A brief history of Stanley Cup rematches and why we should care

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." George Santayana, c. 1905

"History Never Repeats" -- Neil Finn (Split Enz), 1981

I have always been fascinated by history. Whatever subject has already attracted my attention, be it sports, science, music, mathematics, you name it, there's always an incredibly interesting story of how things got from nowhere to here. Hockey is certainly no exception.

In a historical sense, the 2008-09 season was exceptional for at least one reason: the repeat Stanley Cup Finals between the Red Wings and Penguins. In modern times, the double whammy of the four-series grind and subsequent short off-season means it's unlikely that either team returns, let alone both. The last team to return to the Finals prior to 2009 were the 2001 Devils; the last rematch was fully a quarter-century ago when the dynasties of the Islanders and the Oilers collided in dramatic fashion. 

Rematches used to be more common in days of fewer teams: in the Original Six the likelihood of match-ups recurring was much greater, both mathematically and competitively. Still and all, before last year there were only 10 repeat Finals since the NHL took sole control of the Stanley Cup in 1927. All of them since World War II involved at least one dynasty, and more often than not, two. The Red Wings legacy is secure as the greatest team of this era; but history bears some interesting lessons for fans of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins

1932 & 33: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. New York Rangers. Toronto won the first Cup in their spanking new Maple Leaf Gardens in the "Tennis Series" (game scores in the best-of-five were 6-4, 6-2, 6-4); the Rangers won the rematch 3 games to 1. No dynasties here: Rangers didn't win again until 1940, while for the Leafs 1933 marked the beginning of a strange run of 6 SCF in 8 years, losing all of them. As a particularly odious ex-boss of mine used to opine about anything that didn't agree with his clearcut view of the Universe, this SCF rematch of middling clubs was "The exception that proves the rule".

1948 & 49: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings. Leafs swept both series to run their mini-dynasty to 3 in a row. But the rivalry -- which included Leaf wins in the SCF of 1942 and 1945 as well -- was just getting going. The two met in the semi-finals in 1950, with the first-place Wings taking Game 7 on home ice in both that series and later in the SCF. Leafs avoided Detroit in 1951 and bounced back to win one last Cup, their 6th in 10 years, then the Red Wings won in 1952, 1954, and 1955,  beating the falling Leafs in the semi-finals in all four of their Cup wins. 

1954, 55 & 56: Detroit Red Wings vs. Montreal Canadiens. The only "threepeat" SCF in history featured two of the greatest dynasties of all time. The Red Wings took the Prince of Wales Trophy -- first place in the regular season, a much bigger deal then than now -- an amazing 7 consecutive seasons, winning four Cups, the last two against the rising Canadiens in '54 and '55. Both were decided in a seventh game at the Olympia, with the home town Wings emerging in a hard-fought contest each time. In '56 the Habs finally knocked Detroit out of first place and blew them out 4-1 in the SCF to confirm the changing of the guard. The Red Wings had one last gasp, winning the Prince of Wales Trophy in '57 before falling in the first round of the playoffs and out of contention for a few years.

1957 & 58: Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins. Dynasty against pretender. The Habs were the class of the league, the Bruins the best of the rest, nothing more.

1959 & 60: Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs. Dynasty against rising dynasty. Montreal won both series easily, but Toronto was coming on. In '61 the teams had an epic season-long battle for first place, won by the Habs on the last day of the season, then both were taken out by underdogs with fresher legs in the semi-finals. The Leafs were not to be denied, starting a run of three straight Cups in 1962. In fact the Leafs and Habs would split 8 consecutive Cups 1962-69.

1963 & 64: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings. Dynasty against expired dynasty. After dominating the Leafs in 5 straight semi-finals in the '50s, Red Wings never could solve the Buds in the SCF, failing 6 different times in the '40s and '60s. The Wings couldn't get the job done against Chicago in '61 or Montreal in '66 either. 4 SCF in 6 years, all losses.

1968 & 69: Montreal Canadiens vs, St. Louis Blues. Dynasty against pretender. The Habs were the class of the league, the Blues the best of the West, nothing more. Oddly, it would be the expansionist Blues who returned for a third straight Finals in 1970 while the Canadiens improbably crashed from the playoffs before righting the ship in '71 and winning their 5th Cup in 7 years.

1977 & 78: Montreal Canadiens vs. Boston Bruins. Dynasty against contender. The Habs were the class of the league and one of the dominant teams in hockey history. The Bruins were the best of the rest and a very formidable team. The two teams met a third conscutive time in 1979, this time in a semi-final series that was far more compelling than the boring SCF that followed. Once again Montreal prevailed over Boston, as they always did, this time in overtime of Game 7 en route to their fourth consecutive Cup.

1983 & 84: New York Islanders vs. Edmonton Oilers. A compelling match between the proverbial irresistable force and immovable object. The seasoned Islanders prevailed in the first series. sweeping the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time Oilers, but in '84 the Oilers turned the tables, winning the opener 1-0 on enemy ice to break a 10-game losing streak to the champs, then running the table back in Edmonton with three convincing wins to handily take the Cup in 5. The changing of the guard accomplished, the supremely talented young Oilers proceeded to win 5 Cups over 7 seasons.

2008 & 09: Detroit Red Wings vs. Pittsburgh Penguins. The dominant Red Wings dispatched the young Penguins in 6 games in 2008, certainly breaking a sweat but never appearing to be in trouble. When they ran to a 2-0 lead in 2009, it looked very much that the Pens might be in the same boat as those Bruins and Blues squads that were the best of the rest but nothing overly special. That came crashing down when the Pens came roaring back to win 4 of 5, virtually snatching the Cup from the Wings' cold dead hands in the process. It was an astonishing, unexpected changing of the guard, another situation where youth was no longer to be denied.

***

The prism of SCF rematches reveals one or more views of every important dynasty in NHL history, and the Red Wings-Penguins battles continue the trend. The closest thing to a modern dynasty is a Detroit squad that has reached 6 of the last 14 SCF, winning 4 of them. As for the Penguins, it's way too soon to know, although history looks on them favourably.

 Looking ahead to 2010, if either the Red Wings or Penguins return to the Finals for a third straight year, they will be the first to do so since the 1983-85 Oilers; should both make it they will match a feat accomplished just once before, when the 1954-56 Habs and Wings completed an extended changing of the guard. I'd bet against that but I'm a little more reluctant to discount the Penguins, who achieved a rare feat of returning to the Finals and slaying the dragon. The only two teams to accomplish that feat in the last 75 years turned out to be two of the great rising powers in NHL history: the 1956 Montreal Canadiens and the 1984 Edmonton Oilers.

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