When it comes to competing for the major prizes in North American professional sports, none are harder to win than the Stanley Cup. Players talk about the NHL Playoffs being "war" and how they play hurt in order to have their names engraved on the side of the trophy. There is no other trophy in professional sports that has the names of the players on the winning team engraved on the side of the award, making it a huge honour for those that are lucky and/or good enough to reach this accolade. Ring after ring of names show that only a select few reach the summit of the NHL mountain each year, proving that the journey is the hardest part. So how did Lord Stanley's Cup become the hardest trophy to win? Where did it come from? How did it become property of the NHL to award to its members? We'll answer these questions, and several others, below.
In 1892, Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston and son of the Earl of Derby, purchased a Cup-like trophy for the price of approximately $50. The trophy was to be awarded to the top hockey club in the Dominion of Canada starting in 1893. Of course, there were many teams who competed for the trophy over the years, and the Stanley Cup would change hands regularly throughout its early years. Some of the more notable non-NHL teams to win the Stanley Cup include the Winnipeg Victorias (1895-96), the Kenora Thistles (1906-07), the Quebec Bulldogs (1911-12), and the Seattle Metropolitans (1916-17). Seattle, incidentally, is the first US-based hockey team to have won Lord Stanley's Cup.
In 1910, after the formation of the National Hockey Association, possession of the Stanley Cup belonged to the NHA to be awarded to the best team each year at the conclusion of the season. The first team to win the Stanley Cup under the NHA was the 1910-11 Ottawa Senators. With the demise of the NHA in 1916, the NHL was formed in 1917 and the Stanley Cup became property of the NHL. There were four member franchises who competed in the first NHL season: the Montreal Canadiens, the Montreal Wanderers, the Ottawa Senators, and the Toronto Arenas. It would be the Toronto Arenas who claimed the Stanley Cup in 1917-18 in the NHL's first year of existence, defeating the Vancouver Millionaires three games-to-two in a series between the NHL Champions and the WCHL Champions. Essentially, this fulfilled Lord Stanley's wish of thr trophy being awarded to the top hockey club in Canada.
Teams came and went depending on the financial stability of the clubs. 1918-19 saw only three NHL clubs start the season as the Montreal Wanderers closed shop. Midway through the season, the Toronto Arenas shut down their operations as well. The Quebec Bulldogs and Toronto St. Pats joined the NHL the following year. Quebec moved their club to Hamilton for the start of the 1920-21 season. However, in 1924-25, the NHL accepted US-based clubs for the first time, and the league expanded to six teams. The odds of winning the O'Brien Cup, awarded to the NHL Champions, went down with the inclusion of the new teams. Obviously, this also meant a more difficult time in reaching the Stanley Cup Final against the winner of the WCHL. The Montreal Maroons and the Boston Bruins joined Hamilton, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal in the new NHL.
The Hamilton Tigers were the toast of the league that year, finishing with the best record in the NHL. The Tigers' players demanded additional money for playing a longer season, and owner Percy Thompson rejected that demand. League President Frank Calder met threatened suspension to any player who refused to take part in the NHL Final. After an unsuccessful meeting with Shorty Green, a Tigers' player, Calder suspended the Tigers from play and fined them $200, the amount they were to receive. Because of this, the Montreal Canadiens won the O'Brien Cup by default and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. However, the Victoria Cougars, champions of the WCHL, defeated the Canadiens three-games-to-one. The Cougars would be the last non-NHL team to win the Stanley Cup.
The chance to win the Stanley Cup became a little more difficult in 1925-26 when the Tigers moved to New York City to become the New York Americans. The Pittsburgh Pirates also joined the NHL for that season, moving the number of clubs to seven. This season marked the last time the NHL and WCHL Champions met as the WCHL ran into financial problems and folded. The Montreal Maroons would defeat the defending champion Victoria Cougars three-games-to-one for the Stanley Cup.
