Hockey's Historic Highlights

Hockey's Cinderella Teams

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand


Hockey's Cinderella Teams

Posted October 07, 2018

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St. Louis Blues

Following the United States’ startling upset victory over the USSR in the 1980 Olympics, this Gold Medal triumph was tagged “Miracle on Ice”. Among other tributes paid to this collection of college students and amateurs were these: “….the greatest sports moment of the Century”, and, “The greatest upset in sports history!”

      To be sure, it was an amazing accomplishment, when one recognises the strength of the mighty red machine, rife with experience and the advantage of being moulded into a fine-tuned unit of skilful athletes. “Boys against men” was the way one commentator put it. Granted, 16 of them did make it to the NHL—Neil Broten, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsay, and Mark Johnson being the best known. Still, not an All-Star, Trophy winner, or Hall of Famer among them.

    But 38 years later, another collection of comparatively unknown skaters made similar headlines.  Simon Small wrote: “Some have christened them the most successful expansion franchise in American sporting history!” He was speaking, of course, of the NHL’s, first-year Las Vegas Golden Knights

   Another shinny scribe declared: “The Vegas Golden Knights are the story of the year—the story of any year you can name!”

    And, “They have a winning percentage in excess of all expansion teams in the four major sporting leagues—NHL, NFL, NBA, and NBA!”

   Ryan Kennedy echoed these sentiments with: “The Stanley Cup Final pitted the best expansion team of all-time……”

   They cleaned up in their own Pacific Division, ending in first place. They were fifth in team scoring among all 31 teams. The most games they lost in a row was three—duplicating the same number in the playoffs, before running into the brick wall called the Washington Capitals.

   Can you picture the champion Washington Capitals without Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Holtby; the previous season’s Pittsburgh Penguins without Malkin, Crosby, and Kessel; the 1970 Bruins climb to fame in 1970 without Orr, Esposito and Bucyk; or the Canadien’s four Cups in a row without Shutt, Lafleur, and Savard? Yet, the only “name brand” competitor on the Golden Knights roster was Marc-Andre Fleury.  Add to that, how did their “no name” defense corps ward off the best snipers in the league?  As one journalist put it: “GM’s around the league are still scratching their heads trying to figure out how a group of castoffs, or ‘Golden misfits’, as they called themselves… made it to the Stanley Cup final…”

     That tag, “a bunch of castoffs”, or, “unwanted and unappreciated by their previous teams” — or similar — appeared in printed descriptions over and over again. Highly-regarded Ken Campbell of the Hockey News previewed their yet-to-begin campaign with: “The shiny new Vegas Golden Knights are destined to follow the footsteps of recent NHL expansion cousins. Early excitement will transform into empty seats!”

     Even the team’s management were pessimistic.  Owner Bill Long admitted “We didn’t think they could win like this for another few years”. Coach  Gerrard Gallant agreed: “Let’s face it. We started the season and there was no expectation for our hockey club!”

   To gain first place in their division—to make a shambles of their opposition in the playoffs—and to come within an ace of copping Lord Stanley’s silver chalice, demands they be classified as a “Cinderella sextet”.

     One definition of a “Cinderella team” in sports is: “having greater success than was reasonably expected”. Or, as one scribe put it rather crudely: “An underdog becoming a top cat!”

    A quick tour of the information highway (alias “Google”) reveals several lists of such overachievers.  But, like choosing the best player of all time, those choices cannot fail to involve a certain amount of subjectivity. “Grapes” coached Bobby Orr, and saw in him qualities that other admirers had no opportunity to see; Peter Pocklington would join with countless others to name Wayne Gretzky as numero uno; and, some old timers would hold fast to the opinion that, hands down, Gordie Howe has had no peers.

  For instance, Jeremy Wiebe insists that the 1981-82 Vancouver Canucks be included in a number of lists of Cinderella sextets.  He points out that, up until that post-season; they had failed to win a single playoff series in 11 years. But that scenario changed in the spring of 1982. They eliminated Calgary and Los Angeles in the preliminary rounds, only to face Chicago in the semi -finals. In that famous towel-waving saga, fostered by Coach Roger Neilson’s unique “we surrender” to bad officiating, they took the improving Blackhawks in five games. Only the two-time Cup winning Islanders stood in their way of capturing the game’s holy grail.  

   The 1990-91 Minnesota North Stars were huge underdogs going into the playoff that season. In fact, author Don Weekes used the precise term, “Cinderella performance” to describe their post-season success.

  They came out of a deep sleep halfway through the regular season to gain a spot in the countdown to glory. They first met the Blackhawks who had finished 38 points better in the final standings. But still on a roll from their miraculous recovery, they took care of the Windy City gang in 6 games.

