The Heavyweight Belt of NHL RivalriesBrian Bahr/Getty Images/NHLI
The Championship Belt is one of my favorite recurring Grantland features, having covered everything from NFL quarterbacks to MLB pitchers to action movie heroes. But we’ve never broken it out for hockey, even though it feels like a natural for the sport. That ends today. After all, it’s the offseason, which is one of the times during the year that hockey fans like to argue with each other.1
But for what? We could go with the obvious, like handing out a championship belt for the best player or top goaltender, or maybe best team. We could even do the championship belt of the actual pugilists, from Dave Schultz to Bob Probert and beyond. In fact, let’s be honest, we’re absolutely going to do that last one someday. But that day is not today.
No, today we’re going to crank up the degree of difficulty with something a little trickier: the heavyweight belt of NHL rivalries. Hockey has always been made for inspiring hatred between teams; it’s practically why the game was invented. But at any given time in league history, which one rivalry reigned supreme?
First, a few ground rules. We’re looking for rivalries between teams — there’s no individual category here. We’re also limiting this to NHL rivalries, so we won’t be including international rivalries like Russia vs. Team USA, Russia vs. Canada, and Canada vs. Sad Americans Getting Silver Medals.
So what makes a rivalry? This being hockey, bad blood will obviously be a key factor, but it’s not the only one. We’re looking for some staying power — one random brawl won’t be enough to earn the crown — and the stakes matter, too. Two teams may hate each other, but if all they’re fighting over is last place in their division, it’s probably not much of a rivalry. Finally, we’ll invoke what we can call the Ric Flair rule — to be the man, you have to beat the man, so in the case of any close calls, the reigning champ keeps the belt.
Sound good? Then, as legendary enforcer Dave Semenko would say, let’s go for a canoe ride. Anyone want to help set the mood? Ah, yes, I see we have a volunteer.
Thanks, Tie. Let’s head back a few decades, and start at the beginning.
The Original Six era: Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs
Two key points here. The first is that this is a fairly easy call, since the Leafs and Habs were the two best teams of the era. They combined for the most Stanley Cups, they met in the most finals, and they had the best regular-season records. In a six-team league where everyone is a rival to some degree, this is the one that always stood out.
The second point is that, somewhat surprisingly, this is the last time we’ll see this particular combination show up on our list. While the Leafs-Habs rivalry is to this day considered by many to be the greatest in hockey, that’s almost entirely based on history and their rabid fan bases, as opposed to anything that’s happened on the ice. That’s largely because the teams last met in the playoffs in the ’70s, and then spent almost two decades in different conferences, not to mention that the Leafs have been terrible for much of the past 35 years. They nearly met in the Stanley Cup final in 1993, which would have been insane, but it didn’t happen, and despite some recent near misses they’ve yet to meet in the playoffs since. If they ever did, they would probably take the belt back by default, but that’s a debate for another day.
Leafs-Habs will always be an important rivalry, even if it’s just simmering under the surface, and a Saturday matchup between the teams should be on every fan’s bucket list. But if it’s still considered the greatest in the sport, that’s more out of force of habit than anything, which is why the belt won’t be returning here in the post-1967 world.
Runners-up: Wings vs. Hawks, Habs vs. Bruins, and the other 12 rivalries that were even possible in a six-team league.
1968-1973: Bruins vs. Canadiens
Now here’s an Original Six rivalry that didn’t miss a beat once expansion arrived. These teams combined to win each of the first six Stanley Cups of the post-expansion era. The first three of those were anticlimactic; thanks to the league’s ridiculous decision to put all six expansion teams into one division and guarantee one a berth in the final, Montreal and Boston got to take turns stomping the overmatched Blues from 1968 to 1970.
When they weren’t rolling the Blues, they were often facing each other in the playoffs, with the Canadiens winning all three matchups during this era. The best of those came in 1971, a seven-game classic that featured Montreal’s memorable comeback win after trailing 5-1 in Game 2.
Runners-up: Canadiens vs. Black Hawks,2 Blues vs. North Stars, the NHL’s divisional formatting vs. common sense.
1974-76: Flyers vs. Rangers
You couldn’t do a list like this without prominently featuring the Broad Street Bullies. The question is who to pair them with, given the Flyers were hated by just about every team in the league (and even beyond). In fact, it’s tempting to just say “Flyers vs. Everybody” and be done with it.
