THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: Can They Win it All?

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11/03/2009 10:19 AM - By Chad Huebner

As expected, I watch a lot of TV about hockey. The NHL Network provides most of what I need in terms of a history lesson on the sport, and what I can’t find there I find in books. (You know, the things with a bunch of pages glued together that have words on them that form sentences? It’s a dying art, but it still comes in handy from time to time.) And there’s the internet, which is nice. Such exposure brings about certain questions I may not have readily-available answers to. One such question that nags me, and which I will attempt to answer in this column, is: Can certain teams win another championship? I’ve certainly heard about and seen the great years of certain teams, like the Edmonton Oilers or the Montreal Canadiens. I’ve certainly read about how good the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers were in the 70s, or how the Toronto Maple Leafs had a pretty good run to end the Original Six/Pre-Expansion Era. But it’s been quite a while since any of those clubs have hoisted the Stanley Cup at the end of a year. Will we ever see them win again? Do we even care?

I’ve only focused on teams that have actually won the Cup at least twice in their history, so a team like the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Calgary Flames (20 years since the magnificent mustachioed Lanny McDonald held Lord Stanley’s trophy aloft. . . seems like it happened yesterday) are left out.

MONTREAL CANADIENS
Last time they won it all: 1993 vs. the Los Angeles Kings in five games
Can they win it again?  The last Canadian team to win it all can’t seem to move themselves out of Patrick Roy’s shadow. Yes, he was brash and a bit reckless at times, but he was money in the postseason. Unfortunately, it seems that whenever the Canadiens get a gift from God, the fans and the media are so critical to the point where it’s almost insane. Win a game and they’ll fall back over themselves to shine your skates. Lose once, and they’re ready with a lynch mob at a moment’s notice. I guess having such greatness for so long, you expect the Canadiens to win every game every year. Hey, even the Richards and Beliveaus and Drydens and Plantes and Insert-Your-Own-Canadien-Legend-Here lost once in awhile. One wonders where they’d be had they at least kept Jose Theodore and Cristobal Huet as backups to the young protégé Cary Price. You could say that like with any Canadian team, they can’t really afford the most expensive free agents. Fine, whatever. But the old Canadiens were built primarily through the draft. Granted, the Habs don’t have a monopoly on talent (could have been considered illegal by today’s standards) from Quebec and such surrounding regions, but there has to be some way of finding another Crosby or Lemieux or even Rogie Vachon (I just wanted to include him in this discussion, partly because he has such a cool hockey name). They can win it again, it’ll just take time. No, scratch that, they have to win it again, because it might eventually mean the slow death of professional hockey from Canada as we know it.

BOSTON BRUINS
Last time they won it all: 1972 vs. the New York Rangers in six games
Can they win it again? Yes. Will it happen anytime soon? I thought it would happen last season, when they had the second best record in the league. But they couldn’t make it past the Carolina Hurricanes, so we were deprived of a juicy matchup between the Bruins and the Penguins. But hey, maybe it’s all part of some sort of Boston curse. . .  I can’t fathom where I came up with that conspiracy theory. Still, it’s gotta be a little strange that the Bruins haven’t won the Cup since the Bobby Orr Era. Yes, there were more opportunities for the Bruins to win again, but a couple came up against the Canadiens dynamo of the late 70s, and there was that one time in 1990 against the team mentioned after this one, and well, the Bruins are going on nearly 40 years without touching the Cup again. They’re slow coming out of the gate this season, but this might be a good test for a team that could almost do no wrong a year ago. I expect a Bruin to be carrying the Cup that’s actually playing for the Bruins and not a beloved star who moved on to a better team to garner the glory (I don’t think I have to name who that is here).

