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The day after the close of the 2014-15 regular-season action, the headlines in many sports pages proclaimed at least the gist, if not these precise words, about the fate of the Los Angeles Kings: “From Champs to Chumps”. The shocking revelation had to do with the reigning Stanley Cup winners finishing out of the playoffs. It has often been expressed in more graphic terms: “From the Penthouse to the Outhouse”!
When that happens, of course, the diagnoses are varied. Rather than take a boring tour of a handful of such signalizing, we’ll simply settle for a compendium of opinions from several corners:
The saga of Slava Voynov. The Russian native was suspended for alleged domestic violence, which apparently created a lack of symmetry among the troops.
The loss of Willie Mitchell which weakened the defense corps.
An unusual number of injuries, particularly curtailing the service of Tanner Pearson and Andrej Sekera.
The drastic decline of Mike Richards, who slipped so severely he was put on waivers, though he was still drawing on his 5.75 million dollar salary.
Captain Dustin Brown’s loss of production, and his glaring minus 17.
Their record of 3-15 following games tied after regulation time.
Etc., etc., etc.
So, there we have it. The last word on the failure of the monarchs of the world’s premier shinny circuit to affirm their superiority on the ice. In truth, of course, it could have been all of the above—PLUS—or this list may have missed the target altogether!
The fact is that it is not the first time this scenario has applied to teams celebrating the ultimate on the pro hockey scene—and it won’t be the last. To be precise it is the eighth occasion when this fall from grace has gone into the record books of the NHL.
Although the Montreal Canadiens have copped Lord Stanley’s cherished mug more times than any other club, ironically they were the first on this list of haves to have nots, though this is a somewhat special case. This initial avalanche of embarrassment took place during the 1925-26 campaign. In the previous year, the Habs did not win the Stanley Cup, losing it to the WCHL Victoria Cougars, but they did earn the title of NHL champions. What made missing the postseason even more painful is that they finished dead last in seven-team circuit.
The schedule pitted them against the new Pittsburgh Pirates on November 28, 1925. They succumbed to the new kids on the block to the tune of 1-0. But the tragedy which had its beginnings that evening probably spells the bottom-line reason they had slipped so drastically during that 36-game season.
Although he had said nothing about it during training camp, superstar netminder George Vezina was already a sick man before he reported for duty. It was soon evident to all, both on the bench and in the stands, that peerless backstop was pale and haggard as he kicked out shots during the initial frame of that contest. He had begun the game with temperature of 102, and when he entered the locker room he was vomiting blood. He eventually collapsed and was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was the last 20 minutes of hockey he ever played. He died several months later.
“Frenchy” Lacroix, the Olympic goaltender finished the match, and played a dozen games as his replacement. Herb Rehaume took over, but neither could come close to filling the shoes of the “Chicoutimi Cucumber”.
There were other significant factors which entered the picture. Both Cleghorns were gone. Aurel Joliet, Billy Coutu, and Howie Morenz missed several games due to injury; and, as the Gazette put it, “On several occasions the Canadiens were represented by an entire team of substitute players, who were as prolific as the regulars they replaced.” They were shut out on nine different occasions, and scored but a single tally five other times.
But, both in the matter of missing talent and the sense of loss, Vezina’s absence alone spelled disaster for the Habs during that season.
The Detroit Red Wings put their collective “feet in it” more than a decade later, when the 1937 World Champions missed the post season the next spring. They got off to a poor start with only two victories in November. On the 21st they lost 5-0 to the Leafs, which put Jack Adams in a foul mood. Larry Aurie couldn’t get untracked; Gord Pettinger and Ebbie Goodfellow were both injured. The demanding manager and bench boss threatened to dismantle the team and start from scratch. He called up Doran, Drouillard, and Liscombe in the initial attempt to shake up the incumbents. But the revamped roster immediately lost 3-1 to the Americans. It was their fifth loss in seven outings, a situation which had the man who was nicknamed “Jolly” on the prowl.
December was worse than November when the Motor City sextet managed only one win. As a result attendance started to drop off—and continued to do so despite a brief respite, when they came to life momentarily in February and walloped Montreal 8-0. That was offset by Herbie Lewis’ broken wrist. Even then he was the highest scoring Detroiter at the 24th spot in the league points race.
About the only positive note in the entire campaign was Carl Liscombe scoring a hit trick in 52 seconds in a 5-1 decision over Chicago. As expected, when the following season opened there were several changes made to the line-up, including “Tiny” Thompson replacing Normie Smith in goal, rookie Jack Stewart taking “Bucko” McDonald’s spot on the blueline, and Charlie Conacher being purchased from the Leafs. This helped put the Winged Wheelers back in the playoffs.
