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Passing Judgment on Your Stanley Cup Title

A team is crowned NHL champion every year, but some years are harder to win. Which count more than the others?

The Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy in North American pro sports, having been first awarded in 1893. It’s been won by many teams both professional and amateur, first as a challenge trophy and later as the league title for organizations like the PCHA, NHA, and eventually the NHL.

All NHL fans know how many times their favorite team has captured the Cup, and chances are they’ll recite the number instantly. The Canadiens have won a league-leading 24. The Leafs and Red Wings are next, followed mostly by fellow Original Six teams, with more recent franchises like the Oilers, Islanders, and Devils having also won several. Every Stanley Cup banner that hangs from the rafters is a source of enduring pride for hockey fans, and the more the better.

But let’s be honest … not all Cups are created equal, and occasionally a team wins one under less-than-impressive circumstances. From a purely technical perspective, those championships still count, and the record book duly notes them. But does that mean the rest of us have to sit by and listen to fans of those teams drone on and on about them? Sorry. Sometimes, a Stanley Cup just isn’t worth bragging about.

But which ones? That’s a tough call, so I went through each and every Stanley Cup and determined which ones hockey fans should feel obligated to recognize as legitimate championships. Let’s start all the way back in 1893, as we try to answer the eternal Stanley Cup question: Does this one really count?

Pre-NHL era, 1893–1916: This was during the days when the Cup was a challenge trophy, which means that anyone who could manage to get a half-dozen guys together could have a shot at it. Until 1912, you didn’t even have to wait until the end of the season; you just showed up with some guys and took your shot. Also, half the time the “puck” was a frozen pinecone and the game ended when one team’s goalie fell through the ice and sunk to the bottom of Lake Athabasca.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

The early NHL, 1917–1942: By this point the NHL had officially formed. But the league was in a transition period, which is to say that literally anybody could have a franchise as long as they had a few thousand dollars and an arena that wasn’t actively on fire. That led to an extended period when the Stanley Cup would be awarded because the Seattle Metropolitans edged out the Flin Flon Junior Knickerbockers, and the rest of us are supposed to act as if it matters. The only people who pretend this era actually counts are, in descending order of importance, history nerds, nonagenarian shut-ins, and Ottawa Senators fans.1


1.

The Senators won Stanley Cups in 1920, 1921, 1923, and 1927.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

The Original Six era, 1943–1967: Here’s a little-known fact about the Original Six era: It had only six teams. If your office hockey pool had only six teams sign up to play, you would cancel it. Winning a league with six teams in it is basically the equivalent of winning the 2002 NL Central. Do you care who won the 2002 NL Central? Exactly.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1968, 1969: After the 1967 season, the NHL finally got around to expanding. But it did so too quickly, doubling the size of the league in one shot. That watered down the available talent badly, with all the new rosters basically stocked with minor leaguers. Even better, the league put all of those terrible new teams into one division, which meant one of them made the final every year. If you win the Stanley Cup by sweeping the expansion St. Louis Blues, which the Habs did both these years, it doesn’t count.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Boston Bruins, 1970: They won the Stanley Cup by sweeping the expansion St. Louis Blues. Also, the guy who scored the winning goal wasn’t even touching the ice at the time.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1971: Montreal coach Al MacNeil benched Habs legend Henri Richard midway through the series, and MacNeil was fired shortly after even though his team won. If your first order of business after a Stanley Cup win is to immediately fire your head coach for incompetence, even you know it didn’t really count.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Boston Bruins, 1972: The original engraving for this win listed the winners as “BQSTQN.” I’ll repeat that, just so we can all appreciate it: They somehow decided to put two Q’s in the word “Boston.” Maybe buy a vowel and try again in four decades, Bruins.

Verdict: Dqesn’t cqunt.

Montreal Canadiens, 1973: Oh look, it’s a roster full of Hall of Famers being coached by Scotty Bowman. I can dunk if you lower the rim down to seven feet, but nobody will care.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Philadelphia Flyers, 1974, 1975: These were the first championships by an expansion franchise, as well as Philadelphia’s only two Stanley Cups. Fun trivia: Both titles were awarded by default when none of the league’s other teams could ice a full roster because the Flyers’ goons had murdered everyone.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1976–1979: The late-’70s Canadiens dynasty was built by legendary GM Sam Pollock, who followed a simple strategy: Continually making one-sided trades with the league’s dumbest GMs. Remember that guy in your fantasy football league who built a powerhouse by making outrageously lopsided trades with all the owners who didn’t know any better, until you eventually had to kick him out because he was ruining the league for everyone? That’s what the NHL should have done to Pollock and the Canadiens in the late ’70s.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

New York Islanders, 1980–1983: They won an amazing four straight Cups and 19 straight playoff series, partly because of a roster stacked with Hall of Famers like Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, and Bryan Trottier, but mostly because any opponents who skated near their net would mysteriously wind up with a broken ankle while Billy Smith whistled innocently in the background. Also, they eventually wore those fishstick uniforms, which wouldn’t happen for more than a decade but which we can still penalize them for based on the tenets of timeless decision theory.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Edmonton Oilers, 1984, 1985: They put together the greatest offensive juggernaut the league has ever seen, mainly because their crooked owner bought the best player in history from a floundering WHA team and then signed him to a shady personal services contract to keep him out of the NHL draft on a technicality.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1986: They only got the chance to win in the first place because a completely unstoppable Oilers dynasty got bored and decided to start scoring series-winning goals into their own net.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Edmonton Oilers, 1987, 1988: These guys again? Seriously, win one without Wayne Gretzky and then we’ll talk.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Calgary Flames, 1989: They finally broke through after years of contending to win the franchise’s only Stanley Cup, but only because their rival’s best player fell in love with an extra from Police Academy and got himself traded.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Edmonton Oilers, 1990: Um … huh. I’ll be damned. OK, but win one without Gretzky and Mark Messier.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Pittsburgh Penguins, 1991, 1992: First they blatantly tanked to get the no. 1 pick in 1984 and draft Mario Lemieux. Seven years later, they still weren’t even all that good; they didn’t crack 90 points in either of their championship years. They also won both of these titles by beating Norris Division teams in the final, which is like winning the NBA title by beating the Washington Generals.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Montreal Canadiens, 1993: They only won by sending spies to steal their opponents’ equipment, then invoking an obscure rule that nobody else ever uses. Nice work, cheaters.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