But that feels like a cop-out, so let’s give the other spot to the Rangers, the team that came closest to derailing the Flyers during their back-to-back Cup-winning years in 1974 and 1975. That came in the 1974 semifinal, when the teams met in a seven-game classic in which the home team won each game, and which featured enough animosity that even dropping the puck for a simple faceoff ended up being an adventure.
Runners-up: But seriously, the Flyers vs. Everybody.
1977-79: Bruins vs. Canadiens
Boston and Montreal regain the title thanks to a pair of meetings in the Stanley Cup final, both won by Montreal. But perhaps the most famous moment of the rivalry’s long history comes in 1979, when the teams met in the semifinal (with a slam-dunk finals matchup against the Rangers awaiting the winner) and played one of the most famous Game 7s the league has ever seen.
Runners-up: Rangers vs. Islanders, which was just getting started. Speaking of which …
1980-82: Rangers vs. Islanders
This is one of those classic rivalries that has to find its way onto our list somewhere. While the teams had been division rivals since the Islanders entered the league in 1972, and had met in the playoffs for the first time in 1975, the rivalry as we know it didn’t really begin until 1979. That was the year Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin broke the ankle of Rangers forward Ulf Nilsson, all but ending the latter’s career as a productive NHLer and leading to the introduction of perhaps the most famous chant in NHL history: “Potvin sucks.”
The teams faced each other in the playoffs that season, with the Rangers winning in six. That would be the last series the Islanders lost for almost five full years, as they launched into a dynasty that saw them win four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983. Along the way, they faced (and beat) the Rangers every year from 1981 to 1984. That was the last time the Isles would beat the Rangers in the playoffs, although their fans would still get another decade of use out of the withering “1940” chant.
Runners-up: Canadiens vs. Nordiques, Flyers vs. Whalers vs. fashion sense.
1983-84: Oilers vs. Islanders
We won’t be seeing many interdivisional rivalries on our list, but it’s hard not to find a spot for the Islanders and Oilers. For two years, the teams were basically the archetype of that beloved sports cliché: the grizzled veterans who know how to win vs. the cocky kids who still needed to figure it out. The Islanders played the former role, sweeping Edmonton in the 1983 final to win their fourth straight Cup. Legend has it that young Oilers like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier walked by the Islanders dressing room after the final game, saw how beaten up they were, and only then finally realized the kind of sacrifices they’d need to make to win a Cup of their own someday. That story probably isn’t true, but it’s cool and hockey fans love it.
The teams met again in the 1984 final, and this time it was the Oilers who came out on top, snapping the Islanders’ mind-boggling streak of 19 straight playoff series wins in what would serve as a classic passing-of-the-torch moment between the league’s last two great dynasties.
Runners-up: Canadiens vs. Nordiques, Oilers vs. Flames, Islanders vs. Rangers.
1985: Canadiens vs. Nordiques
The surprise here isn’t that the Battle of Quebec makes the list, but that it holds the title for only one year. You could make a strong case it deserves more, and I’d have a hard time arguing with you, especially since the rivalry’s most famous moment actually came during the 1984 playoffs.
That brawl, dubbed the Good Friday Massacre, came in the final game of the division final and made it clear that the Nords and Habs were hockey’s top rivalry heading into the 1984-85 season. The division rivals would play each other eight times in the regular season, then meet in the Adams final for the second straight year. This time, it was the Nordiques who won the series, taking Game 7 on Peter Stastny’s overtime winner.
The rivalry continued through 1995, when the Nordiques moved to Colorado. Based on recent events, a rebirth could be on the way.
Runners-up: Jets vs. Flames.
1986-88: Oilers vs. Flames
The Battle of Alberta was born in 1980, when the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary. The Oilers were quickly developing into the league’s next unstoppable force, making those back-to-back trips to the final in 1983 and 1984. Both years, they had to get past the Flames to do it; that was a relatively easy task in 1983, but in 1984 it took seven games, by far the toughest obstacle the Oilers would encounter on their way to the franchise’s first Cup.
By 1986, the dynamic had been clearly established: The Oilers were the dynasty, a near-unstoppable juggernaut. The Flames were almost there, quite possibly the league’s second-best team, just waiting in the wings for their chance to dethrone their provincial rivals. If anyone could beat the Oilers, the thinking went, it would be the Flames. We just weren’t sure anyone actually could.
And then came the 1986 playoffs, another meeting in the division final, another seven-game classic … and a stunning ending in the dying minutes of regulation.