The very next season the Chicago Blackhawks borrowed a page from their Detroit cousins. The Windy City crew’s dramatic Cup win in 1938 featured that storied tale about Alfie Moore’s heroic stand against Toronto in game one of the finals, when he replaced the injured Mike Karakas. But that was all forgotten when the curtain was pulled down on the close of the 1938-39 regular season, and those same Hawks were in the basement of the league standings.
It was said that the 1938 Cup champs were the “worst team ever to win the World Championship.” By contrast, the shinny grapevine had it that the revised lineup for ’38-‘39 was the “greatest team ever”. Major McLaughlin, their erratic CEO made costly moves to insure that the cherished silverware stayed in the Illinois metropolis. But his scheme somehow misfired, and, as George Vass put it “the Hawks were destined to wallow in the doldrums for two decades!”
The Montreal Maroons had folded, so Chicago management purchased one of their entire forward lines—“Baldy” Northcott, Russ Blinco, and Earl Robinson. Trades brought Joffre Desilets from Montreal and Bill Thoms from Toronto. Bob Gracie had put up decent totals with the Maroons, and had moved to the cross-town Habs. McLaughlin grabbed him up as well. According to newspaper reports only Robinson proved to bolster the ignomatic sextet. They were victorious only five times in the first 17 contests, and, as was the Major’s custom, even the cup-winning coach, Bill Stewart, was fired. All Star winger, Paul Thompson, replaced him, continuing to play as well as being club mentor.
But, as the season progressed, the “hot-and-cold” Bob Gracie, who was being promoted as the problem solver, himself became a problem. The press reported that “Paul Thompson was having no fun in Chicago”, with the former Leaf, Bruin, American, Maroon, and Canadien being at the centre of the fuss. He ended up being demoted to Cleveland of the AHL. And so, as the old adage has it, “that’s all she wrote”, in that chapter of the former champions.
At the commencement of the 1945-46 NHL season, the press seemed to echo the above sentiments about the Hawks being the “best team ever”, when it suggested that “Toronto, holders of the Stanley Cup, looked stronger than ever”.
But the “paper” roster, with Apps, Taylor, Don Metz, Dickens, and Gaye Stewart all back from the armed services, and the team which took to the ice, bore little resemblance to one another. They lost six out of the first eight contests, and by early November the team’s slump was the “subject of much talk”.
Goalkeeping was one apparent Achilles heel. Frank McCool, who boasted four shutouts in the previous spring’s triumph, was not signed due to contract issues. Baz Bastien was pressed into service, and, after not winning a single one of five starts, the untried Gordie Bell replaced him. Finally, after “Ulcers” signed on the dotted line in late November, he was treated to a 8-2 bombing in his debut.
Even owner Conn Smythe, who had also been in active service, returned home, only to be ordered by doctors to take a long rest. “Babe” Pratt, who was having a banner campaign, was suddenly suspended for gambling, weakening the defense corps. Syl Apps suffered broken ribs, further depleting the lineup.
“Turk” Broda finally returned from overseas, but, having just lost his front teeth in a match in Holland, vowed he was through with the game. And, when he finally changed his tune and suited up in February, it was like shutting the gate after the cows got out. In fact, after his first appearance against the Habs, the Gazette reported: “The Canadiens gave the Maple Leafs another shove down the road to oblivion by beating them 6-2……”
Apparently the 7-3 loss to Boston on March 10 put the final nail in the hopes of the former Champions, since it meant it ended their hopes of a playoff berth. The Star opined: “They began folding up individually and collectively as the schedule progressed!”
A little more than two decades later the Buds offered a repeat performance. The 1967-68 version of the boys from Charlton Street were left out in the bitter cold at post-season time. The slide into playoff oblivion was doubly painful, in that it was the last time the Blue and White enjoyed a victory parade down Bay St. The only “Original Six” sextet who have not copped the Cup since the initial expansion, the once proud franchise has flabbergasted hockey historians and frustrated its fans for 48 years. Showing some signs of life from time to time, the Leafs have fallen sadly short of expectations.
A number of explanations have been proposed concerning Toronto six’s fall from grace. Perhaps the most common was is that age finally caught up with them. This amazing over-the-hill gang pulled off something little short of a miracle in the spring of 1967. None were more surprised than the first-place Blackhawks who met them in the semi-final, and came out second best. What the passing years had taken away was offset by experience, the smarts, and determination. But even adrenalin cannot carry a team indefinitely.
