SI Vault
Don't Expect an Encore
Austin Murphy
June 16, 1997
Unlike in the old days, NHL teams rarely repeat. Here's why
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
June 16, 1997

Don't Expect An Encore

Unlike in the old days, NHL teams rarely repeat. Here's why

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Because the trophy was heavier than he had expected, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman did not hold it very high or skate with it for very long. Thus did Bowman confirm what we already knew: In addition to being the coolest championship trophy in sports, the Stanley Cup has become the hardest to hang on to.

That's a switch. Until 1993, when the Montreal Canadiens ended the Pittsburgh Penguins' two-year championship run, it seemed that this grail was available only for long-term leasing. The Flyers won it in 1974 and '75. For the next four years it was monopolized by the Canadiens, who were supplanted by the New York Islanders, who won four straight titles before yielding to the Edmonton Oilers, who won five Cups between 1984 and '90.

Now Lord Stanley resides in Motown, but for how long? Detroit is the sixth team in the past six years to win the Cup. NHL dynasties have this in common with Blake Carrington's Dynasty: They can be seen only on reruns.

What's with all the one-year wonders? Where once there were six NHL teams, there are now 26, "and soon there'll be 30," says Red Wings defense-man Larry Murphy. "As the league grows, your chances get slimmer."

As do your chances to draft franchise players. "You could look to get a Cup through draft choices when there were six teams, 12 teams," says Detroit scout Mark Howe. "Now you're drafting on a hope and a prayer a lot of times."

When a top pick does pan out, he usually goes panning for gold. Retaining superstars has become prohibitively expensive. Says former Oilers forward Craig Simpson, who won two Cups in Edmonton and who is now a sports-caster for Fox, "In 1985, with Grant Fuhr, Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky and four other guys who are going to the Hall of Fame, Edmonton's payroll was probably $9 million. What would those guys cost now?"

Bowman suggests an alternate route to building at least a minidynasty: a half-decade or so of ineptitude. Finish in or near the cellar consistently enough—"I'm thinking of the Ottawa Senators and the New York Islanders," says Bowman—and you get a chance to draft lots of good young players. Once you have a nucleus of young studs, you lock 'em up contractually, then hope they win a Cup or two before the inevitable entropy kicks in and the boys demand big money.

Simpson says that once the pieces are in place, "You have to win right away, before the window closes." Is the window already closing on the Red Wings? Bowman has dropped hints that he has coached his final game. Center Sergei Fedorov will be a restricted free agent in July, and he wants a lavish, long-term contract. Defenseman Slava Fetisov will soon be eligible for the AARP. Who knows if any of them will be back?

Joe Kocur, the rugged right wing, seemed to be allowing for a certain amount of disbanding when he addressed the team during last Saturday's second intermission. "We all come from different parts of the world, and we're all going to different parts of the world," he said. "But if we win this thing, no matter where we end up, we'll always be together."

It was an inspiring speech, and surprisingly sweet coming from a guy who has made a career of tenderizing opponents with his fists. But then, the Red Wings are inspiring champions. They are deserving champions. What they will not be, if recent history is our guide, is repeat champions.