Sports fans wary of the same teams always competing for championships should rejoice at the Washington Capitals last week capturing their first Stanley Cup.
Since the Cup became the de facto NHL championship 91 years ago, this was just the fourth final to feature two teams that hadn’t won before. Longstanding NHL rules and business practices historically made it difficult for all but a handful of dynasty franchises to win titles, and it’s only the past two decades or so we’ve seen a more democratized Stanley Cup competition.
The Capitals defeating the expansion Vegas Golden Knights 4 games to 1 marked the latest in this shift.
Capitals forward T.J. Oshie, a Mount Vernon native, will become the second Washington-born player with his name inscribed on the Cup. And just in time, since previous Washington-born winner Wayne Hicks will see his name and others from the 1960-61 champion Chicago Blackhawks removed this year to make room for a new band of winners and keep the Cup from becoming too heavy to lift.
What Oshie and Hicks have in common was the rarity of their teams winning.
Hicks’ team was the only Cup winner in 25 years of the league’s “Original Six” era not from Montreal, Toronto or Detroit. And Oshie’s franchise took 43 years to win it all after forming in 1975.
In both cases, lopsided rules were largely to blame. Once-brutal NHL expansion draft rules hampered the Caps throughout their early existence. By contrast, the Golden Knights made the final their inaugural season with improved expansion rules Seattle will also benefit from if awarded a team.
Those early expansion rules were a byproduct of the old six-team NHL protecting legacy franchises. The “Original Six” era began the 1942-43 season after several NHL teams had disbanded to leave just six remaining clubs.
For the next quarter century, the monopolistic owners of the Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Detroit Red Wings, Blackhawks, Boston Bruins and New York Rangers resisted any expansion attempts. The NHL actually operated more like a three-team league back then, owing to a “territorial exemption” rule giving clubs exclusive rights to players living within 50 miles of their home ice.
Since the best players hailed from Canada that rule favored the Canadiens, Leafs and a Red Wings squad adjacent the border.
The Canadiens made the final 16 times during the 25 years, the Red Wings 13 times and the Maple Leafs 11 times. Montreal won the Cup 10 times, Toronto nine and Detroit five.
Meanwhile, the Bruins competed in just five finals, the Blackhawks in four and the Rangers in one. As mentioned, only the 1961 Blackhawks won a title.
It took the implementation of an amateur draft in 1963 to give all teams access to top Canadian youngsters. The Blackhawks, Bruins and Rangers had vastly improved by 1967-68, when the six NHL owners finally caved and expanded to 12 teams.
But the subsequent expansion draft rules they imposed kept their Original Six squads dominant.
Montreal and Boston won every championship the first six post-expansion seasons, and an Original Six team made all but one Cup final before 1980. Even the Philadelphia Flyers becoming the first of the expansion teams to win a Cup in 1974 only launched a new era of dynasties.
The Flyers won consecutive titles and went to three finals in a row before Montreal dethroned them and won four championships in a row, followed by the New York Islanders taking the four after that. The Edmonton Oilers finally toppled the Islanders and won four Cups in five years, interrupted only by the Canadiens winning another.
So from 1974-93, when the ever-expanding NHL had between 16 and 26 teams, the Canadiens and Oilers made seven finals apiece, the Flyers six and the Islanders five — meaning four teams claimed 25 of 40 finalist berths over a 20-season span.
And they won 17 combined titles those 20 years, aided by a prohibitive free-agency system that stifled player movement, suppressed salaries and kept championship cores together longer. It wasn’t until NHL Players Association upheavals and early 1990s labor stoppages that unrestricted free agency for veteran players arrived in 1995.
No NHL team has won more than two consecutive titles since.
Sure, a relatively recent revival by Original Six franchises in Detroit, Chicago and Boston sometimes makes it seem like old dynasties still rule. They’ve combined for eight more titles since 1995, and at least one has appeared in 11 of the past 23 finals.
Also, the Pittsburgh Penguins winning three championships and making four finals appearances that span — not to mention two titles right before that in 1991 and 1992 — sometimes makes it feel like new teams aren’t breaking through.
But the rule book isn’t causing it. In fact, a salary cap now helps franchises compete more evenly.
No, the NHL teams that won previously are winning again simply because the natural cycle turned their way. Problem is, so few teams won previously it takes time for newer squads to capture Cups with regularity as they bump up against older franchises coming around for another turn.
But fresh opportunity abounds.
Twelve different NHL teams have won a Stanley Cup since 1995, which is right on par with other major North American sports leagues. Eight of those teams — such as the Capitals — won their first title.
In the 52 seasons before 1995 starting with the onset of the Original Six era, only 11 different teams won the Cup — badly lagging other leagues. Only five of those were first-time winners.
This is as close to true Stanley Cup democracy as any living fan has seen. And an era your reigning champion Capitals will gladly take over anything previous.