The Championship Belt is one of my favorite recurring Grantland features, having covered everything from NFL quarterbacks to MLB pitchers to action movie heroes. But we’ve never broken it out for hockey, even though it feels like a natural for the sport. That ends today. After all, it’s the offseason, which is one of the times during the year that hockey fans like to argue with each other.
But for what? We could go with the obvious, like handing out a championship belt for the best player or top goaltender, or maybe best team. We could even do the championship belt of the actual pugilists, from Dave Schultz to Bob Probert and beyond. In fact, let’s be honest, we’re absolutely going to do that last one someday. But that day is not today.
No, today we’re going to crank up the degree of difficulty with something a little trickier: the heavyweight belt of NHL rivalries. Hockey has always been made for inspiring hatred between teams; it’s practically why the game was invented. But at any given time in league history, which one rivalry reigned supreme?
First, a few ground rules. We’re looking for rivalries between teams — there’s no individual category here. We’re also limiting this to NHL rivalries, so we won’t be including international rivalries like Russia vs. Team USA, Russia vs. Canada, and Canada vs. Sad Americans Getting Silver Medals.
So what makes a rivalry? This being hockey, bad blood will obviously be a key factor, but it’s not the only one. We’re looking for some staying power — one random brawl won’t be enough to earn the crown — and the stakes matter, too. Two teams may hate each other, but if all they’re fighting over is last place in their division, it’s probably not much of a rivalry. Finally, we’ll invoke what we can call the Ric Flair rule — to be the man, you have to beat the man, so in the case of any close calls, the reigning champ keeps the belt.
Sound good? Then, as legendary enforcer Dave Semenko would say, let’s go for a canoe ride. Anyone want to help set the mood? Ah, yes, I see we have a volunteer.
Thanks, Tie. Let’s head back a few decades, and start at the beginning.
The Original Six era: Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs
Two key points here. The first is that this is a fairly easy call, since the Leafs and Habs were the two best teams of the era. They combined for the most Stanley Cups, they met in the most finals, and they had the best regular-season records. In a six-team league where everyone is a rival to some degree, this is the one that always stood out.
The second point is that, somewhat surprisingly, this is the last time we’ll see this particular combination show up on our list. While the Leafs-Habs rivalry is to this day considered by many to be the greatest in hockey, that’s almost entirely based on history and their rabid fan bases, as opposed to anything that’s happened on the ice. That’s largely because the teams last met in the playoffs in the ’70s, and then spent almost two decades in different conferences, not to mention that the Leafs have been terrible for much of the past 35 years. They nearly met in the Stanley Cup final in 1993, which would have been insane, but it didn’t happen, and despite some recent near misses they’ve yet to meet in the playoffs since. If they ever did, they would probably take the belt back by default, but that’s a debate for another day.
Leafs-Habs will always be an important rivalry, even if it’s just simmering under the surface, and a Saturday matchup between the teams should be on every fan’s bucket list. But if it’s still considered the greatest in the sport, that’s more out of force of habit than anything, which is why the belt won’t be returning here in the post-1967 world.
Runners-up: Wings vs. Hawks, Habs vs. Bruins, and the other 12 rivalries that were even possible in a six-team league.
1968-1973: Bruins vs. Canadiens
Now here’s an Original Six rivalry that didn’t miss a beat once expansion arrived. These teams combined to win each of the first six Stanley Cups of the post-expansion era. The first three of those were anticlimactic; thanks to the league’s ridiculous decision to put all six expansion teams into one division and guarantee one a berth in the final, Montreal and Boston got to take turns stomping the overmatched Blues from 1968 to 1970.
When they weren’t rolling the Blues, they were often facing each other in the playoffs, with the Canadiens winning all three matchups during this era. The best of those came in 1971, a seven-game classic that featured Montreal’s memorable comeback win after trailing 5-1 in Game 2.
Runners-up: Canadiens vs. Black Hawks, Blues vs. North Stars, the NHL’s divisional formatting vs. common sense.
1974-76: Flyers vs. Rangers
You couldn’t do a list like this without prominently featuring the Broad Street Bullies. The question is who to pair them with, given the Flyers were hated by just about every team in the league (and even beyond). In fact, it’s tempting to just say “Flyers vs. Everybody” and be done with it.
But that feels like a cop-out, so let’s give the other spot to the Rangers, the team that came closest to derailing the Flyers during their back-to-back Cup-winning years in 1974 and 1975. That came in the 1974 semifinal, when the teams met in a seven-game classic in which the home team won each game, and which featured enough animosity that even dropping the puck for a simple faceoff ended up being an adventure.
Runners-up: But seriously, the Flyers vs. Everybody.
1977-79: Bruins vs. Canadiens
Boston and Montreal regain the title thanks to a pair of meetings in the Stanley Cup final, both won by Montreal. But perhaps the most famous moment of the rivalry’s long history comes in 1979, when the teams met in the semifinal (with a slam-dunk finals matchup against the Rangers awaiting the winner) and played one of the most famous Game 7s the league has ever seen.
Runners-up: Rangers vs. Islanders, which was just getting started. Speaking of which …
1980-82: Rangers vs. Islanders
This is one of those classic rivalries that has to find its way onto our list somewhere. While the teams had been division rivals since the Islanders entered the league in 1972, and had met in the playoffs for the first time in 1975, the rivalry as we know it didn’t really begin until 1979. That was the year Islanders defenseman Denis Potvin broke the ankle of Rangers forward Ulf Nilsson, all but ending the latter’s career as a productive NHLer and leading to the introduction of perhaps the most famous chant in NHL history: “Potvin sucks.”
The teams faced each other in the playoffs that season, with the Rangers winning in six. That would be the last series the Islanders lost for almost five full years, as they launched into a dynasty that saw them win four straight Cups from 1980 to 1983. Along the way, they faced (and beat) the Rangers every year from 1981 to 1984. That was the last time the Isles would beat the Rangers in the playoffs, although their fans would still get another decade of use out of the withering “1940” chant.