The Flames would go on to the final that year but lost to the Canadiens. The Oilers won the next two Cups before the Flames finally broke through in 1989. Along the way, the teams exchanged plenty of punches and more than a few NSFW words.
Runners-up: While I can’t find a way to bump the Oilers and Flames out of the top spot, I feel like we need to take a moment to recognize the sheer madness of the 1987 Canadiens and Flyers, who managed to turn a harmless pregame superstition into a reason to brawl before the game had even begun.
1989-90: Kings vs. Oilers
Unlike most of its contemporaries, this rivalry wasn’t built on bad blood (although it had its fair share of that, too). Instead, it was born from the biggest trade in league history, the move that sent Gretzky to L.A. in 1988 and shifted the balance of power in the league in ways that are still being felt. As such, it came to represent what would become the era’s defining battle, the tug-of-war between old school and new beginnings.
From the moment the deal was made, the hockey gods seemed intent on making sure the teams were paired up as often as possible. They met in Edmonton on the night that Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s all-time scoring record, and they faced each other in the playoffs in each of the first four years after the trade.
Runners-up: In a stunning upset, we’ve managed to make it all the way through the 1980s without a single Norris Division rivalry holding the title. It’s not for lack of contenders, ranging from heated to ugly to downright bizarre; if anything, the Norris was just too crazy to ever produce one defining rivalry. When all five true Norris teams — that would be the Wings, Hawks, Leafs, Stars, and Blues — hate each other and take pretty much every opportunity to show it, how do you pick just one rivalry? Still, I feel like we have to start showing the Norris some love, and the early ’90s offer up an opportunity to do just that.
1991: Blackhawks vs. Blues
I could justify this choice by telling you about the five playoff meetings in six years, stretching from 1988 to 1993. I could mention the season-long battle for the Presidents’ Trophy in 1991. I could try to explain the whole Scott Stevens vs. Dave (Charlie) Manson feud. I could even try to paint a picture of how awesome the old Chicago Stadium was, and how the noise and the organ and the camera angles made even a minor skirmish feel like a WWE PPV.
Or, I could just show you the St. Patrick’s Day Massacre.
Runners-up: This was peak Norris, so you could pick pretty much any other combination of teams from the division and make a pretty good case. But meanwhile, one moment from a 1991 playoff game was about to temporarily steal the spotlight.
1992: Bruins vs. Penguins
Another rare interdivisional rivalry makes an appearance. The Bruins and Penguins have a long history together and always seem to find a way to show up on each other’s radars every few years. Still, there was nothing especially remarkable about the rivalry when the teams met in the playoffs in 1991. One cheap hit changed that quickly.
The hit didn’t end Cam Neely’s career — that’s a common myth — but it was unquestionably dirty and launched the Bruins into revenge mode for the next two years. The teams met again in the playoffs in 1992, but it wasn’t until the following season when Neely finally got his chance at revenge. Ulf Samuelsson turtled, Neely was ejected, and the rivalry as we knew it went out with a whimper.
Runners-up: Rangers vs. Penguins (this was the year Adam Graves broke Mario Lemieux’s wrist). Also, Red Wings vs. Blues, Leafs vs. Blackhawks … really, the Norris Division was pretty much out of control by this point.
1993: Red Wings vs. Maple Leafs
The 1992-93 season is quite possibly the greatest in NHL history, featuring everything from Mario Lemieux’s cancer comeback to Teemu Selanne’s record season to the debut of Eric Lindros to the infamous Probert vs. Domi rematch. The playoffs were somehow even better, serving up classic rivalries like Habs/Nords and Blues/Hawks, plus classic moments like the May Day goal, David freaking Volek, and [crumples up restraining order] Kerry Fraser.
All of which is to say that picking a top rivalry for 1993 is all but impossible, and you could make a case for just about anyone. But I’ll dip back into the Norris one last time for what may admittedly be a bit of a homer pick. The Leafs and Wings rivalry had been simmering for the better part of a decade, and it flared up in December when Probert’s long-awaited return to Canada3 featured a pair of bouts with beloved Leafs captain Wendel Clark. They followed that up with a playoff matchup in the spring that featured blowouts, line brawls, and, eventually, a Game 7 overtime shocker.
Plus, the whole thing was called by Bob Cole, which makes anything 10 times better. If you don’t use the phrase “a bit of a donnybrook” at least once today, you’re dead inside.
Runners-up: Hockey fans enjoying the greatest season they’ve ever seen vs. this new guy from the NBA who just got hired as commissioner.