New York Rangers, 1994: They were led to their first championships in 54 years by Messier, the heroic captain they acquired from the Oilers in the same way that the schoolyard bully “acquires” the skinny kid’s lunch money.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

New Jersey Devils, 1995: Lockout-shortened seasons don’t count.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Colorado Avalanche, 1996: Gosh, let’s see. They stole their franchise from Quebec because Gary Bettman hates Canada, got Patrick Roy from Montreal because he had one bad game and then quit on his team, only beat the Red Wings in the conference finals by throwing vicious cheap shots, and then somehow wound up facing an expansion team in the final. Also, their Cup-winning goal was scored by Uwe Krupp in triple overtime of a 1-0 game — allegedly, because literally no hockey fan stayed up to watch it.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Detroit Red Wings, 1997, 1998: They couldn’t win the big one until they acquired Brendan Shanahan in a trade so embarrassingly lopsided that it killed the Hartford Whalers franchise. Would you trade these two Stanley Cups for the return of Brass Bonanza? Of course you would.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Dallas Stars, 1999: Hm. Well, it was nice to see Brett Hull and Eddie Belfour finally get Cup rings, and Mike Modano was pretty cool. OK, I suppose this one checks out.

Verdict: Counts.

New Jersey Devils, 2000: They led the entire league in goals scored. Unfortunately, thanks to the stifling neutral zone trap they introduced to the NHL in the mid-’90s, that league-leading goal total was “12.”

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Colorado Avalanche, 2001: They only won because the rest of the league felt sorry for Ray Bourque and realized he wasn’t going to leave until they let him win.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Detroit Red Wings, 2002: For the record, I was kidding about that Dallas Stars Cup counting, for obvious reasons. I just wanted to see how many simultaneous aneurysms I could cause among Sabres fans. It goes without saying that the Stars’ win doesn’t count. You know what else doesn’t count? Any Stanley Cup you win by beating a 5-foot-tall Latvian wearing your grandmother’s sofa pads on his legs.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

New Jersey Devils, 2003: They won by default after being the only team that could find 20 hockey players who hadn’t been concussed by blatant headshots from Scott Stevens.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Tampa Bay Lightning, 2004: Come on.

Verdict: Literally could not count any less.

Carolina Hurricanes, 2006: Missed the playoffs the two years before. Missed the playoffs the two years after. Faced a no. 8 seed in the final, yet still only managed to win by steamrolling Dwayne Roloson’s ACL. This is the NHL’s equivalent to that time the WWE world title was held by The Miz: It happened, it’s over, and nobody has to acknowledge it ever again.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Anaheim Ducks, 2007: Guess which team scored the Cup-winning goal that year? Hint: Not the Anaheim Ducks.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Detroit Red Wings, 2008: They did a great job rebuilding the team by drafting franchise players 180-plus picks into the draft two years in a row and replacing a former third-round defenseman with a cyborg and hoping nobody would notice. Fantastic scouting working there. Certainly not just a ridiculous fluke of pure luck that you could ride for a decade while pretending you did it on purpose.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Pittsburgh Penguins, 2009: They built a roster full of top-three picks by spending half a decade repeatedly finishing in last place in front of an empty building, then won a pingpong-ball lottery for the right to draft the best player in 20 years. They then turned all of that ridiculous windfall into one whole Stanley Cup in a decade. Whee!

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Chicago Blackhawks, 2010: They became a contender by building through the draft, which is a nice way of saying they were incompetent for years. They only got Patrick Kane because they won the lottery, and only got Jonathan Toews because the Blues thought Erik Johnson was good. Also, nobody actually noticed them score the Cup-winning goal, which seems like the hockey gods trying to tell us something.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Boston Bruins, 2011: I honestly can’t think of a single reason I shouldn’t count this one. [Briefly interrupted by a group of marauding Canucks fans throwing my flaming car through my front window.] Oh, right.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

L.A. Kings, 2012: They only won because the Columbus Blue Jackets gave them a star player for nothing.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Chicago Blackhawks, 2013: Again, lockout-shortened seasons don’t count.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Los Angeles Kings, 2014: They only won because the Columbus Blue Jackets gave them a star player for nothing. Uh, maybe we shouldn’t let the Kings trade with the Blue Jackets anymore. Let’s try to get that into the CBA during one of the three or four lockouts we will have before Bettman retires.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

Chicago Blackhawks, 2015: They rode the brilliant play of Duncan Keith to a championship. [Checks ice time stats.] Yeah, as anyone who plays video-game hockey knows, Stanley Cups don’t count if you’re playing with line changes turned off.

Verdict: Doesn’t count.

So there you have it. If we run the final numbers, that leaves us with a grand total of … zero Stanley Cups that actually count. Hm. Maybe I should have graded this one on a curve. Ah well, too late for that now.

Our new leaderboard for legitimate Stanley Cup wins looks like this:

Your favorite team: 0

Every other team: 0

Congratulations to everyone reading this on cheering for the most successful franchise in NHL history! Maybe they’ll even take the overall lead by winning the Cup this season.

You know, just as long as they make it count.