Source: Minas Panagiotakis / National Hockey League / Getty
NOTE: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS OF MICHAEL BEDA DO IN NO WAY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME OR ANY OTHER MEDIUM FOR HOCKEY HISTORY.
There can only be one champion.
Let’s unpack what that means: In 1892, Lord Stanley of Preston, the 6th Governor General of Canada, presented the nation with a silver punchbowl, erected by a Sheffield silversmith for the equivalent of $48 American Dollars. It was to be given to the champion amateur ice hockey club in Canada, as the sport had only been around for approximately fifteen years under its formative rules, with no trophy to indicate which club was the best.
Lord Stanley was summoned back to England and became the 16th Earl of Derby before he was able to witness the first ‘Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup’ contest, which ultimately was awarded to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association.
So began a storied conquest. For the next several years, amateur teams all throughout the dominion could compete for the silver chalice, the winner keeping the Cup like a mixed martial artist would keep their championship belt until they were soundly defeated. The Cup could change hands multiple times in a year, though throughout the first fifteen years of its existence, various teams would defend their title for years at a time (most notably the Ottawa Silver Seven, and the Montreal Wanderers).
As professionalism slowly began trickling its way into the sport, the teams that could afford to pay the most talented players would have a higher chance of securing Lord Stanley’s punchbowl. By 1909, essentially any team who sought to compete for the Cup had succumbed to paying their players.
By 1915, the two most stable leagues, the National Hockey Association and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association became the de facto competitors for the trophy, as the respective winners of both leagues would compete in a mixed-rules series (both leagues had variants to their regulations), altering between the west coast and the east coast each season.
The PCHA would be trumped by the Western Canada Hockey League, and then simply the Western Hockey League, before disbanding in 1926. The NHA had given way to the National Hockey League in 1917, and a decade later, the NHL now had sole de facto ownership of the Stanley Cup.
Ultimately, what I’m getting at here is that for 127 years, ice hockey players have dedicated their safety and sanity to embark upon a season-long quest to potentially be rewarded by lifting Lord Stanley’s trophy. Boys who have no idea who the 16th Earl of Derby was dream of hoisting the Cup above their heads as their season-long journey culminates in being declared the champion.
Contrary to European leagues that have a few competitions scattered throughout a typical season (regular season, a separate domestic cup competition, and even a continental cup tournament), NHL regular season success means nothing if you can’t get the job done in the playoffs. Throughout the NHL’s 103-year existence, some teams have blazed through the regular season at a frenetic pace, roaring like an inferno through their opponents to earn a high seed in the playoffs…… only to have it all come crashing down.
Playoff hockey is nothing like the at-times monotonous, draining 82 game schedule. So many new factors come into play as the 16 (or in this year, 24) clubs who earn a playoff berth lock horns in a new level of competition; traditionally, the first team to win 16 games over the course of 4 series, earns the right to lift that Cup above their heads and keep it throughout the summer.
Of course, some of the teams who were on fire throughout the regular season keep that ember lit long enough to emerge victorious in the playoffs as well. Other playoff years produce shocking Cup champions, as David tends to slay Goliath much more in the tight-parity world of the NHL. Some teams ride the wave of success long enough to repeat as champions, sometimes even three-peat (or in the case of my beloved Habs, fiiiiiiiive-peat).
This countdown serves to showcase 10 teams throughout the history of the NHL who seemed so destined to be crowned champions at season’s-end that it seemed baffling that they lost. Whatever dynamic fueled the fire of these teams during the regular season, it burnt out in the playoffs for a variety of reasons. Criteria in determining the placement of these teams was highly subjective, nuanced through a few components.
Some of these teams shattered regular season records, both with individual play or by the entire ensemble. Some of these teams won Cups immediately before or after the season at hand, thus making it infuriating to know that they could have added another Cup to their arsenal, especially if their regular season showed so much more promise. One team lost their chance at winning the Cup because of suspension.
Whatever the reason for their ultimate failures, these 10 single-season teams came up short when the title was theirs for the taking.