1994-95: Rangers vs. Devils
In theory, the Devils and Rangers rivalry dates back to 1982. Geography, and all that. But the Devils barely counted as a real NHL franchise until Lou Lamoriello showed up in 1987 — before that, their most famous moment was being called a “Mickey Mouse organization” by Gretzky. The Rangers weren’t exactly racking up championship banners during the ’80s, either, but at least they were respectable.
But by the 1990s, both teams were actually good. They met in the playoffs for the first time in 1992, with the Rangers earning a hard-fought win in seven. That turned out to be a warm-up for the real thing, two years later, when the teams met in the conference final. The series was a classic, best remembered for Messier’s guarantee and culminating in one of the most memorable overtime goals in league history.
The loss was heartbreaking for Devils fans, but it set the stage for the team to finally ascend into the league’s elite. In 1995, the Devils won their first of three titles, officially announcing their arrival as a legitimate threat to the Rangers much like a scrawny kid who finally beats up his big brother.
Runners-up: This was right about the time the Penguins and Capitals were finishing up a run of five playoff meetings in six years, most of which were fun, and the Jets and Canucks waged war after Mike Peca crushed Selanne. Also, the NHL vs. the NBA, but only briefly, thanks to Gary Bettman’s first lockout killing all the league’s momentum for no good reason.
1996-2003: Red Wings vs. Avalanche
Clocking in at eight full seasons, this is the longest title reign on our list by far. And that won’t come as any surprise to anyone who lived through it, because there may never have been another rivalry in the history of the league that featured quite this combination of Hall of Fame talent, consistently crucial stakes, and outright froth-at-the-mouth hatred.
The teams had never met in the playoffs before 1996. Heck, the Avalanche hadn’t existed before that season, their first in Colorado as the reincarnated Nordiques. So it was an unlikely pairing to evolve into one of the great rivalries in sports history. But from the moment Claude Lemieux crushed Kris Draper into the boards during the ’96 conference finals, it was on. Man, was it ever on.
The bad blood would eventually boil over into this:
And eventually, because they can’t all be winners, even this:
Any mention of the Wings and Avalanche immediately brings all of those brawls to mind. But the rivalry was so much more than two teams squaring off in the alley. When they weren’t busy punching each other in the head, the Wings and Avs were the best teams in the league, combining for five Cups in the eight years that the rivalry burned brightest. And both teams featured rosters stacked with future Hall of Famers (including that ridiculous 2002 Wings team).
It’s hard to pin down the exact moment the rivalry died, or at least came back to the pack enough to give the rest of the league a chance to reclaim the title. But the end probably came when Patrick Roy retired after the 2003 season; the crazed netminder was always the heart and soul of the rivalry. And while his recent return to Colorado as head coach offers some hope for a revival, the Wings’ move to the Eastern Conference means that any flare-ups will be contained to the regular season … or a Stanley Cup final.
Runners-up: Avalanche vs. Red Wings. Detroit vs. Colorado. Wings vs. Avs. Seriously, nobody else ever has (or will) come close to this beauty. But we do need to make at least a mention of the Stars and Oilers, who delivered an all-time classic thriller in 1997, then released five increasingly disappointing sequels over the next six years. If hockey rivalries were movies, Stars-Oilers was Jaws.
2004: Maple Leafs vs. Senators
Let’s just come right out and say it: Compared to the Battle of Alberta or the Battle of Quebec, the Battle of Ontario was always overrated, filled with dumb moments that everyone involved tried just a little too hard to pretend were endlessly fascinating.
Still, someone has to step in to the void left by the Avs and Wings, and so the Leafs and Sens are as good an option as any. After all, they did give us four playoff matchups in five years (with the added knife-twist of the same team winning all four), a steady dose of controversy, and occasional moments of legitimate lunacy. It all culminated in 2004’s final chapter, in which Patrick Lalime’s Game 7 meltdown made everyone feel so sorry for Ottawa that the Leafs vowed to never win a playoff series again.
Runners-up: The Canucks and Avalanche weren’t really a rivalry in the classic sense, since that typically implies a long-running buildup. But whatever you want to call it, the series of events in 2004 that began with Steve Moore’s hit on Markus Naslund and ended with a vicious act of assault by Todd Bertuzzi changed the league forever, essentially ending the era of players being trusted to police their own game.
2005: Gary Bettman vs. Bob Goodenow
Still the only pro sports league to lose an entire season to a work stoppage. Great work, guys!
Runners-up: You vs. “Wait, why am I watching televised poker, what have I done with my life?”