  St. Louis was their next foe. They had a 37point advantage as this confrontation got under way. But it meant nothing to the charging green machine. They too fell before their determined conquest. The Oilers were waiting in the wings to challenge them next. But they were victims as to the Twin City “on-a-roll” momentum.  But the Mario Lemieux –led Penguins were different story. The series closed out in Pittsburgh’s favour, who nailed their aspirations to the wall with a 8-0 rout in the final match.  But they surely had to be given an “E” for “effort!    

   No such missive could be complete without mentioning the four teams who found themselves down 3-0 in games, yet came storming back to win their post-season series 4 games to 3. The initial accomplishment of this kind (and the only one to involve the Cup Final) pitted the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings. That was in 1942. In 1975, the New York Islanders pulled off a comeback second to none, by staking the Penguins to that seemingly impossible advantage, before lowering the boom.  35 years later, the Philly Flyers did the same thing to the Boston Bruins. And, finally, only four seasons ago, the Kings from Los Angeles knocked the San Jose Sharks off the pedestal into a humiliating defeat.

    But there have been others, over the course of the world’s premier ice circuit’s 101 seasons, who have also accomplished triumph in this memorable fashion. Some have excelled in their initial kick at the can—but claiming the mythical sweetheart’s title is not limited to that scenario. 

    Boston and the Montreal Maroons were the first true NHL expansion clubs, being added to the fold in the for 1924-25 campaign. Hamilton was simply a matter of Quebec changing venues—and the New York Americans made the aggregation’s second move—from the Steel City to the Big Apple. Typically, the Bruins finished at the bottom of the pile, winning only six games. The Mount Royal City’s second team did little better, accumulating 20 points as opposed to Beantown’s 12.

   The Pittsburgh Pirates came upon the scene a year later. Essentially their line-up was made up of the players of the former amateur Pittsburgh Yellow Jackets, who were champions of the USAHA. NHL President Frank Calder granted a franchise in order to block Eddie Livingstone’s plan to found an opposition loop, with this city as a location of one of the squads. They were tagged the “Mighty Steel City Sextet”. They did well, making the post-season their very first season.

   But it was really the Montreal Maroons who deserve the initial NHL “Cinderella” compliment. Combining the experience of some former NHA veterans and the enthusiasm of some high-end amateurs, James Strachan assembled a formidable sextet, spending money freely to ensure giving the incumbents a run for their money. Clint Benedict and Reg Noble represented the former, while “Hooley” Smith and Dunc Monroe were part of the latter contingent.  Cecil Hart took up the coaching reigns.

  1925-26 was their sophomore year. That’s when they showed their stuff.  They finished second to Ottawa, eliminated Pittsburgh in the semi-finals, before sending the Senators packing in the NHL Final. They then disposed of the PCHA’s Victoria Cougars 3 games to 1, to claim the Stanley Cup Championship. Not bad for a second-year outfit.

   Essentially the newly-formed New York Rangers imitated the Maroons—except they went one step further. In their first campaign they finished first in the American Division, but succumbed to Boston in the semi-finals. But in 1927-28 they went all the way to the winner’s circle—World Champions. Although finishing second to Boston in their division, they overpowered them 5 goals to 2 in the two-game, total-goals series, after sending Pittsburgh packing in their initial post-season encounter. The Maroons were their final obstacle to Stanley Cup victory—and they whipped them 3 games to 2 to cart off the coveted trophy. Even though he failed to gain the credit for his efforts, Conn Smythe’s savvy, in building a solid aggregation of pucksters, paid off in short order.

   The 1933-34 Chicago Blackhawks were the next to overcome the underdog tag. They did finish with an above-.500 record in the American Division; but didn’t set the loop on fire either. In fact, they finished 10 points behind the league-leading Maple Leafs. Stanley Cup favourites they were not. They disposed of the Canadiens and the Maroons in two-game, total goal series. But then faced a huge hurdle—the Detroit Red Wings. Not only had the Motor City six sent the favourites from Toronto packing, but the Windy City crew had not won a game in Detroit for over four years. Unbelievably they took the first two contests at the Olympia. Only a heroic effort by Wilf Cude prevented them from taking the series in three straight. 

   Meanwhile, Chicago’s magician between the pipes, Chuck Gardiner was shattered emotionally by the loss of game three. Even though they sent him on a brief “vacation” to recover, there was doubt he would be up for game four.  When game time arrived he was in his usual slot in the crease. What most people didn’t realize was that he was a sick man, suffering from tonsillitis. He had spent the previous night in the hospital, and stubbornly insisted on strapping on the big pads for the crucial April 10 match. He challenged his mates to “just get one goal and I’ll take care of the rest”. Although barely able to stand he thwarted every attempt the Wings made to bulge the twine. And mid-way through the second extra frame little “Mush” March blasted a drive by the tired Wilf Cude. The 3-1 series triumph and their first franchise Stanley Cup was in the bag! A few weeks later Gardiner passed away.