Source: Hamilton Spectator
10) 1924-25 HAMILTON TIGERS
Right off the bat, there are probably a few folks out there thinking, ‘What? There was a professional hockey club in the 1920s in Hamilton with a team name awfully close to that of their football team?’ Well, yes there was. The Hamilton Tigers played in the NHL for 5 years, having inherited the dismal Quebec Bulldogs franchise through a handsome sale.
The Abso Pure Ice Company and its respective owners had limited knowledge on how to run a team, and for the first four years of their existence in Hamilton, they struggled greatly, missing the playoffs each season while suffering through a total record of 28-68.
As the 1924-25 season was set to commence, the league expanded from 4 teams to 6, with the addition of the Montreal Maroons and the league’s first American franchise, the Boston Bruins. The Tigers were determined not to finish in the cellar behind the new expansion clubs, and boasted a fair bit of talent on their roster. Hall of Fame inductee Jimmy Gardner had the reigns behind the bench over players that included captain Shorty Green, Billy Burch, Red Green, Ken Randall, and goalie Jake Forbes.
Due to the addition of the two expansion clubs, the regular season schedule increased from 24 to 30 games. The Tigers came out of the gate strong, winning their first 4 games before finally tasting defeat against the Montreal Canadiens. Forbes was rock-steady in between the pipes, keeping his goals against average just below 2.00 with 6 shutouts, and Red Green had a career season, leading the club all throughout the year, finishing with 35 points.
They were in a duel with the Toronto St. Pats for 1st place all season long, and thanks in part to a seven-game win streak throughout the latter half of January, were able to finish 1 point ahead of the St. Pats with a 19-10-1 record. They finished a close second in both goals for and fewest goals against, and Billy Burch was awarded the second ever Hart trophy, finishing with 20 goals. What the Tigers seemingly lacked in a superstar, they made up for by gelling cohesively as a unit.
This team unity is what ultimately would be their downfall. Due to the schedule load increasing, the players demanded an additional $200 each for the extra six games commanded of them on their quest to winning the regular season title. Captain Shorty Green led the charge, telling league president Frank Calder that the team would go on strike as they awaited their playoff matchup between either the Canadiens or the St. Pats.
Tigers owner Percy Thompson denied ever agreeing to the extra pay, and Calder ordered the team to back off from the strike, or else they would all be suspended. Green was adamant that “the boys are unanimous in what they consider their just dues, hence the reason for the stand we have taken.” Hey, I guess if it’s your franchise’s first playoff appearance, what better an idea than to strike and face suspension!
Calder didn’t budge, the Tigers were all suspended for the rest of the year, and the Canadiens would win the series against the St. Pats, earning the right to play for the Stanley Cup against the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Cougars (which they’d lose). The Tigers would in fact lose their team, being sold for $75000 to New York in the offseason, becoming the ‘Americans’.
Shorty Green would severely damage one of his kidneys two years later after suffering a brutal hit from New York Ranger defenseman Taffy Abel, and league MVP Billy Burch would crack the 20 goal plateau only once more in his career. If it’s any consolation, both Green and Burch would be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, but good golly, the Tigers blew it.
9) 1934-35 TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
By the mid-1930s, the Great Depression had taken its toll on the league. The fledgling Ottawa Senators took a year off in 1931-32, returned the following season, but then relocated to St. Louis in 1934, renaming themselves the Eagles. It would be their only season in Missouri before folding. The Montreal Maroons were also in a state of despair, and it was evident that Montreal could financially support only one team within the next few years.
However, the future seemed rather bright in Toronto, as a Cup in 1932 and a finals appearance in 1933 ensured Leaf fans that their talented ‘Kid Line’ would continue to take the league by a storm throughout the rest of the tumultuous decade.
Charlie Conacher, Busher Jackson, and Joe Primeau each cemented their place in the Maple Leaf lineup in 1929, and within a year, they would feature in the top 10 for league scoring. Jackson led the league in points during 1931-32, with Primeau finishing 2nd and Conacher 4th. In 1933-34, it was Conacher who took the scoring title, Primeau again finishing as the runner-up, and Jackson placing 7th.
