(With apologies to Tom Petty). Fans awaiting the revival of their once-great favorite teams often find it takes a painfully long time.

Colorado Avalanche fans are learning this the hard way. From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the Avs were among the NHL’s elite, finishing first in their division eight consecutive years, advancing to the Conference Finals six times, and winning two President’s Trophies and two Stanley Cups.

Their roster during that period boasted superstars Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy, Peter Forsberg, Ray Bourque and Rob Blake. Their supporting cast at various times included Milan Hejduk, Chris Drury, Adam Foote, Alex Tanguay, Claude Lemieux, Sandis Ozolinsh, Adam Deadmarsh and Mike Ricci. The wheeling-dealing, free-spending ways of GM Pierre Lacroix ensured the Avalanche remained a perennial Stanley Cup contender.

Most memorably, their rivalry with the Detroit Red Wings during that period was among the greatest in NHL history.

Since 2005-06, however, the Avalanche have fallen on hard times. Their NHL record for consecutive home sellouts (487) ended in 2006 and they’ve missed the playoffs four of the past seven seasons. Their greatest stars either retired (Sakic, Roy, Bourque) or departed via free agency (Forsberg, Blake).

Lacroix found it difficult to operate under a salary cap, prompting him to move on to the team presidency. His successors have attempted to rebuild with younger talent and a lower payroll, but for Avalanche fans spoiled by the earlier success, the process has been painfully slow.  The decline also took the shine off the once-intense rivalry with the Red Wings, which is now being killed for good by the Wings move to the Eastern Conference next season.

*****

A lengthy period of success for an NHL team can make its fans smug and complacent, so when their club goes through an inevitable decline, they find it difficult to adjust.

I’m a Montreal Canadiens fan who grew up following them during the 1970s, when they won six Stanley Cups, including four straight in the late-’70s. Older Habs fans were also fortunate to recall the great “five-in-a-row” dynasty of the late 1950s, and/or the near-dynasty which won four Cups in five years in the late-’60s.

By 1980, Canadiens fans were so accustomed to championships, it became an annual expectation. It wasn’t good enough to for the Canadiens to finish first in the division or Conference, advance to the Conference Final or the Stanley Cup Final. If they didn’t win the Cup, they were failures.

Even from 1980 to 1993, when the Canadiens went to the Cup Final three times and won two more championships, we older fans still felt disappointed in them. Sure, those Canadiens teams were good, but they weren’t great like their predecessors.

Following the Habs last Cup title in 1993, it was a considerable shock to the system when they went into their 20- year (and counting) tailspin.

We weren’t used to them missing the playoffs. When it happened in 1995 – the first time in 25 years- it was a shock. We blamed it on the lockout-shortened season, refusing to see a team on the verge of falling apart.

When they missed the playoffs in three straight seasons from 1999 to 2001, we were distraught. We just couldn’t accept the Canadiens as a poorly managed team.  To this day, we still can’t accept them as ordinary.

So, when Bob Gainey took over as GM in 2003, and rebuilt the Canadiens into a Conference leader by 2008, we believed another dynasty was in the making, unwilling to acknowledge the weaknesses leading to their total collapse four years later.

Since 1993, the Canadiens advanced to the Conference Finals only once, carried by a goalie (Jaroslav Halak) in 2010 who got hot at the right time. In the following two years, they were eliminated in the opening round of the 2011 playoffs and last season finished dead last in the Conference. It marked the seventh time since 1995 the Habs had missed the playoffs.

An entire generation has grown up without any memory of the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup. Those old enough to remember the dynasty years are either middle-aged or senior citizens. Today’s generation of Habs fans are buoyed more by the club’s glorious (and increasingly distant) past than from recent editions of Les Canadiens.

This season, the Canadiens are currently jockeying for first overall in the Conference, spurring a number of Habs fans to hope this could be the long-awaited return to dominance. Time will tell if those hopes are justified.

*****

The Chicago Blackhawks, winner of the 2010 Stanley Cup, are currently first overall in the league standings, coming off a record-setting 24 game season-opening points streak. They appear the odds-on favorite to win the Cup this season.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, when the Blackhawks were among the dregs of the NHL. From 1996-97 to 2007-08, they made the playoffs only once. For several seasons, they were among the league’s most poorly-attended franchises.

Prior to that miserable stretch, the Blackhawks were consistently a good team throughout the 1970s, ’80s and early-’90s, advancing to the Cup Final three times. However, they weren’t as dominant as the Blackhawks of the 1960s. Led by Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote and Glenn Hall, those ‘Hawks won the Cup in 1961 and remained a perennial Cup contender throughout that decade.

From the late 1970s to the early 1980s, the New York Islanders were among the NHL’s best teams. Powered by cornerstone superstars Denis Potvin, Brian Trottier, Mike Bossy and Billy Smith, the Isles were four-time Stanley Cup champions from 1980 to 1983, becoming the NHL’s last true dynasty to win three or more consecutive championships.

Since those glory days, however, the Isles suffered through nearly 30 years of mismanagement, becoming the butt of often cruel jokes. Their long-suffering fans see little sign of progress in sight. 

From the early 1980s to 1990, the Edmonton Oilers were the NHL’s most exciting team. Led by Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson, they advanced to the Cup Final six times and won five championships. Twenty-three years after their last championship, their fans are still waiting for a return to championship glory.

The Oilers run to the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals was exciting, but also a fluke. In recent years, management has been rebuilding primarily through the draft, banking on promising youngsters Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz to form the foundation of the next great Oilers team.