2006: Sabres vs. Hurricanes … I guess
NHL rivalries changed dramatically after the 2005-06 lockout. Whether it was a new emphasis on speed and skill, the advent of analytics, the gradual end of the enforcer era, fallout from the Bertuzzi incident, or a combination of all of the above, the days of rivalries driven by on-ice mayhem seem to be over. There have been 44 games in NHL history in which both teams racked up at least 100 penalty minutes, but only three of those have come since the lockout.
Combine that with the lack of a 2004-05 season to generate any momentum, and picking a belt holder for the first season after the lockout is a challenge. Leaving the title vacant is a legitimate option here, but instead let’s go with the Hurricanes and Sabres, who at least delivered a seven-game conference final that featured two overtime games and a controversial finish thanks to the Sabres getting screwed by the indefensibly stupid puck-over-glass rule.
Runners-up: None. Let’s never speak of this again.
2007: Sabres vs. Senators
Things don’t get much easier the following season, but the Sabres and Senators can at least make a reasonable case. For the second straight season, one team posted the conference’s best record only to lose to the other in the playoffs. In 2006, the Sabres knocked off the Senators; in 2007, Ottawa returned the favor. Neither series was all that good, but we’ll take what we can get, and the whole Ray Emery/Marty Biron/Andrew Peters fiasco puts this one over the top.
Runners-up: Rangers vs. Islanders briefly heated up again thanks to Chris Simon, and the odd-couple pairing of Nashville and San Jose met in the first round for the second straight year.
2008-09: Red Wings vs. Penguins
There’s not much bad blood to speak of here, but we did get a Stanley Cup final rematch for the first time since the Oilers and Islanders. That’s good enough to hand over the title in the post-lockout era, especially when the second final ends like this:
Runners-up: Montreal and Boston were up to their old tricks, meeting in the playoffs both years. The league desperately wanted a Penguins-Capitals rivalry that would showcase Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, and they did deliver one fantastic playoff matchup in 2009. And the Canucks lost to the Blackhawks in the first round in 2009, which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time but would set the stage for what came next …
2010-2011: Blackhawks vs. Canucks
Now this is a little more like it. In fact, you could make the case that this was the first truly worthy rivalry of the post-lockout era, as the teams met in the playoffs for three straight years while providing plenty of bad blood and memorable moments. The first two meetings went to Chicago, building up the narrative that the Hawks had the Canucks’ number. That very nearly led to one of the most devastating comebacks in NHL history when the teams met again in 2011; Vancouver jumped out to a 3-0 series lead, only to drop three straight and come within one game of a historic collapse. Instead, Alex Burrows bailed the Canucks out.
Runners-up: The Canucks and Bruins deserve a mention based on the 2011 final alone, and this was also right about the time the Islanders got a little crazy with the Penguins.
2012-13: Penguins vs. Flyers
What is it about the Crosby-era Penguins? With just about everyone in the league seemingly lined up to board the rivalry bus with Pittsburgh, it was only fitting that the best of the bunch would be with its longtime rival from Philadelphia. The teams met in the playoffs three times in five years, the best of which came in 2012 in a wild series in which they only stopped scoring when it was time for a line brawl. In a classic sign of a great rivalry, even the superstars got involved.
Runners-up: The Leafs and Bruins built up a bit of a grudge in the years since the Phil Kessel trade, and we know how that ended.
2014-15: Bruins vs. Canadiens
And we close things off by going right back to where we (almost) started, with the Habs and Bruins reclaiming the title for a third time. This was an easy call a year ago, when the teams met in an entertaining seven-game playoff series featuring lots of heated moments between Milan Lucic, P.K. Subban, Dale Weise, and others, all of it ending with an infamous handshake line threat.
The teams didn’t meet last postseason, although there was just enough bitterness left over to hold on to the title in the absence of anyone else stepping up to claim it. With the Bruins’ new management confusing everyone this summer, chances are good that some other rivalry comes along and steals the title this season. But the Habs and Bruins will get it back someday. They always do.
Runners-up: Kings vs. Blackhawks, Canucks vs. Flames, and Kings vs. Sharks (or really any combination of the excellent three-way California rivalry). And it’s perhaps a mild surprise that Rangers vs. Capitals never earned the top spot in any one season, given that they met in the playoffs five times in seven years (four of which went seven games). That never seemed to translate into much buzz the following season, but with those teams looking like the top contenders in the Metro this season, they’re probably the top contenders to be the belt’s next holders.
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