As the puck dropped on the 1934-35 campaign, the Buds got off to a roaring start, earning victories in their first 8 matches. They were 15-3-1 at New Years, and enjoyed great success at their palace, Maple Leaf Gardens, which was now the team’s home for four seasons. Conacher, who had been stingy in signing a contract extension at the start of the season, was back in Conn Smythe’s good graces by winning another scoring title. His career-high 36 goals and 57 points bested Syd Howe, who finished 2nd in league scoring, by 10 points.
In goal, the reliable George Hainsworth enjoyed a fruitful campaign in his second year in Toronto. In November, he earned the honoured distinction of stopping the first ever penalty shot, a brand new spectacle for the game. Jackson had just over a point-per-game, finishing with 44, while Primeau, despite missing a quarter of the season due to injury, still finished 3rd on the team.
Solid defensive play by Red Horner and the high-offensive Flash Hollett gave the Leafs their 2nd consecutive division title. Their record of 30-14-4 gave them 64 points, winning the regular season title by 6 points over Boston.
The playoff format throughout most of the 1930s was rather obtuse. Six of the nine teams in the league qualified, with the two division winners earning byes to the semifinals. The 2nd place finishers from each division would play each other in the 1st round, as would the 3rd place finishers. The winners would then go on to face each other in the semifinals; thus, the Leafs and the Bruins, having both finished 1st, would be forced to play each other in the other semi. Strange, huh?
The Leafs would dispose of the Bruins in a best-of-5 series, winning 3 games to 1. Hainsworth conceded only two goals, one of which was the lone goal in a double overtime thriller. This led to the Stanley Cup finals matchup against the aforementioned financially-strained Maroons. It was another best three-out-of-five contest, with the Leafs earning home-ice advantage for the first two games. The Maroons were able to brilliantly neutralize the ‘Kid Line’, taking the first game 3-2 in overtime.
Jackson managed to slip through the defence and score in the second game, but the Maroons once again dictated the pace of play, going on to sweep the Leafs in three straight, dashing their hopes after a brilliant regular season campaign. The Leafs’ Cup final woes would continue throughout the decade, as they would also lose the final series in 1936, 1938, 1939 and 1940, before finally reclaiming the trophy after a thrilling playoff campaign in 1942.
8) 2018-19 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
The most recent feature is sure to strike despair into the hearts of all Lightning supporters. Then again, it was way too good to be true. Ever since the Presidents Trophy came into existence in 1985-86, only 8 teams have managed to win the Cup as well. That wave of winter success very seldom transcends into a fruitful spring.
Take last year’s Lightning squad for example. Their regular season campaign was one for the ages. 325 goals for, which was the first time the franchise ever eclipsed the 300 mark, having set a team record just the prior season at 296.
They only conceded 222 goals, the fifth lowest in the league, pretty damn good considering that starting netminder, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was injured with a fractured left foot for over a month. He didn’t seem to miss a beat, returning to the lineup and winning 39 games, posting 6 shutouts and a 2.40 GAA along the way, earning the Vezina trophy for his accomplishments.
Steve Yzerman shocked the team by stepping down from his position as General Manager, though he remained on staff as an adviser. Newly promoted Julien BriseBois took the reigns and veteran coach Jon Cooper got off to a flying start by posting a record of 31-7-2 by New Years day. In fact, the Lightning didn’t lose a game in regulation time all December, which stretched to 17 contests by the time the Sharks finally doused their fire. The Lightning would also only lose one regulation contest throughout all of February.
Nikita Kucherov exploded for the most points any player had accumulated for 23 years. His 128 points bested Edmonton’s Connor McDavid by 12, while his 87 assists were the third highest this millennium (behind two Joe Thornton outbursts). At season’s end, he of course won the Art Ross, in addition to both the Hart, and Ted Lindsay trophies. He, Brayden Point, and captain Steven Stamkos lead the attack, the latter leading the Lightning in goals with 45.
