals are most in the world, with three golds in this millennium alone (2002, 2010, 2014). Its under-20 team has won the IIHF World Junior Championships (“World Juniors”) a staggering 18 times since the event’s inception in the mid-1970s.

That international dominance helps galvanize a nation where the east (a manufacturing bastion) remains at odds with the west (a reservoir of raw materials).

“The pressure is on Canada to win the gold medal always,” said Zimmermann, who also was skating at age 3.

“As far as the Olympics go, yeah, major pressure. Canada’s always regarded as the top team, even over Russia and the U.S. now. There is a lot of pressure for the coaching staff and the management. If you don’t win, you’re not there next year.”

Montreal Canadiens fans find each other before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final in Tampa.
Montreal Canadiens fans find each other before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final in Tampa. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The 2021 Canadiens don’t feel the weight of such pressure. Winners of only 24 games during the NHL’s abbreviated regular season, their surreal playoff run — highlighted by a seven-game conquest of rival Toronto after a three-games-to-one deficit — has stretched longer than their most apologetic fans could have envisioned.

But a lack of pressure doesn’t equate to a lack of pride. The Canadiens are representing their sport’s birthplace (the first indoor match was held in Montreal on March 3, 1875), and that stately silver chalice for which they’re playing is named after the onetime governor general of Canada (Lord Stanley of Preston).

That robust red maple leaf on the Canadian flag? It doesn’t wilt so easily.

“I think that’s exactly the word for it — just pride,” Shilton said. “I think just to be able represent this country, I’m sure for them is a real sense of pride.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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