On Leicester City, and Stanley Cup Cinderellas
OK first, let me address the obvious -- you’re right, this is not a soccer site. It’s a hockey site. Kudos for pointing it out.
But bear with me for a moment.
Across the pond, tiny Leicester City is doing the unthinkable -- closing in on a Premier League title despite opening the campaign as a staggering 5000-to-1 longshot. (Which you can watch this Sunday at 7:30 am ET on NBCSN when they play West Ham.) Leicester is, by every definition imaginable, a true Cinderella story.
Which got us thinking, what about hockey?
At first glance, it’s fair to say the NHL’s had a good number of Stanley Cup Cinderellas.
But most of the time, there’s a catch.
Like the 1991 Minnesota North Stars, for example. The Stars snuck into the playoffs despite a lousy (27-39-14) regular season, then upset the ‘Hawks and Blues and Oilers to make it to the Cup Final -- which is when the clock struck midnight. Minnesota was blitzed by Mario Lemieux and the Penguins, losing 8-0 in the deciding game.
There was also the 2006 Edmonton Oilers. That team waited until the final week of the regular season to clinch the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, then went on a crazy run to upset top-seeded Detroit, San Jose and Anaheim.
But then... yeah, you guessed it. The clock struck midnight.
In Game 1 of the Cup Final, starting netminder Dwayne Roloson got hurt and was lost for the series. The Oilers rallied to push it to Game 7, only to see Carolina capture the final by a 3-1 scoreline.
Which begs the question: Are there any Cinderellas that made it to 12:01?
Oh sure, there’s a case to be made for the 2012 Los Angeles Kings, who got in as the No. 8 seed in the West and went on to capture the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. But the notion of the Kings being a “Cinderella” was put to bed in subsequent years: in ’13, they went to the Western Conference Final and in ’14, they won the Stanley Cup.
To find arguably the best Stanley Cup Cinderella, we go back to 1938.
NHL on NBC play-by-play man Mike “Doc” Emrick explains:
“The Leicester-like story was the 1938 Chicago Blackhawks. In a virtually-all-Canadian NHL, they had hired an American coach (Bill Stewart), had eight Americans on the squad, scored the fewest goals, only made the playoffs by two points, and upset everyone.”
“So surprising were they that the NHL did not even have the Stanley Cup present for their clinching game. It was being sent on to Toronto for what the hierarchy believed would be a fifth and deciding game there.”
Of course, no discussion about hockey and Cinderellas would be complete without the biggest one of all. No, it didn’t happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs and no, none of the players were professionals.
No matter. From NBC’s Al Michaels, who called the unforgettable game:
“The 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team had an outside shot at a bronze medal as the Games began in Lake Placid. The group’s average age was 22 and most of the players had just finished their college careers. The Soviet Union team, on the other hand, were amateurs in name only. They spent eleven months each year on the ice either training or dominating competition on the international level. Had the Soviets been allowed to play in the National Hockey League at that time, almost everyone on their roster would have been a star.
“When the teams met on February 22, 1980, most everyone who knew anything about hockey gave the American team no chance. In fact, almost everyone expected the outcome to be totally one-sided. Over the next two hours and 15 minutes, the Soviets outshot the U.S. 39-16. They led 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 with the U.S. then tying the game on each occasion. At exactly the halfway mark of the third period, Mike Eruzione scored to give the U.S. its first lead. It held up. None of this would have happened without a performance for the ages by goaltender Jim Craig, who made at least a dozen unbelievable saves to never let the game get out of hand. When the horn sounded an entire country erupted with joy.
“But there was still more work to be done. Forty hours later, that same team would be back in action against Finland needing a win to clinch the gold medal. Final score: U.S. 4, Finland 2. Thirty-six years later, it’s no exaggeration to say it still brings tears of joy to many, many people who reminisce. I’ve seen it firsthand.”