On defence, the ever-reliable Victor Hedman imposed his 6’6 frame all over the neutral and defensive zone, earning a nomination for the Norris trophy, and 2nd team all-star accolades. Ryan McDonagh thwarted opposing forwards and was a +38, while scoring a career-high 46 points.
It was obvious that the Lightning would cruise to their second consecutive Atlantic division title as early as mid-February; now it was a matter of just maintaining consistent play. The 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings’ record of 62 regular season wins was in their grasp, and lo and behold, with 4 games remaining, they sat at 59 wins, a mighty fine chance to break the feat.
After a solid 5-2 road win over the Senators, a back-to-back contest with Montreal spoiled their chance at achieving the record, though they emerged victorious in their final two games against Toronto and Boston to tie the record with a brilliant 62-16-4 season. Their 128 points put them 4th highest in league history.
Now, on to the true test, the postseason. The current playoff format since 2014, love it or hate it, has the top 3 teams of each division earn a spot in the dance, with two wild cards facing off against the respective division winners. The Columbus Blue Jackets just squeaked into the postseason despite sporting an incredibly underrated record of 47-31-4 under the rule of outspoken coach, John Tortorella.
The Lightning (and pretty much all of us fans at home) thought the series was in the bag, so much so that the team promised 2nd round tickets to my brother and his entire sports management program who were set to embark on a ten-day sporting facilities tour throughout central Florida. Well, shit.
The Blue Jackets straight up slapped the Lightning. Just destroyed them. It was one of the saddest playoff sweeps I’ve ever witnessed. Columbus outscored Tampa Bay 19-8 in the four games, Vasilevskiy’s playoff statistics ballooning a full goal-and-a-half per game, with a gaudy save percentage of .856.
The high octave scoring outbursts were quelled by the likes of Artemi Panarin, Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, and Kucherov faced a game suspension for a boarding call in Game 2. Even Tortorella smiled with glee once the 7-3 Game 4 thrashing ticked down its final seconds. Did I mention it was Columbus’ first ever playoff series win in franchise history? Oh, Tampa, thanks for getting all of our hopes up for a potential dynasty.
At least Kucherov and Vasilevskiy earned 1st team all-star nods. That makes up for it, doesn’t it?
Source: HHOF Images
7) 1950-51 DETROIT RED WINGS
If you take a gander in Lord Stanley’s vault in the Hockey Hall of Fame, you’ll see the many retired Cup bands flattened and on display to preserve the legacy of all the clubs and names who have been forced to come off the trophy for the sake of space. If you peer at the band that features the Cup champions of the early 1950s, you’ll see that the Detroit Red Wings were victorious in 1950, 1952, 1954, and 1955.
These four Stanley Cups in six seasons earned them ‘Dynasty’ status by collective hockey historians, one of only nine respective teams to be given such an honour. However, lone surviving members of the team, Marty Pavelich and Vic Stasiuk, will be the first to tell you that they should have made it five Cups in six years. 1951 was truly the one that got away.
The Red Wings had been around at that point for 25 years, 19 of which had been under the current team name. They had featured in every playoff for 12 consecutive years, and heading into the 1950-51 campaign, they had just won their fourth Cup in franchise history. After the Second World War wrapped up, they seemed to be poised for a pristine future with the likes of Sid Abel, ‘Terrible’ Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly, and a young talent named Gordie Howe.
Howe had severely injured himself in the 1950 playoffs against the Maple Leafs, crashing head-first into the boards and fracturing his skull so severely that some doctors didn’t think he’d survive. Nope, he was fine, and back in the lineup in time for the following season.
It was the 9th season of the Original 6 era, and the 70 game regular season schedule would render each team to play one another 14 times, plus whatever it took to get through the two playoff rounds. The Wings didn’t appear to be anything special out of the gate, but then went on a ten game undefeated streak to show that they were for real.