1926-27 sees the NHL absorb the contracts of the WCHL players after the league folds, and take sole possession of the Stanley Cup. The Portland Rosebuds become the Chicago Blackhawks while the Victoria Cougars become the Detroit Cougars. Also added to the NHL were the expansion New York Rangers, making the league into an 10-team organization. The St. Pats, bought by Conn Smythe, were renamed nidway through the season as the Maple Leafs. As the only professional hockey league left in Canada, the Stanley Cup is awarded to the NHL's best team in the playoffs. 1926-27 sees the Ottawa Senators defeat the Boston Bruins two-games-to-none to win the Stanley Cup.
1927-28 sees the New York Rangers become the first US-based NHL team to win the Stanley Cup as they defeat the Montreal Maroons three-games-to-two. All ten teams remain as part of the league.
1931-32 sees the league drop to eight teams as the Ottawa Senators and the Philadelphia Quakers - formerly the Pittsburgh Pirates - suspend operations due to financial difficulties. The Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup over the Rangers in a three-game sweep.
1932-33 sees the Ottawa Senators return to the league. The Detroit Falcons - formerly the Cougars - merge with the AHL Chicago Shamrocks to become the Detroit Red Wings. The league moves from eight teams to nine teams. The New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup with a three-games-to-one series win over Toronto.
1935-36 sees the St. Louis Eagles - formerly the Ottawa Senators - close shop for good. The Eagles suffered major financial losses in both Ottawa and St. Louis. With the NHL back to eight teams, the Detroit Red Wings win their first Stanley Cup by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs three-games-to-one.
1938-39 sees the Montreal Maroons disbanded after their request to move to St. Louis is denied by the other owners. The league drops to seven teams for this season, and the Bruins take advantage. They defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs four-games-to-one in the first best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final.
1942-43 sees the end to the Brooklyn Americans - formerly the New York Americans. The NHL is down to a mere six teams. The last time that occurred was 1924-25, 17 years earlier when the first US-based club in the Bruins were accepted into the NHL. As fate would have it, the Detroit Red Wings swept the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final that spring.
We have to jump all the way ahead to 1967-68 for the next change. The NHL remained at six teams for 25 years until the NHL decided to move west. Six new teams, dubbed the "Expansion Six", formed the Western Division. They were the Los Angeles Kings, the Minnesota North Stars, the Oakland Seals, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the St. Louis Blues. With the Original Six in one division and the Expansion Six in another, it guaranteed that one of the new teams would make the Stanley Cup Final. Montreal swept the West Division Champion St. Louis Blues in the Final.
In 1970-71, the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks join the NHL as expansion franchises. The Blackhawks are moved from the East Division to the West Division, while the two new franchises are placed in the East Division. Yeah, Vancouver in the East Division. I know it makes no sense. Oakland is renamed as the California Golden Seals after Chalie O. Finley buys the franchise. The NHL is now up to its highest total of teams ever with 14. The Montreal Canadiens defeat the Chicago Blackhawks in seven games to win the Stanley Cup.
1972-73 sees two more franchises added as the New York Islanders and Atlanta Flames join the NHL. In an effort to block the WHA from expanding into brand-new arenas, the NHL hastily awards franchises in these locales. Just like in previous expansion years, the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
1974-75 sees the NHL award two more expansion franchises to Kansas City and Washington, DC. The Scouts and Capitals put up numbers of futility that have not been rivaled by first-year teams. The NHL now has 18 teams divided into two conferences of two divisions each. The Philadelphia Flyers, having won the Stanley Cup in the previous year, defend their title by defeating the Buffalo Sabres in six games.
1978-79 sees the Cleveland Barons - formerly the California Golden Seals - merge with the Minnesota North Stars as both teams struggled financially. This would mark the first reduction in NHL teams since the Brooklyn Americans ceased operations in 1942, leaving the NHL with 17 teams. The Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup in five games over the New York Rangers.
The following season saw the NHL grow to 21 teams as the WHA closed its doors after financial problems plagued the majority of the teams. Six WHA teams were considered for expansion into the NHL. Winnipeg, Edmonton, Quebec, and New England are granted expansion franchises while Cincinnati and Birmingham are paid handsomely by the NHL to close their doors. New England, at the request of the Boston Bruins, change their name to the Hartford Whalers. The New York Islanders, playing in their first Stanley Cup Final, defeat the heavily-favoured Philadelphia Flyers to win their first Stanley Cup.