Given the Oilers performance this season, however, the rebuild could take longer than expected.

The Boston Bruins won the Cup in 2011 and are considered among this season’s Cup contenders, yet this franchise went through a nearly forty years gap between championships.

Between 1969 to 1975, the Bruins were among the NHL’s dominant clubs, advancing to the Final three times, and winning the Cup twice, led by superstars Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito.

From 1976 to 1996, the Bruins iced a number of good teams, many led by superstars Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, but despite advancing to the Cup Final four times during that period, they fell short of a championship. Between 1997 to 2007, they missed the playoffs five times, forcing Bourque to seek his Cup ring in Colorado.

And of course, there’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose glory days were in the 1960s.  They won four Stanley Cups during that decade, three in a row from 1962 to 1964, and their last in 1967.

For the past 46 years, the closest the Leafs got to the Stanley Cup were four Conference Finals appearances in 1993, 1994, 1998 and 2001. They last made the playoffs in 2004.

It’s reached the point where long-suffering Leafs fans will be happy for their club to make the playoffs.

 *****

It’s rare for an NHL team to enjoy decades of unbroken success, rarer still for a club to quickly rebound from the decline of earlier greatness.

Over the past 20 years, the Detroit Red Wings are the sole exception. Since 1994-95, the Wings finished first in their division 12 times, collected six President’s trophies, marched to the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final six times, and won the Cup four times. Only the New Jersey Devils came close to matching the Wings achievements over this period.

Two decades of wise management and skilled coaching maintained that lengthy period of success. They kept the club well-stocked with talent, transitioning through one set of superstars (Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan) to another (Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg), with blueline great Nicklas Lidstrom the one constant throughout that period.

They were adept at building championships during the free spending era from 1995 to 2004, as well as under the current cost-conscious salary cap era.

The Wings have been successful for so long, it’s easy to forget they went 42 years between Stanley Cup championships, or that two decades of mismanagement from 1967 to 1986 saw them reach the playoffs only four times.

This year, the Wings appear on the verge of decline. Lidstrom retired last season, leaving an irreplaceable gap in their defense. Datsyuk and Zetterberg are aging. Wings fans point to their club’s youth as their salvation,  but the possibility exists most might fail to match or exceed the accomplishments of their predecessors.

*****

The New Jersey Devils march to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final gave the impression their failure to make the playoffs the previous year was a fluke.

However, if this season is any indication, that run to the Final appears a case of a once-great team enjoying a last hurrah from their ageing franchise goalie Martin Brodeur.

From 1994 to 2003, the Devils were the near-equal of the Red Wings. They topped their division five times, advanced to the Conference Final five times, and won three Stanley Cups with a roster boasting superstars like Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer and Patrik Elias, along with a strong, frequently recycled supporting cast. Even when Devils stalwarts like Bobby Holik and Claude Lemieux departed, GM Lou Lamoriello could always find suitable replacements.

Since 2005-06, however, the Devils have been in a long, slow demise. Niedermayer departed via free agency, Stevens retired, and Brodeur and Elias are in the twilight of their long careers. While they added a genuine scoring star in Ilya Kovalchuk, and still possess quality talent in Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, they lost a future franchise player in Zach Parise to free agency. They also seem to lack a solid supporting cast.

A recent back injury to Brodeur has provided Devils fans with a glimpse of what the near future could be without him. A suitable replacement must be found soon, or things could get very ugly for the Devils.

Like the fans of the Avalanche, Canadiens, Islanders, Oilers, and others, Red Wings and Devils fans could soon find waiting for their teams to return to glory taking much longer than expected. Much, much longer.

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4 Responses to The Waiting Is The Hardest Part.

  1. kenboldt says:

    Since 2005-06, however, the Avalanche have fallen on hard times. Their NHL record for consecutive home sellouts (487) ended in 2006 and they’ve missed the playoffs four of the past seven seasons.

    That can’t possibly be true that the NHL record for consecutive home sellouts is held by the Avalanche. I find it very hard to believe that either the Leafs or the Canadians don’t hold that record. Something tells me there is a caveat or a technicality that is not being mentioned. The Leafs and Canadians not only sell out their own arenas every game, they sell out everyone else’s too, and that isn’t just a new development.

    • The Flying V says:

      ‘sellouts’ have always been a little controversial in how a sellout is determined.

  2. BCLeafFan says:

    Great article, Lyle. Don’t forget Canucks fans – every time one of my hockey buddies asks me when the Leafs won their last Cup, I ask him when the Canucks will win their first. Happy times.

  3. Richard Ilfeld says:

    Which is why Lightning fans (arguably the best set in a non-traditional market) glory in 2004, but are realists about both the development process, and that, if you have even a moderately good team but a hot goalie you can be treated to a fine playoff run (2010-2011). We are in our 20th year, and for the first time have sons whose fathers are fans, who played street hockey, and maybe got a little ice time, coming to the games. I’d argue that a team like the Islanders suffer more from “faded glory” than the average market suffers from inconsistancy. We can trace a clear seven year period when the team got better every year (and showed it in points, a statistical fluke) leading to a cup — thus a “five year plan” that is beleivable, and young talent that wins at the AHL level seem to be enough to keep the fans coming out, if not totally happy.
    And that’s what’s important, really, a management that knows that it’s about the fans, and probably better to be competitive than always grabbing for the brass ring. Had we had Toronto’s management here we’d probably be in Queec City.

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