Another eleven game undefeated streak put them at 21-6-6 heading into the New Year. The legendary ‘Production Line’ of Abel, Howe and Lindsay was at their very best, as they went 1-2-3 in team scoring, Howe winning his first of six Art Ross trophies. His 86 points (43 goals, 43 assists) were the most anyone had ever scored in the thirty-four year history of the league.
He obliterated everyone else, winning the Art Ross by a baffling 20 points over Maurice Richard. Abel himself notched 61 points, good enough for 4th in the league, while Lindsay was right behind in 7th with 59. Hell, Kelly even cracked the top 10 as a defenseman with 54 points of his own!
Terry Sawchuk would go on to win the Calder, proving that GM Jack Adams wasn’t a complete fool for trading goaltender Harry Lumley to Chicago immediately after winning the 1950 Cup. The 21-year-old Sawchuk was sensational, playing in every contest, posting 11 shutouts and a goals against average of 1.99.
He narrowly missed out on winning the Vezina trophy, having surrendered just ONE more goal than the Maple Leaf duo of Turk Broda and Al Rollins, though he was well on his way to becoming the face of goaltender during the Original 6 era.
The Wings’ 236 goals was a league-high, a full twenty-four goals ahead of Toronto, and 58 goals ahead of the third highest scoring Boston Bruins. With eleven games to play throughout March, the Wings steamrolled through the rest of the league, going 10-1 in that span to become the first team to ever eclipse 100 regular season points.
Their record of 44-13-13 gave them 101, their third of an eventual seven consecutive 1st place finishes. They were clear favourites to trounce through the postseason and repeat as champions.
The playoff format was as easy as pie to follow; top 4 teams make it, #1 seed plays #3, and #2 plays #4 to determine the final matchup. Detroit drew Montreal, who had only managed a dismal record of 25-30-15 with new shaky goaltender Gerry McNeil replacing the legendary Bill Durnan between the pipes. This is why they play the game.
McNeil, of course, caught fire and kept the Habs in the contest as Howe and Richard duelled to give their team the edge. Richard got the last laugh, slipping one past Sawchuk in the 4th overtime to steal home ice advantage from the Red Wings. In Game 2, lightning struck twice: both McNeil and Sawchuk shut the door through five scoreless periods before Richard again scored the winner, this time in ONLY the 3rd overtime.
A Detroit victory at the Forum allowed them to save face and try to regroup, but a 5-2 Game 4 trouncing put them in a 3-1 series hole, which they’d lose back at the Olympia, thanks to another heroic performance from the Rocket. Both he and Howe scored 4 goals during the series, and the Maple Leafs would come away with the Cup after a truly thrilling series of overtime wins over Montreal two weeks later.
Despite the calamitous upset, the Wings of course tucked their tail between their legs and would go on to win three Cups in the next four seasons, though I’m sure they’d love to play this one back to prove that they rightfully earned the hype from their historic 101-point season of 1950-51.
6) 1979-80 PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
1979 was an extremely important year for the NHL. The amalgamation of the four remaining World Hockey Association teams brought the total to 21 clubs as the 1980s rapidly approached. Bobby Orr had just retired and immediately was enshrined to the Hall of Fame. Gordie Howe was now back in the NHL with the Hartford Whalers because of the merger. Wayne Gretzky was a rookie in the NHL that year too. The Montreal Canadiens were coming off a 4th consecutive championship, though it would be a colossal task to defend with the likes of the Islanders, Bruins and Flyers in hot pursuit.
The 1979-80 Flyers were only four full years removed from their two Stanley Cups in both 1974 and 1975. The ‘Broadstreet Bullies’ seldom used that label to describe themselves anymore, nor did the media. Gone were the likes of Dave ‘the Hammer’ Schultz, Don ‘Big Bird’ Saleski, Orest Kindrachuk, Ross Lonsberry and Bernie Parent, though there were still some brutal barbarians in the mix, such as Mel Bridgman, Paul Holmgren, Bob ‘Houndog’ Kelly, Andre ‘Moose’ Dupont, and Behn Wilson.