1991-92 sees the NHL expand into California as the San Jose Sharks join the league as the 22nd NHL franchise. The Gunds re-establish hockey in the Bay Area after having moved the California Golden Seals to Cleveland in 1976. Pittsburgh wins their second Stanley Cup, defending the title they won in 1991, by defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in four straight games.
1992-93 sees two more teams dive into the NHL pond as the Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators join the league. This is the first NHL team in Ottawa since 1934, and the NHL now has 24 teams. Once again, an expansion year sees the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup as they defeated the Los Angeles Kings in five games.
1993-94 sees two more teams join the NHL as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers push the total number of teams to 26. The Minnesota North Stars leave the Land of 10,000 Lakes for the Lone Star State as the Dallas Stars take to the ice. The New York Rangers, tossing aside 54 years of dashed hopes and historic losses, win the Stanley Cup in seven games over the Vancouver Canucks.
The Nashville Predators become the 27th NHL team in 1998-99. The major news out of the hockey world was the retirement of Wayne Gretzky after the New York Rangers missed the playoffs. The Dallas Stars, having settled into their new digs in Dallas, defeat the Buffalo Sabres in six games to win the Stanley Cup.
1999-2000 was a return to Atlanta as the Atlanta Thrashers took to the ice, pushing the number of NHL teams to 28. There hadn't been NHL hockey in Atlanta since the Flames packed up and headed north to Calgary in 1980. The New Jersey Devils used six games to dispatch the Stanley Cup Champion Dallas Stars in the Stanley Cup Final.
2000-01 sees the NHL expand into Columbus as the Blue Jackets take the ice. Minneapolis/St. Paul is also granted an expansion franchise as the Minnesota Wild are born. This pushes the NHL to its highest total of teams in league history with 30. The Colorado Avalanche - formerly the Quebec Nordiques - win the Stanley Cup over the defending champion New Jersey Devils in seven games.
Phew! Got all that?
Ok, so there are now 30 franchises in the NHL, and only one Stanley Cup. Of those 30 teams, there are 13 teams who have not hoisted the Silver Chalice as the NHL's best team. They are:
- Atlanta Thrashers
- Buffalo Sabres
- Columbus Blue Jackets
- Los Angeles Kings
- Ottawa Senators*
- Nashville Predators
- Minnesota Wild
- Phoenix Coyotes
- Washington Capitals
- St. Louis Blues
- Vancouver Canucks
- San Jose Sharks
- Florida Panthers
With every team that wins, the players who appeared in the Stanley Cup Final are added to the Stanley Cup roster on the Cup. Again, it is the only trophy in professional sports that has the names of the players who won it inscribed on the trophy itself. As the rings fill up, new rings are added. The older Stanley Cup rings and the original Stanley Cup are housed in Lord Stanley's Vault at the Hockey Hall of Fame. The current Stanley Cup is comprised of a bowl, three tiered bands, a collar, and five barrel or uniform bands. It stands at 35 1/4" tall, and weighs a lofty 34 1/2 pounds. It truly is one of the most impressive trophies in all of sport.
So what does this mean?
Aside from the fact that only one team can come out on top out of the 30 teams in the NHL, it means that each team has about a 3.3% chance to win the Stanley Cup at the start of each year. Those are pretty slim odds. When you factor in the grueling 82-game schedule and the "war" known as the post-season, the odds of surviving are based on a number of factors: talent, luck, and durability to name a few. Since those factors can strike good or bad at anytime, all you can do is roll the dice and hope it comes up favorably.
With the NHL schedule requiring teams to win approximately half of their 82 games to qualify for the playoffs, there is a huge demand on every player in every game. Combine that with the required 16 wins in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, an NHL player can play up to 110 games of hockey per year in an effort to win the Stanley Cup. That's a whole lot of hockey. And we haven't even factored in injuries, bumps, bruises, and trades.
What it comes down to is that the NHL's Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in North American professional sports by far. But it's also, in this writer's opinion, the most beautiful trophy in sports. And when you're battling for something so beautiful, something so magnificent, doesn't it require a Herculean effort?
Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!