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The Edmonton Oilers are Canada’s last hope in the playoffs. But will they be Canada’s team?

The Edmonton Oilers are the last Canadian team left in the NHL playoffs. It has the most Canadians on their roster of any remaining team.

But will the team be able to overcome regional loyalties and garner support from Canadians across the country?

That depends a lot on who you ask — and where they’re from.

“I do think it’s possible, especially because it’s been since 1993 that a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup, which I think helps overcome some of those regional barriers that we see,” said Mac Ross, an assistant professor of sport management at Western University in London, Ont.

But it’s far from a given, he said.

“Within the fan culture itself, you’ll get accused of jumping on the bandwagon to support a team that’s not your own team,” he said. “Your friends who cheer on a specific team with you typically will sometimes be frustrated that you are willing to watch and cheer for the Canadian team that’s the rival of your team during the regular season.”

Regional bonds run deep

Lynda Harling Stalker, a professor and chair of the sociology department at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., is less optimistic.

“I was thinking back to when Vancouver made it through to the Stanley Cup final in 2011 and they were playing Boston,” said Stalker, who teaches a course on hockey culture.

But for many people who grew up in the east, there’s a long-standing support for the Bruins that goes back generations, she said.

“I remember how conflicted people were. They really wanted Vancouver to win because they’re Canadian but Boston was their team.”

A hockey player holds up the Stanley Cup
Regional loyalties and a long-standing tradition of cheering for Boston meant many people in eastern Canada didn’t become Canucks fans during the 2011 Stanley Cup, which was won by the Bruins. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Ross and Stalker agreed that geography is a major hurdle for the Oilers to gain support from across the country. Because Canadian culture tends to run north-south rather than east-west, many Canadians have more in common with their closest American neighbours for social and labour reasons.

Maritimers and New Englanders have the fishing industry in common; southern Ontarians share a history of industry with Americans in western New York, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and lower peninsula Michigan; Manitobans and Minnesotans bond over agriculture; and British Columbians share a Pacific Northwest ethos with Oregon and Washington State because of the forestry business.

Ross, who grew up in the Maritimes, said that dynamic was immediately apparent when he moved to London to begin teaching at Western.

Flags and bumper stickers supported the Detroit Red Wings, not the Toronto Maple Leafs, he said.

“When you’re living out in the Maritimes, you don’t even think about it: ‘What’s the matter with you? You’re cheering for Toronto,”‘ said Ross. “Pretty quickly it dawned on me that there’s also a little bit of tension there between southwestern Ontario and the GTA when it comes to sports, so I think they’re also keen to find a different way to identify themselves other than the Toronto Maple Leafs.”

The late-late show

Time zones present another hurdle for the Oilers. Game 1 of Edmonton’s Western Conference final against the Dallas Stars starts Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET. For hockey fans in the Newfoundland, Atlantic, and Eastern time zones, that could mean the games end prohibitively late.

“I think one of the disadvantages for the West overall is time zones,” said Stalker. “My mother-in-law just doesn’t watch western games. She watches hockey all season. But by the time the western games come on, she’s kind of done.”

Oilers fans shouldn’t take the possible snub of their fellow Canadians personally, however.

“There really wouldn’t be the same kind of joy that you get out of hockey and following teams if it was super easy for us to just swap and say, ‘Oh, well, you know, Edmonton is going on to the next round. We all cheer for Edmonton now,”‘ said Ross. “That would have a negative impact, probably, on the culture of the game in the regular season.

“You want fans to be passionate about a specific team otherwise it doesn’t really work.”

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