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'That sucked': Players from teams that got close reflect on Canada's Cup drought

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Shawn Horcoff remembers a pat on the back as he was pumping gas. 

Wade Redden will never forget the throngs of fans waiting at the airport. 

Jannik Hansen couldn't walk down a grocery store aisle without getting an appreciative nod or a few words of encouragement.

Playing for a Canadian NHL team is a different animal. 

Going on a long playoff run — one that culminates in a Stanley Cup appearance — in those hockey-mad cities is next level.

The Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers were eliminated in the second round of this year's playoffs to stretch Canada's title drought to a head-scratching 30 years.

Yes, it's been three decades since the Montreal Canadiens, led by Patrick's Roy brilliance and accented by an incredible 10 straight overtime victories, celebrated in front of their fans under 23 other championship banners at the Forum.

Six groups of players on clubs north of the border have come agonizingly close since that warm night in June 1993.

None have ascended the mountain, but the memories of those failed Cup quests — both good and bad — live on.

"Every person in that city was just completely absorbed," Horcoff, a member of the 2006 Oilers, said of Edmonton during that magical spring. "The only thing on anybody's mind."

"A very special time," added Redden, whose Ottawa Senators made the 2007 final.

Four years later, it was Hansen's Vancouver Canucks with a chance to bring hockey's holy grail home.

"Best time of our lives," he said. "So exciting."

The Canucks (1994 and 2011), Calgary Flames (2004), Oilers (2006), Senators (2007) and Canadiens (2021) all fell one step short. 

Four of those series — 1994, 2004, 2006 and 2011 — stretched to seven games. 

And of the six teams to get the better of the Canadian contingent, four were from non-traditional hockey markets, including Tampa (2004, 2021), Carolina (2006) and Anaheim (2007).

Sure, there was still pressure to perform, but nothing like the external weight of expectation felt in the fishbowls of Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa and Montreal. Toronto hasn't made a Cup appearance since last winning in 1967, while the Winnipeg Jets' high-water mark was the 2018 Western Conference final.

"You see some of the (southern U.S.) teams that have won … it's probably not in their face as much," Redden, whose Senators went down in five games to the Ducks, said of the fan and media attention. "But that's what makes it more special. It would be great to win a Cup.

"To win in a Canadian city would be the ultimate."

Craig Conroy, a member of the 2004 Flames team that lost to the Lightning in seven, saw the increased scrutiny as a net positive.

"A rallying thing," said Conroy, now an assistant GM in Calgary. "I felt more excited because they were so excited."

His former rival a few hours north up Alberta's Highway 2 agreed.

"It added to the experience," Horcoff, currently a Detroit assistant GM, said of an Oilers team that lost to the Hurricanes in seven games. "You want to measure yourself in pressure situations."

Hansen said outside noise — positive or negative — never entered the Canucks' thinking during their seven-game series with Boston in 2011.

"Animosity toward Vancouver developed," he said. "We were 'the most hated team' and all these things … I've been asked whether or not I'd prefer to play in a market where as soon as you leave the rink, you're anonymous.

"There's nothing better than playing in a Canadian market when you're winning. Everybody lives and breathes it."

Dave Babych, a member of the 1994 Canucks group that lost in seven games to the New York Rangers, still gets stopped by fans looking to reminisce.

"I'm old and my hair is a different colour," he said. "It left an impression. If we'd have won, maybe we'd have to get security. That generation or two of people that went through that with us … crazy."

The notion of being "Canada's team" gets rolled out as soon as there's one club remaining each spring, but Hansen said that wasn't a focus for the players.

"It had been almost 20 years since Canada won," he said. "But Vancouver had never won." 

Conroy and Flames captain Jarome Iginla chatted about what it would be like to bring that Cup back over the border — 19 years ago.

"I remember watching on TV and you'd see people in Nova Scotia or New Brunswick," he said. "They'd have the flags or were wearing your jersey. You're like, 'Really?' 

"Pretty amazing." 

Brendan Gallagher, a player with time left in his career to transport the Cup through customs, said Montreal's 2021 experience that ended in a five-game defeat to Tampa was unique because of the pandemic. 

"One cool thing I'll say that came with all the COVID-19 brutalness was when we would win a series, you'd just be with your teammates," he said. "There was no going out celebrating. We stayed in the locker room, we had pizza and beer and you'd just sit and hang out. 

"It was those special moments."

Another moment — when the Cup dream died — is one most would prefer to forget.

Babych, for instance, has never watched Game 7 against the Rangers.

"Probably never will," he said. "Really have no use for it … still hurts."

Does the pain ever go away?

"No," Horcoff said bluntly. "Never does."

Hansen, who lives in Vancouver with his family, said it's hard to escape the what-might-have-been conversations after the Canucks had chances to clinch in both Game 6 and Game 7.

"Get reminded of it all time," he said. "If we'd won, I'd have a ring right now. You're immortalized. You're a champion until you die. It's one of those things that you carry with you until the end. It will be bitter every single time the playoffs roll around and the final comes and somebody lifts the Cup. That could have been us. I'm not as upset about it as I was. 

"But still when you think about it … ah (expletive). That sucked." 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2023.

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