Bobby Clarke, Bill Barber, Rick MacLeish, Jimmy Watson, and Reggie Leach were still remaining from their Cup triumphs as well. Clarke was offered the job of assistant coach while still donning his jersey number 16, which required him to surrender his captaincy if he joined the coaching staff. Bridgman wore the ‘C’ instead, though Clarke was still very much a worthy adversary for opponents, scoring 69 points during the regular season, all the while up to his old dirty stick work.
Pat Quinn took over from Bob McCammon midway through the previous season, and his youthful enthusiasm was a refreshing change from the introverted approach Fred Shero was known for during the years of the Bullies. The team very well could have three-peated in 1976, but the finesse of the late 1970s Canadiens was too much for the Bullies to handle, and they were disposed of in the semifinals in both 1977 and 1978 by the Bruins, and then in the 1979 quarter-finals by the Rangers. It was time for a fresh approach.
The Flyers set a record that still stands in all of North American professional sports; going unbeaten in 35 consecutive games. You read that correct, in all of North America! After losing their second game of the season to the Atlanta Flames on October 13th, the Flyers wouldn’t lose another contest until January 7th in a heated affair with the Minnesota North Stars.
In that stretch, they won 25 games, and tied 10. Overtime periods didn’t exist from 1942 until 1983, so who’s to say that the Flyers maybe would have lost a couple if an extra frame was needed. The hell with it though, that’s a damn fine achievement!
Second year centre, Ken Linseman led the team in scoring with 79 points, with six other players cracking the 60-point plateau. Leach had a 50 goal season, Barber scored 40, rookie Brian Propp had 75 points in 80 games, and MacLeish and Holmgren also managed to break 30 goals.
In the net, newly acquired Phil Myre and the wonderfully-named Pete Peeters split duties as evenly as possible, filling the seeming insurmountable void left by Bernie Parent, who suffered a career-ending eye injury just the year before. Peeters wouldn’t lose his first game of the season until February 19 (to the sad-sack, Don Cherry-coached Colorado Rockies of all teams) finishing the season with a record of 29-5-5 after having started the campaign at 22-0-5.
Myre himself went 18-7-15 as the Flyers cruised to the #1 seed in the Campbell Conference (the best in the league), winning the Patrick Division with 14 games to spare with a record of 48-12-20 for 116 points.
The playoff format in 1980 was to completely disregard divisions and conferences, seeding the 16 teams who qualified by the number of points they had accumulated in the regular season. Thus, the Flyers and their #1 seed swept Gretzky’s 16th seed Oilers with haste in the first round, bounced the Rangers in a measure of revenge from the last season in the quarterfinals (Fred Shero was the Rangers coach), conquered the streak-ending North Stars in the semifinals, and then faced the New York Islanders in the Cup finals.
The Islanders had been making some noise the past few seasons, with an exciting roster that featured scoring sensations Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, three-time Norris winner Denis Potvin, and a supporting cast that featured Bob Nystrom, Clark Gillies, John Tonelli, with ‘Battlin’ Billy Smith between the pipes. The Flyers had finished 25 points ahead of the Islanders in the regular season, but once again, the teams that start the fire often run out of gas by the end.
The Islanders stole Game 1 at the Spectrum in overtime, though the Flyers would respond dazzlingly with an 8-3 victory in Game 2. However, two losses on the road put them on the edge of defeat. After a clutch win at home in Game 5, the two teams went into overtime in Game 6 back in Long Island.
The famous Dan Kelly call on CBS “right on the stick of Tonelli…. Coming in with Nystrom. Tonelli, to Nystrom, HE SCORES!” ended the Flyers historic season, and the Islanders would win another three consecutive Cups to begin the 1980s. The Flyers haven’t won the Cup since 1975, though six consecutive losses in the finals should mean something for trying, right?
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2 WHICH FEATURE THE #5 THROUGH #1 PICKS!