Hall of Fame, Hockey, Sports

The Hockey Hall of Fame Bias towards “Last time we won the cup was…”

The more I went through previous Hockey Hall of Fame admissions for a previous blog entry, the more I became aware of a pattern: the sheer number of inductees who played for a franchise’s last cup winner.

Memory is an extraordinarily powerful force and it seems like the memory of a franchise’s “last great team” is often enough to get guys inducted who otherwise don’t have enough of a resume.

Today, I look at all the teams with post-Cup droughts over 20 years and see whether there is indeed a pattern.

The 1938 Chicago Black Hawks

  • Time between titles: 23 years
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 1/1
  • Regular season record: 14-25-9 (6th out of 8th)
  • Hall of Famers: Seibert, Voss (builder)
  • Questionable Hall of Famers: Seibert

Until the Hawks won in 2010, they were the only original six team with less than 4 Cups. It’s safe to say they were once considered the least successful franchise in the league. (And, for a time, they were more than that; they were the Red Wings’ de facto farm team between 1944 and 1958.)

It’s no surprise that the first entry in our list doesn’t exactly fit the bill: few Black Hawks from that era are in the HOF. Moreover, this wasn’t exactly a good team.

If anything, the HOF has romanticized the earlier championship Black Hawks instead of this one (3 HOFers, two of which might be questionable) because frankly this one just got hot at the right time.

But Seibert is still a big question mark. He made a ton of first and 2nd teams (in an 8 team league) but was, by more advanced metrics, only a top 10 D twice in his career and really doesn’t look like a HOF defenseman upon reflection.

The 1940 New York Rangers

  • Time between titles: 54 years
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 0/1
  • Regular season record: 27-11-10 (2nd of 7)
  • Hall of Famers: Neil Colville, Coulter, Bryan Hextall, Lynn Patrick, Pratt, Clint Smith,
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Colville

The ’40 Rangers had a lot of good players, so it is sort of hard to slag them too much. Still, they do fit the bill with Colville, who I once wrote about in a piece I’ve since deleted.

Though the other HOFers on the team all seem to have the individual greatness thing down, we do need to seriously think about this: were the ’40 Rangers so good that they deserve to have their six best players in the Hall of Fame? What team is that good?

Well, a few Habs, Leafs and Wings dynasties probably fit that bill. But the Rangers? The second best team the year they won, and one finals loss a few years previously. And that’s it. In a 8- and 7-team league. Hardly a legendary team.

The 1941 Boston Bruins

  • Time between titles: 31 years
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 1/1 (and 2 more finals appearances in the subsequent 5 seasons)
  • Regular season record: 27-8-13 (1st of 7)
  • Total Number of Hall of Famers: Bauer, Brimsek, Clapper, Roy Conacher, Cowley, Dumart, Schmidt
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Bauer, Brimsek, Dumart

The Bruins, on the other hand, were a near-dynasty. This was their second Cup in three seasons and they were back again three more times over the next decade though they never won again.

But there are seven guys from this team in the HOF, which is kind of nuts. Moreover, almost half are really sketchy.

This is the first really solid example we have a franchise’s last cup win getting immortalized unduly.

  • Clapper, Connacher, Cowley and Schmidt are all no-doubters.
  • But Bauer and Dumart are not HOFers under any standard
  • And Brimsek is borderline (if we had a save percentage, I could tell you whether or not he deserves to be in).

The 1955 Red Wings

  • Time between titles: 52 years
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in previous 5 seasons: 3/3 (1 final appearance in the subsequent 5 seasons)
  • Regular season record: 42-17-11 (1st of 6th)
  • Hall of Famers: Allen (builder), Delvecchio, Hall, Howe, Kelly, Lindsay, Pronovost, Sawchuk
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Delvecchio (shock! horror!), Pronovost

The ’55 Red Wings are the first legitimate dynasty on the list and therefore hard to impeach.

Yes, tons of HOFers on the roster, but this was a great team. 4 Cup wins in 6 years.

Yes, it was a six team league, but that’s still a dynasty. (Even if it’s a dynasty by old standards: it’s basically like getting to the conference final 4 out of six years now.)

  • But Delvecchio, for all his accomplishments, was never really a star. (He was only a Top 5 offensive player once in his unbelievably long career, and that on a team which under-performed during the playoffs.)
  • And Pronovost had some very good years – perhaps deserving a Norris once or twice had it existed – but then had numerous other mediocre years.