   The 1942 version of the Maple Leafs have already been profiled. And, to be sure, the last time the Buds carted off all the marbles, in 1967, falls into the “believe it or not” category of accomplishments. The “over the hill gang”, whose average age was 31, were hardly favourites to go to the finish line in the spring when the “Original 6” monopoly  concluded its 24-year history. The dean of hockey writers, Red Fisher, predicted that the rampaging Canadiens would take the series in five games. When the Queen City contingent turned the tables and won it in six, calling it “The Last Hurrah”, as Stephen Cole did, was right on target.

   Yet there are many of the game’s icons who insist that it was the 1944-45 Blue and White who represent this club’s premier coup de grace. Missing the trio of Turk Broda, Syl Apps, and Gordie Drillon, who were still in this country’s armed services, they were not given much of a chance against the mighty Canadiens, called by Frank Selke Sr. “the greatest Hab team of all time”.  William Houston referred to them as “undermanned and not supposed to win”.

   But Coach “Hap” Day used three lines against the Canadien’s four to his best advantage.  Their “breath of fresh air” was manifest in Nick Metz and Wally Stanowski having been released from the armed forces, and Frank “Ulcers” McCool’s rising to the occasion—continuing the goaltending brilliance that won him the Calder Trophy. Add to that the star performance of 19-year-old “Teeder” Kennedy, and the winning formula was in place. They shocked the Flying Frenchmen in six games earning them the right to face the second-place Red Wings, who finished 15 points ahead of them. 

    It was almost a repeat of 1942. The Leafs won the first three tilts—but lost the next three. In game seven the score was knotted 1-1 in the third frame when a bouncing puck ended up on “Babe” Pratt’s stick. In the blink of an eye it hit the back of the cage behind Harry Lumley, and the fat was in the fire.

  1967-68 was a milestone season for the world’s premier circuit. Expanding to twice its size, it started the ball rolling, which continues to add franchises with regularity. It is difficult not to give the St. Louis Blues a bucket full of brownie points for success in their preliminary season.  Two wins over the final weekend of the ’67-’68 regular season play enabled them to squeeze into the post-season. They notched third spot in the standings, which pitted them against the first-place Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs.  While it took them the full seven games, they prevailed—with the North Stars their next opponent.  Four of those seven contests went into overtime—including the final win, a 1-0 squeaker.

   The rampaging Montreal Canadiens, champions of the established Eastern Conference were waiting—more than ready to teach these novice upstarts a lesson or two in how the game is played.  They did! But it was no cake walk! While they swept the final series 4 games to 0, each match was won by a single tally—two of the games going into overtime. “Red” Berenson set the pace offensively. But it was really the sensational netminding of Glenn Hall which stole the show. This writer has never seen a goaltending performance to match it. Even though his Blues lost the tournament, he was rightfully awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, emblematic of the most worthy player in the post-season.

   Without a doubt there will be many SIHR members who will disagree with these subjective choices. Others will rightly point out that “he missed that obvious one!”  Regardless, we would be remiss not to include in this collection of “have nots”, the 1970-71 Montreal Canadiens. Finishing 24 points behind the powerhouse Boston Bruins, they were accurately tagged “underdogs” before the series got underway against Bobby Orr and company. But, when the smoke had cleared, these weak sisters had prevailed in the full compliment of seven games.

   The Mnnesota Northstars gave them a run for their money, but ran out of gas after they had knotted the series two games each.  That left the Chicago Blackhawks, first-place finishers in the Western Conference.  Once more it looked to be an uphill battle when the Windy City gang took the first two contests, leaving them down two games to none. But, once again, the guardian of the twine—this time in the person of rookie Ken Dryden—rose to the occasion, with a Conn Smythe Trophy performance. The Mahovlich brothers played their best, collecting key goals. This 16th (NHL) Cup triumph appropriately was celebrated with the retirement of the eminent Jean Beliveau, as he concluded his 20th NHL campaign.

  In the current SEASON PREVIEW issue of the Hockey News, the odds of being World Champions in the spring of 2019 are listed for the 31 existing NHL clubs—all the way from 100/1 to 6/1. Should Winnipeg (rated 6/1), or Tampa Bay (rated 7/1) be the last team standing next June, few would do a double take. But there would be a landslide of eyes popping if Ottawa (rated 100/1) managed to pull off a Vegas-type metamorphosis, and win it all. Buffalo could rightly start wearing a Cinderella shoulder patch with a capital “C” in bold print if those Sabres (rated 75/1) were to pull a rabbit-out-of-the-hat climb to the top. If Columbus, etched in at 25/1 managed the hockey upset of the year, it would be headline material. Yes, even in Boston, who are given a 10/1 chance, should prevail it would warrant being added to the above list of over-achievers. 

   Such ratings are made of the same material as outright predictions. Like prognostications about the 

kind of winter we will face—the only proof positive is in the spring—as always—in the past tense!

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