If sport could be a vital organ, then ice hockey is the beating heart of Canada. It is the national sport, it was invented and perfected in the frozen capitals of North America and it still helps to define many of the Canadian cities it calls home.
For Europeans, hockey is also a cherished sport in Scandinavia and several Eastern European nations. And for years, professional hockey players from Russia, Finland, Czech Republic and a host of other countries have made their way to Canada and the United States to play in the National Hockey League (NHL). Today, there are even pro and semi-pro ice hockey teams in Great Britain.
When planning a journey to Canada, knowing the local sport scene can increase your understanding and enjoyment of your visit. And if you are lucky enough to be in one of Canada’s great hockey cities when their teams is playing at home, a live match is an experience not to be missed.
The home of hockey
There are seven NHL teams in Canada. This does not include the dozens of other professional and junior-level teams that play in lower divisions. In the sport, two teams have six players on the ice at one time – five position players and one goaltender. In a series of shifts and changes, players move on and off the ice for tactical reasons. In a regular match consisting of three 20-minute periods, teams try to play and shoot the puck in the opposition goal.
The regular season lasts from early October through April – followed by an extremely exciting playoffs pitting the league’s top 16 teams against each other.
Although the sport is still commonly played during the winter on frozen ponds and lakes throughout the country, organised hockey is played indoors in temperature controlled arenas. For most teams in the NHL, these arenas are amazing tourist destinations in their own right – even without the allure of the athletes.
To help you better understand Canadian ice hockey and their sport-mad cities, here’s some of our favourite stops to help you admire the country’s national sport:
Toronto Maple Leafs
One of the original six professional teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs were founded in 1917. Since 1999, the team has played in the Air Canada Centre, which replaced Maple Leaf Gardens, the team’s long time home since 1931.
In their history, The Maple Leafs have won thirteen league championships – called the Stanley Cup. It is the second most of any team in the league, but they have not won a championship since 1967. This 48-year drought between titles is currently the longest in the NHL.
The financial heart of the country, Toronto was recently recognised as one of the best tourist destinations in the world. The city has a widely appealing cosmopolitan feel. A number of recent re-vitalisation projects have made Toronto a great city to enjoy art, food, and of course sport.
In hockey’s early days, the Ottawa Senators played in the Canadian capital from 1917 until 1934 winning 11 championships. Decades later, an expansion franchise was added to the league and the Senators named was restored. The team plays its home games at the Canadian Tire Centre which opened in 1996.
Although relatively new, the team has already had success, qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs in 15 of the past 18 seasons, winning four division titles, and appearing in the 2007 Stanley Cup Finals. Attendance at the home matches is extremely high as well.
Located on the Ottawa River, this capital city grows from its centre at Parliament Hill. It is resplendent with amazing Victorian architecture, and is best known for its museums such as the National Gallery, complete with noted collections from Canadian and Indigenous artists. Another city attraction is the Rideau Canal. Surrounded by parks and green space, the canal is often filled with boats in summer and frozen over with ice-skaters in the winter.
In name and reputation, the Montreal Canadiens may be the quintessential Canadian hockey team. Another one of the original six teams, they were founded in 1909 and are the winningest franchise in league history, as well as the longest operating professional hockey team in the world. They even predate the NHL itself.
Much of the team’s storied past is owed to the city itself. In winning 24 Stanley Cup championships, the team has developed a cosmopolitan and international feel like its home. With Montreal being a bi-lingual city with a heavy emphasis on French, the team known as Les Habitants play their home games at the Bell Centre. Before that, the team previously played at the Montreal Forum which housed the team for seven decades and all but their first two Stanley Cup championships.
Besides hockey, there are hundreds of cultural events each year. With a number of culturally diverse neighbourhoods, one of Montreal’s main events is the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
On the Pacific coast of Canada, the Vancouver Canucks have built a reputation as one of the league’s best. The Canucks joined the league in 1970 and have advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals three times, losing to the New York Islanders in 1982, the New York Rangers in 1994 and the Boston Bruins in 2011.
An amazing city with a global feel, Vancouver is still feeling the beneficial effects of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Especially in Canada, the privilege of showcasing winter sports was a great thing for Vancouver. Located in the province of British Columbia, Vancouver is an extremely popular destination for travellers no matter what time of the year.
Western Hockey Cities
Sport seems to lift many of the cities in Canada, and the benefit of having an NHL franchise puts several smaller cities in the Canadian West on the world map. The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames in Alberta and the Winnipeg Jets in Manitoba are teams that represent the country’s sporting culture.
Alberta and Manitoba are both provinces known for their rugged, frontier mentalities. And their teams have that same character. Playing in these cities since the 1970s and 80s, they are consistent playoff contenders. In the heyday of the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, they won five Stanley Cups with the help of the league’s most famous and well-known player, Wayne Gretzky.