They are both borderline cases, rather than obvious mistakes, but they are in, I think, because they played for the ’50-’55 Red Wings.

Had they been on the Black Hawks during this time, neither would be in the HOF.

The 1961 Black Hawks

  • Time between titles: 49 years
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 0 (2 finals appearances in the subsequent 5 seasons)
  • Regular season record: 29-24-17 (3rd of 6)
  • Hall of Famers: Arbour (builder), Hall, Bobby Hull, Mikita
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: None

This is the first time the HOF didn’t make any mistakes, but it could be in part because of the franchise we’re talking about: the Hawks were a doormat until these guys game along.

The one thing you could say about the Hawks is they were never as good as they should have been. Hull was 22 and Mikita was 20. One might expect great things to come out of these guys after they over-performed this year but alas, though they became a better regular season team – eventually becoming the best regular season team right before Hull bolted to the WHA – they never again won a cup (3 finals appearances before Hull left).

So if there is any ground to criticize Hull’s or Mikita’s induction – and there isn’t, as Hull is the greatest LW of all-time and Mikita is one of the great centres of his era – it’s on that.

The 1967 Maple Leafs Leafs

  • Time between titles: 45 years and counting
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 3/3
  • Regular season record: 32-27-11 (3rd of 6)
  • Hall of Famers: Armstrong, Bower, Horton, Kelly, Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Pronovost, Sawchuk, Stanley.
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Armstrong, Bower, Keon, Pronovost, Stanley

So maybe this post is really just about the ’67 Leafs, probably the most overrated team – in terms of Hall of Fame admissions –  in the history of the NHL. Nine (9!!!) players? Nine? Nine.

And worse, over half of them are super borderline cases:

  • Horton and Kelly were among the best D of their era and Kelly had become a star centre by this point.
  • Mahovlich was possibly the best LW in the league before Hull – Hull’s only real competition for that title while the two were in the league together – and Sawchuk was, at times, the most dominant goalie in the league.
  • I have discussed Armstrong and Keon elsewhere, and I must say I’m glad I’m still alive. [Post since deleted, though not due to threats.]
  • I mentioned that Pronovost was only great for a time (and he wasn’t while he was on the Leafs).
  • Bower is substantially more borderline than Brimsek but still borderline – again, we don’t have the save percentage to know whether his three stellar years were a result of him or his team, or a bit of both. [Save percentage is now available for at least part of Bower’s career so I will need to look into this.]
  • And Stanley has no business being in any Hall of Fame, except his home town’s.

Despite this being the last gasp of an honest to goodness dynasty, this team is the poster child of overrated teams: the last “great” Leafs team, the Hall seems to feel like they should induct the entire roster in order to save the franchise from the modern version of itself.

The 1972 Boston Bruins

  • Time between titles: 39 years
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous five seasons: 1/1 (1 appearance in the subsequent five seasons)
  • Regular season record: 54-13-11 (1st of 14)
  • Hall of Famers: Bucyk, Cheevers, Phil Esposito, Orr,
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Cheevers

Like the ’61 Black Hawks, you might say these Bruins underachieved. Featuring the greatest hockey player of all-time and a couple other very good players, it is sort of hard to understand how such a talented group only won two cups and only appeared in three finals (while Orr was still there, anyway).

That said, it raises the HOF in my estimation to see so few of these Bruins in there. One would think, based on the ’67 Leafs example that – at least until the Bruins won the Cup again last year – the tendency would be to induct tons of people from what was a great regular season team (for most of the decade they were first or 2nd in their division).

  • Cheevers is questionable for the simple reason that he rarely excelled (again no save percentage to prove otherwise) on a great team.

And now that the Bruins have won a Cup again, I think it less likely that others on the team will find their way into the Hall too.

The 1975 Philadelphia Flyers

  • Time between titles: 42 years and counting
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 1/1 (2 appearances in subsequent 5 seasons)
  • Regular season record: 51-18-11 (3 way tie for 1st of 18)
  • Hall of Famers: Barber, Clarke, Parent
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: None

The HOF has also shown remarkable restraint with these Flyers, perhaps because of their reputation for violence. But I do worry that the longer the drought goes, the more likely Reggie Leach will be inducted (and Propp, who has more of a case).