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Last time they won it all: 1975 vs. the Buffalo Sabres in six games
Can they win it again? It’s not like they haven’t tried. Since their back-to-back Cups in 1974 and 1975, the Flyers have made the Conference Finals six times and the Cup Finals five times, and have come up bupkiss every time. They’re usually known as The Team That Loses to The Team That Wins it All. They’ve taken on the likes of the 70s Canadiens, the 80s Islanders, the 80s Oilers and the 90s and 00s Penguins, which were all dynasty teams. They’re always a sure shot to make the playoffs, but for one thing or another, be it lack of goaltending or lack of physical play, something always holds the Flyers back from any glory. Here’s a team that constantly wins, yet comes up short in the playoffs every time, like the Buffalo Bills of the 90s or the Atlanta Braves of the 90s (at least they finally won once). They should be commended for a level of excellence few teams, including some of the ones listed here, have reached on a consistent basis. They go out and get some primo free agents, but there always seems to be an unresolved issue that does the Flyers in the end. What’s worse: being the fan of a team that never wins anything, or the fan of a team that succeeds in the regular season, but sucks in the postseason? That is an eternal question, grasshopper. Let’s just say that the Flyers can win it all next year, or every other year after that. That’ll cover people who pick for and against them.

EDMONTON OILERS
Last time they won it all: 1990 vs. the Boston Bruins in five games
Can they win it again? The 1990 team showed that it could win the big one without The Great One. But then they bowed out of the 1991 Campbell Conference Finals to a sub-.500 Minnesota North Stars team, and they haven’t been the same invincible team since. Oh sure, there was that stretch in the late 90s when they kept upsetting the top playoff seeds, but those sweet moments were the only ones, at least until 2006, when they made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup. That 2006 team was wonderful publicity for the NHL as it dug its way out from under the Lockout Season in that yes, a team from Canada can at least make it all the way to the Finals. Other than that, who were the Oilers kidding? Three straight seasons of no playoffs led to head coach Craig MacTavish being canned prior to this season and replaced by Tom Renney (the guy who led the New York Rangers back to the playoffs and not much else). The addition of Blackhawk fan favorite of the 2008-09 season, Nikolai Khabibulin, gives the Oilers some stability in goal, which has been a sticking point for the Oilers since the Grant Fuhr-Andy Moog days, but the defense is lacking a Chris Pronger-type of player (oh wait a second, the Oilers had him for a year before he bailed on them). Winning it all? I’m just hoping they’ll make the playoffs. Without having the necessary monetary resources to snag a top-line free agent, the Oilers will have to be very creative and very patient with its younger players. This will be the last time I say that sentence, as it will be implied for the next team.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Last time they won it all: 1967 vs. the Montreal Canadiens in six games
Can they win it again? I could go into numerous references as to what was happening in 1967, but I think you get the idea that it’s been a very, very, VERY long time for one of the Original Six’s storied franchises. Hard to believe, but the Maple Leafs were pretty powerful in their time. The Montreal Canadiens won more championships, but they were always battling the Maple Leafs in terms of popularity. In fact, during the Original Six Era (1942-67) these were the only two Canadian teams a fan could root for. But after 1967, the Leafs stars got old in a hurry and retired or were traded, and even though the Leafs had some prominent stars in the 70s (a decade marked by expansion in the NHL and the WHA), they couldn’t make it past the first round. Then Harold Ballard bought the team and everything went right into the crapper in the 80s. The Leafs managed to come back slowly and surely in the early 90s, even going as far as the Campbell Conference Finals before bowing out to the Gretzky-led L.A. Kings, who would eventually lose to the Canadiens (which was their last championship and part of the reason why I’m writing all of this in the first place). Aside from winning three consecutive series from the Ottawa Senators in the late 90s, early 00s, not much has gone right for the Maple Leafs in the post-Lockout Era, narrowly missing a playoff spot for four years running. Currently, they’re dead last in the league at 1-7-4, so no; they’re not going to win it all this year. Maybe if they stick with coach Ron Wilson beyond this season, they’ll get somewhere. Everywhere he’s coached, his teams have eventually made the playoffs on some sort of consistent basis, with his high point coming in 1997-98, when the Washington Capitals came out of nowhere to find themselves in the Cup Finals. Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs have been bad for so long, does anyone outside of Maple Leaf Nation (which extends way beyond Ontario) care if they win again?

NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Last time they won it all: 1983 vs. the Edmonton Oilers in four games
Can they win it again? Yeah, that’s right, once upon a time, when a Hollywood actor was President of the United States and Iraq was our “friends”, the Islanders won one. Heck, they won four in a row. In a time when we get giddy when any team in any of the major sports repeats as champions, the Islanders were the last team to win at least three championships in a row. Some will argue that the talent level of the 70s and 80s can’t hold a candle to what is presented in a nightly basis in the NHL today, but being that good in any era deserves a huge amount of recognition. Besides, it’s not like the Islanders could help the other teams from sucking so badly. But since those halcyon days, it’s been quite a few dark years for the third team in the “New York-area Triangle.” The Islanders had their own version of “improbable playoff run” in 1993, when a .518 team made it all the way to the Conference Finals (1993 comes up again! There must be something supernatural about that year). But mismanagement, first by GM Don Maloney and then by GM-No, Head Coach-No, GM-No, Head Coach Mike Milbury, which doomed the Islanders to six straight non-playoff seasons and a very bad-looking uniform (I could go for a Mrs. Gorton’s Fish Stick right now). They made it back to the playoffs, but then the Lockout hit, and the Islanders have only made it once to the postseason in four tries. They’re actually tied with the Philadelphia Flyers and Boston Bruins for the eighth playoff spot in the East, but it’s a very long season. Still, winning the John Tavares could lead to the Islanders cultivating a young nucleus of talent that can compete and possibly dominate in five years, kinda like the Pittsburgh Penguins or, I dunno, how about the. . .

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
Last time they won it all: 1961 vs. the Detroit Red Wings in six games
Can they win it again? They’re only second in the Second City in terms of pain and suffering. It’s sometimes hard to fathom, even by ‘Hawks fans, that this team in fact won this trophy once upon a time. I barely remember their Cup run in 1992, where they were swept on home ice against the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins, mostly because the Chicago Bulls were surging toward their second title in a row. The ‘Hawks have had their chances-the 1986 Conference Finals, the 1990-91 season-but they all crumbled. And then the ‘Hawks started playing really badly; making the playoffs only once in a ten-year span, and it didn’t seem like the ownership cared. No, correction, the ownership didn’t care, as long as they made money hand over fist. Their penny-pinching techniques, however legendary, weren’t uncommon with Chicago sports. Anytime the ‘Hawks had a legitimate star player on their hands, they seemed more than eager to let said player go somewhere else for a handful of pucks, sometimes maybe even for a hockey net, but that was pretty much it. It’s hard to say in polite company that someone can benefit from someone kicking the bucket, but that’s what happened to the ‘Hawks when “Dollar Bill” Wirtz finally moved on to terrorize some sad-sap team on some ethereal plane last year. Since then, it’s been as dramatic a turnaround as when the Cleveland Indians hired Lou Brown to manage their team. Yeah, I know, that was only a movie, but you get the idea. Anyway, last year’s playoff performance has ‘Hawks fans actually thinking that, dammit, this team can win it all. Yes, Chicago sports fans start every year with hope, which quickly withers and dies by the middle of the season, if not the playoffs. But hope is a renewable quality. And so the ‘Hawks will win it all. But not this year. Let’s look to next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, and. . .

Oh yeah, one more thing.
Just got an e-mail from Philip Painter. Who? He’s the Director of the Puerto Rican Ice Hockey Federation. The what? Yep, there is such a thing, and I believe I wrote about the NHL having a preseason game down there back before the 2006 season. Since then, Philip has been trying to get a national program off the ground, and has two nice ice arenas to show for it. But as with anything, government seems to step in and screw everything up. Well, he sent me a link to an article on Yahoo! Talking about his five reasons why he likes hockey: http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/Five-Reasons-Why-Philip-Painter-Director-of-the?urn=nhl,199429

Just looking at the picture of the, umm, “ref”, I find it hard to believe that we can’t drum up enough interest to get something started in P.R. If we can have Jamaican bobsledders, we can almost certainly have Puerto Rican hockey players.

Remember; e-mail me at chadhuebner1972@yahoo.com for anything on your mind. Best responses and/or questions will be answered publicly.





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