The Florida Panthers have been on a bit of a run of destiny in the National Hockey League‘s Stanley Cup playoffs, squeaking in as the final playoff seed based on the results of a game they didn’t play in, finishing their regular season with 30 fewer points than the previous year. Yet now, they find themselves representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final, four wins away from their first ever championship.
Most impressively, they shredded through the second-overall Carolina Hurricanes in a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Final, thanks to three games that went down to the very last shot (and coincidentally, all on Matthew Tkachuk’s stick). After their victory, they were awarded the Prince of Wales Trophy, and…
They celebrated it. They skated it around. They had a really fun time with it.
This took a lot of people aback. Teams don’t celebrate their conference championships in the NHL. In fact, a lot of the time, they don’t even want to acknowledge the trophy that they’ve been handed. This is a “tradition” started just 26 years ago, despite the trophies themselves being awarded to conference winners for more than double that.
Specifically, it was Eric Lindros and the Philadelphia Flyers who spurned the Prince of Wales Trophy in 1997 after winning the East. Their reasoning was extremely hockey – “it’s not the one we want.” They didn’t want to look complacent and satisfied, and wanted to keep their eyes on the prize. The Flyers went on to get swept, Lindros played just 10 more playoff games across the next eight seasons, and Philadelphia is still chasing its first championship since 1975.
Weirdly enough, despite the fact that this idea was wholly unsuccessful, as it was for the next couple teams who tried it, it made a huge comeback in the mid-2000s, with just four of 22 conference champions electing to touch the trophy between 2004 and 2015. Coincidentally, the Flyers were one of those four teams and lost to Chicago in the 2010 Final – they really can’t catch a break. In that span, seven of the 11 years featured no teams celebrating the conference championships on either side. Even with more teams coming back to it now, last year was just the second time since since 2002 where both teams made contact with their silverware.
Philosophically, this always felt weird to me. While the Stanley Cup is the end goal, it isn’t a given, particularly in a league and a sport where luck drives a significant share of your result. Seasons are grueling and even the best efforts, individual and team, aren’t usually rewarded. Just two teams to finish first overall in the regular season have gone on to win it all, or even go to the finals in the salary cap era (2005/06 to present). No Hart Trophy (MVP) winner has added a ring in the same season in this span. It stands to reason that teams should enjoy their moments, because you don’t even know what the next game will bring, let alone the rest of your season, or the rest of your career.
Perhaps that’s why the actual results of this habit are counter to the tradition. Since Lindros began the “no-touch” rule of thumb, scenarios where one team accepted their trophy and the other looked at it dismissively have seen the “touchers” go on to win the Stanley Cup Final eight times out of eleven. Coincidentally, that’s about the same rate as the betting odds favourite (via Sports Odds History) has gone on to win those finals. It’s not a one-to-one overlap of which was which; all three successful non-touchers were favourites. But it does make you wonder if the teams that enjoy the moment along the way have the right mindset – or at the very least, if it’s random noise and that both sides should enjoy it anyway.
Many teams learned that over the year and switched their habits. The Penguins didn’t touch the Prince of Wales in 2008, but did in their next three appearances, winning the Stanley Cup all three times (2009, 2016, 2017). Tampa Bay didn’t touch it in 2015, but the Lightning did in 2020 and 2021 en route to their championships (though they did lose after touching it in 2022).
After publishing this piece, the Vegas Golden Knights decided to break from their 2018 decision and did not touch the Clarence Campbell Bowl, giving us another head-to-head opportunity.
We can’t guarantee that celebrating the conference championship is doing anybody any good, but it seems pretty obvious that not celebrating isn’t exactly making these teams better. So hey, you may as well live in the moment, right?
|2014||Los Angeles||No||NY Rangers||No||-165|
|2012||Los Angeles||No||New Jersey||No||-170|