Simple though that diagnosis was, it was far from the only one. Personnel changed—key players were gone! The incomparable Terry Sawchuk was lost in the expansion draft—as was Bobby Baun and Al Arbour. Larry Hillman was cut loose over a $500 salary raise request. Red Kelly retired. The “Big M” was lost in a trade, and the value of the players gained in return was suspect.
But underlying it all was Punch Imlach’s insistence to continue ruling with an iron hand. He refused to acknowledge that times were changing. As Milt Dunnell wrote: “With expansion came unions, agents, and coaches couldn’t run players’ lives anymore!”
At the executive level foolishness prevailed. The entire farm system was scuttled, with Rochester and Victoria auctioned off for less than a million dollars. Ballard and Stafford Smythe were found guilty of embezzling team funds. Team dissension caused by any and all of the above spelled “finis” to continued success.
Perhaps the most surprising nosedive took place in 1969-70. The Canadiens, the only other club to experience this dubious lowlight twice, had finished atop the heap the previous campaign, with 103 points. Continuing that domination in the post season was almost a forgone conclusion. But when the chips had all settled in April of ’70, they were second last in the Eastern Division of the 12-team loop. Wha’ happen’?
As always, it was not one single fly-in-the-ointment which caused the league’s oldest team to falter and fail. The fact that they couldn’t seem to maintain any significant winning streaks was a big factor. But that scenario prevailed because there were also notable gaps when the entire roster was not intact.
Injuries continued all season. Serge Savard, a key to their defensive game, broke his leg. Beliveau, Henri Richard, J.C. Tremblay, and John Ferguson each missed several games due to various hurts of one kind or another. Gilles Tremblay vacated the line-up permanently, being force to retire because of asthmatic complications. Coach Claude Ruel was a controversial figure, and it was said dissension prevailed because of him.
On the last night of the season, it came down to a matter of total goals scored to determine whether the Habs or the Rangers would head for the golf course the next day. The strangest scene took place when Montreal took the ice against Chicago. They needed five goals to qualify for the playoffs. Down 5-2 with 9 minutes and 30 seconds left in the final frame, their only hope was three more goals—win or lose. So at that point Ruel pulled goalie Vachon, returning him to the crease only for faceoffs.
The ploy backfired. Instead of a successful Hab’s “power play”, the Hawks added five empty net tallies, resulting in a 10-2 loss—and the team left holding the bag (golf bag, of course). It was their first instance of missing the post season in 22 years.
Twenty six years would pass until another troop of champs would end up becoming chumps. As the 1995-96 final statistics were calculated, the New Jersey Devils, who had won all the marbles the previous season, had slipped enough rungs on the ladder to become the latest red-faced troop.
Some critics were quick to compare the shortened ’94-’95 schedule with a short playoff series, when a mediocre team, with all the ducks in row, can hit it lucky, prevailing against a number of squads who are actually superior teams.
Coach Jacques Lemaire blamed the more-than-average number of injuries, and the lack of player leadership for the funk. It was also acknowledged that they were the second-worst offensive team in the circuit.
“Inconsistency” seemed to cover it best. Even though they had gone unbeaten for 10 games by March 15th, after that, in the home stretch, they couldn’t get it together. A shut-out loss to Hartford, and a 5-2 stinker against Ottawa, “the worst team in the NHL”, sealed their doom.
It is ironical that the last sextet to blow it in this fashion, was the Canadiens, a team which included Jacques Lemaire, the bench boss of the Devils.
Not only did the 2005-06 version of the Carolina Hurricanes fail to go beyond the regular schedule the following season—they only made it once to the playoffs since! Little wonder shinny scribe Joedy McCreary referred to the ’06-’07 campaign as “their sour season”.
They stumbled out of the gate with four consecutive losses, failed to put together any significant winning streaks, and managed but two wins in seven starts to conclude the year. Although the finale was an O.T. victory, it was “too little too late”. They lost 250 man games through injuries—causing extended absences of key plodders like Stillman, Kaberle, and Hedican. But team members agreed that was not a valid excuse, since it was a part of the game. The exit of skaters like Mark Recchi and Doug Weight, who were natural leaders, hurt the cause as well.
Defender David Tanabe commented: “This is the best collection of players I’ve ever played with NOT going to the playoffs.”
Eric Staal was less philosophic: “It’s unacceptable in light of the talent we have in this room!”
It has been said that “Success is but one step from failure.” Perhaps it was originally meant to bolster confidence for better things in the future. But, sadly, it also tells an all too familiar tale of the ups and DOWNS in professional sports.
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