As this column is being written, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers can still win the Stanley Cup this year.
If they do not, Canada will mark three decades without a National Hockey League (NHL) champion.
When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about their favourite team, the Maple Leafs have a small lead over the Montreal Canadiens (24 per cent to 22 per cent), followed by the Vancouver Canucks (10 per cent), the Edmonton Oilers (eight per cent), the Winnipeg Jets (five per cent), the Calgary Flames (four per cent) and the Ottawa Senators (two per cent). About one in four Canadians (24 per cent) do not have a preferred franchise.
The numbers change when Canadians are asked about the team they hate the most. Almost half (47 per cent) hold no animosity towards any of the seven NHL franchises. The Leafs reach 17 per cent, followed by the Canadiens (10 per cent). The remaining teams are in single digits.
Franchise allegiance is easy to measure on a regional basis. Majorities of British Columbians, Albertans, Ontarians and Quebecers prefer the teams based in each province. On the loathing question, some interesting fluctuations appear. One in four Quebecers (25 per cent) hate the Maple Leafs, but only 12 per cent of Ontarians return the “favour” to the Canadiens. In fact, British Columbia is home to the largest proportion of residents with a dislike for Montreal’s hockey team (27 per cent).
In 2012, at a time when only the Senators and Canucks were participating in the Stanley Cup playoffs, I asked Canadians about the team they would be rooting for as the post-season developed. More than a third (35 per cent) chose Vancouver, and one in five (20 per cent) selected Ottawa.
We then asked the 45 per cent of Canadians who chose a different team to tell us why. Their top reasons were not knowing much about the sport (28 per cent), disliking the Senators (22 per cent), disliking the Canucks (20 per cent) or having a favourite team and not rooting for any other (also 20 per cent). Days later, both Vancouver and Ottawa were eliminated.
When we use this same methodology in 2023, the results are extremely different. More than half of Canadians (53 per cent) are with the Leafs, while just over one in four (26 per cent) side with the Oilers. This leaves just 21 per cent of Canadians who are not actively supporting either of the two Canadian franchises, 24 percentage points lower than what we saw in 2012.
Three of the reasons provided by Canadians who will root against Toronto and Edmonton are similar: Having a favourite team and not backing any other (23 per cent), not liking the Oilers (22 per cent) or not knowing much about the sport (20 per cent). The biggest deterrent, at 33 per cent, is not liking the Maple Leafs.
We also asked Canadians about their views on specific figures of the game, past and present. Just over three in four (76 per cent) have a favourable opinion of Wayne Gretzky, and more than two-thirds feel the same way about Sidney Crosby (71 per cent) and Mario Lemieux (67 per cent).
Ken Dryden, who served as a member of Parliament from 2004 to 2011, checks in at 53 per cent. The top stars of the Canadian NHL franchises still playing get similar favourability ratings: 51 per cent for Connor McDavid and 47 per cent for John Tavares.
Don Cherry, who has been out of broadcasting since November 2019, remains a polarizing figure, but not as much as he was a decade ago. While 45 per cent of Canadians have favourable views on him (up five points since 2012), 30 per cent do not (down 18 points) and 24 per cent are undecided or unaware of who he is (up 12 points). Cherry echoes the ratings success of some Conservative politicians: He polls higher with men and with Canadians aged 55 and over.
Our look at professional hockey is just like any other survey: A snapshot in time, taken at a moment when two teams are still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs. More than half of Canadians have taken a passing interest in the Maple Leafs, but more than a third of those who have not dislike the team.
Love them or hate them, Toronto’s bandwagon is significantly larger than what the Canucks and Senators were exposed to, briefly, in 2012.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from May 4 to May 6, 2023, among 1,000 adults in Canada. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.