Fortunately for those of us who care about these things, the Flyers have made it very hard to immortalize this team because of how nasty they were. A slightly less dirty team might have found 6 or 7 of their members in the Hall (actually I think this is unlikely, since the HOF’s prejudice seems to be very much Original Six-focused).

The 1983 New York Islanders

  • Time between titles: 34 years and counting
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 3/3 (1 appearance in the subsequent five seasons)
  • Regular season record: 42-26-12 (tied for 6th out of 21)
  • Hall of Famers: Bossy, Gillies, Potvin, Billy Smith, Trottier
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Gillies, Smith

The Islanders are the first post-expansion dynasty we encounter – as the only other post-expansion dynasty was the endless continuation of the pre-expansion Habs’ dynasty – and therefore it becomes a little harder to judge who doesn’t belong.

Five players is a lot from one team, but people have argued – I think rightly – that at one point the ’80-’83 Isles were the second best team ever (at least the 2nd best post-expansion team); though that wasn’t true of their final run.

  • Bossy, Potvin and Trottier are all no-doubters.
  • Gillies is pretty much the opposite.
  • Smith is borderline but on the acceptable side of borderline.
  • If Goring had been inducted it would do more to support my theory but fortunately he hasn’t been.

It’s actually kind of amazing that they haven’t inducted more than five (though I think that’s fine). After looking at the Bruins, Flyers and Islanders, it feels like the HOF stopped their overrating of final franchise cup wins after the expansion. But that isn’t true…

The 1989 Calgary Flames

  • Time between titles: 23 years and counting
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 0/1
  • Regular season record: 54-17-9 (1st of 21)
  • Hall of Famers: Gilmour, MacInnis, McDonald, Mullen, Nieuwendyk,
  • Number of questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: McDonald, Mullen, Nieuwendyk

The late ’80s Flames were a very good, sometimes great, team that had the ill-fortune of playing at the same time as the Oilers and Patrick Roy. And, for whatever reason (perhaps the sheer likability of many of them), the HOF has chosen to re-take-up its tendency with this particular team.

  • McDonald I have already detailed (in a post since deleted).
  • Nieuwendyk’s candidacy I supported, but I still believe he is relatively borderline, and there are certainly many players more deserving who should have been put in ahead of him.
  • Finally, Mullen is in because he was the first American to score 500 goals (and really for no other reason) and so it depends how important cultural firsts are to you. (Certainly Mullen’s induction means that someone like Mats should be an absolute lock.)
  • Vernon actually has a way better case than Mullen.
  • If Suter is eventually inducted we know that the ’89 Flames are now the ’67 Leafs of the ’80s.

Well actually that is the team below:

The 1990 Edmonton Oilers

  • Time between titles: 22 years and counting
  • Titles / Finals Appearances in the previous 5 seasons: 3/3
  • Regular season record: 38-28-14 (5th of 21)
  • Hall of Famers: Anderson, Fuhr, Kurri, Messier
  • Questionable admissions to the Hall of Fame: Anderson, Fuhr

The Oilers had lost the very best offensive player in history and still managed to win a cup, in a year when they really weren’t thought good enough to do so. Arguably, it is partially because of this cup win (but likely more because of the ’94 Rangers) that Glenn Anderson is in the HOF. It’s still ridiculous, but it’s a little more understandable… I guess.

  • But as I have pointed out before, Anderson didn’t exactly play a major role on this or most other Oilers champions.
  • And Fuhr had the luck of playing behind a ridiculously dominant offensive team. He won his fifth cup as a backup who didn’t even play in the playoffs.

This was the last gasp of a dynasty, and it has been treated as such. Though the ’90 Oilers aren’t brought up as proof of Fuhr’s deserved HOF-ness, they are for Anderson. And that’s silly.

I have stopped this at teams with 20 year+ droughts.

I think the evidence is not exactly clear. Certain teams have been overrated because of their status as the “last great team” for a given franchise, whereas others have not been. Though you could easily make the case with both the Bruins and Flyers that they have had great teams not win cups on multiple occasions, and you can’t make that case really for the Leafs or for the Islanders.

So to conclude I think we can say the prejudice exists, but it isn’t always present. And that’s a good thing. Let’s hope that the HOF will eventually become a little more public about its process and we can make sure that fewer Bobby Bauers and more Adam Oates make the Hall of Fame.

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