The NHL has a Canadian Problem

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A fan walks with a Canadian flag outside the stadium prior to the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens at Gillette Stadium on January 1, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.Jim Rogash / Getty Images

The Blues and Blackhawks had a first round that could have been a conference final, the Caps got bounced, the Sharks were tough, and the Penguins have another Stanley Cup banner going up in the rafters of the Consol Energy Center; all in all a pretty great playoffs for the NHL that was followed up by the news that a team based in Las Vegas will be joining the league for the 2017–18 season. And while Sin City is ripe for professional sports teams since tourists and money flows through the town like the free drinks offered to a guy in a bad suit who has a hot hand at the craps table, the NHL is still ignoring a very big problem: Canada.

By now you don't need to be reminded of the relationship the people of the Great White North have with the sport. No matter how many Raptor games Drake goes to or how ever many kids try and imitate the Bautista bat flip in little league games across the continent, all of Canada is hockey country, half of the players come from there. Yet the entire state of California almost has nearly half as many professional teams as there are in the entire country where the first organized hockey games were played in the 19th century (three in California, seven in all of Canada). While the NHL has always concentrated the bulk of the teams in America (the "Original Six" franchises featured four American teams to two Canadian ones), this year the deficiency showed some serious cracks as Canadian viewership during the playoffs was down 61 percent, or about 513,000 viewers across the country.

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The onus for any of the seven Canadian teams to make the playoffs isn’t on the league, of course. If the teams can't get the points necessary to even make it to the first round, then its those teams that are at fault. And yes, Las Vegas represents a new and exciting market for the league, one that can generate a lot of money and possible interest that the sport is severely lacking as soccer makes up a lot of ground on its way to passing hockey as the fourth most popular sport in the U.S. But the NHL could help the country's odds by granting Quebec City a team, then looking into how other markets like Hamilton or even possibly Saskatoon could possibly get a team to get the number of Canadian NHL teams to double digits. Sure, the Canadian dollar isn't doing so hot at the moment, but alienating Canadian fans further doesn't seem like a smart long-term plan for the league. National pastimes can be replaced, just look at football overtaking baseball in America.

So what, exactly, will it take to get a team to Canada? As NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman stated himself after the announcement of the Las Vegas franchise, "There is no doubt of the appetite in Quebec City for hockey." Although the team that has historically been the best since the founding of the league, the Montreal Canadians, play three hours away, the city has been awaiting a new franchise since the Nordiques moved to Colorado to become the Avalanche in 1995. While the city would be the smallest-market team in the league, it would be a good start to fixing the Canadian problem the league is currently facing, a problem that can grow worse and cause serious damage in the last place the NHL can afford it. 

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