TORONTO (Mar. 15) — This website is blatantly hockey–centric, which belies the fervor with which I followed the National Football League during my teenage years in the 1970’s. What an era that was — with the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings authoring legendary tales (who, of vintage, can forget watching late–season and playoff games on TV from the permafrost of old Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington?). These now–ancient memories were rekindled in recent weeks while I read the two books pictured below — authored (left–to–right) in 2010 and 2013. Both, outstanding works.
And, it got me thinking about the greatest team accomplishments in the modern history of professional sport. Any person, of any age, can go back in time (through books; TV documentaries; the Internet) and craft such a list. It helps, however, to have actually witnessed the events as they occurred, which I’ve been fortunate to do, thus far, in 58–plus years. My list of seven fathomless achievements involves all four of the major sports in North America — football, hockey, baseball and basketball. I vividly recall six of the seven… and I wonder how the list might compare to one that you would make?
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Without question; without peer; the most remarkable team accomplishment in professional sport belongs to the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association. In 11 NBA seasons beginning with 1958–59, the Celtics won 10 championships (missing only in 1966–67, when the Philadelphia 76ers beat the San Francisco Warriors). Included for Boston was a pro sports record that will never be equaled in the environment of salary restriction: Eight consecutive titles, from 1959–66. Was this, however, the most difficult achievement among professional teams? I am far from a basketball aficionado, but it stands to reason that the NBA of the 1960’s suffered from a profound crisis of parity. True, the league had only nine teams for the first six years of the decade, before Chicago made it ten in 1966–67; Seattle and San Diego 12 in 1967–68; Milwaukee and Phoenix 14 in 1968–69. Still, coach Red Auerbach and the Celtics kept on winning as the NBA expanded.
BILL RUSSELL AND COACH RED AUERBACH OF THE INCOMPARABLE 1960’s BOSTON CELTICS.
Some will suggest the Miami Dolphins own the greatest professional team accomplishment with their fabled undefeated season of 1972. Coached by Don Shula and guided, for most of the year, by back–up quarterback Earl Morrall (starter Bob Griese broke his leg in a Week 5 home game against San Diego), the Dolphins went 14–0 in the regular season; knocked off Cleveland and Pittsburgh in the American Conference playoffs, and then downed Washington, 14–7, in Super Bowl VII at the Los Angeles Coliseum. No club, before or since, has gone through an entire National Football League season — and playoffs — without losing.
That record, however, came within 60 minutes of being equaled by the 2007 New England Patriots, who actually bettered the ’72 Dolphins by winning 18 consecutive games in one season. The Pats were a perfect 16–0 in the regular schedule and followed with AFC playoff victories over Jacksonville and San Diego. But, a 17–14 loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII at the University of Phoenix Stadium (Glendale, Ariz.) prevented the ’07 Pats from becoming the second NFL team to avoid defeat from wire to wire in one season.
Given the obvious lack of parity in the 1960’s NBA, and that New England went 18–0 in 2007 before losing, the most impressive — and difficult — pro club achievements must be one of the following:
• The 1971–72 Los Angeles Lakers, with NBA legends Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, winning 33 consecutive games. The streak began Nov. 5, 1971 at the L.A. Forum with a 110-106 victory over the Baltimore Bullets and ended Jan. 9, 1972 with a 120–104 loss to Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul–Jabbar) and the Bucks at Milwaukee Arena. It spanned 67 days. The Lakers finished with the best record (69–13) to that time in NBA history, a mark that lasted 24 years until bested by the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls (72–10).
• The 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers winning their final nine games of the regular season, while outscoring the opposition, 224–28. That’s right, 28 points allowed over nine games, an average of 3.1 per match. The streak included five shutouts. In the five–game span between Oct. 17 and Nov. 14, Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati, the Giants, San Diego, Kansas City and Miami by a composite score of 132–9 — or 26.4 to 1.8 per match.
LINEBACKER JACK LAMBERT (58) OF THE FAMED “STEEL CURTAIN” DEFENSE.
• The 1976–77 Montreal Canadiens, as part of a 60–8–12 overall record, going 33–1–6 at home. The club’s lone defeat at the Montreal Forum occurred in its sixth date — 4–3 to Don Cherry and the Boston Bruins on Oct. 30, 1976. The six ties were played against the Colorado Rockies (Nov. 13); Los Angeles Kings (Dec. 2); Minnesota North Stars (Dec. 30); Detroit Red Wings (Jan. 23); Buffalo Sabres (Jan. 29) and Toronto Maple Leafs (Mar. 30). Montreal outscored its opponents 207–75 at the Forum (or 5.1 to 1.9 per game).
• The Philadelphia Flyers, coached by Pat Quinn, going 35 consecutive games without a loss. On Oct. 13, 1979, the Flyers went to Atlanta and got hammered, 9–2, at the Omni by the forerunner to the Calgary Flames. Quinn’s team did not lose again until a 7–1 blowout at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minn. on Jan. 7, 1980. Over a span of 12 weeks and one day, the Flyers won 25 games and tied 10. After defeating Buffalo at the Spectrum on Jan. 6, Philly’s record for the 1979–80 season was 26–1–10. One defeat in the club’s first 37 games… or nearly half a full regular season. Accumulating 62 of a possible 74 points. Under current National Hockey League rules, the 35–game streak cannot be matched. Ties were eliminated coming out of the 2004–05 lockout when the league instituted the shootout. Theoretically, a team could again compile a 25–0–10 mark over 35 games, but the latter figure would represent losses in overtime or the shootout.
PAT QUINN BEGAN HIS CAREER AS A DEFENSEMAN, IN 1968–69, WITH THE MAPLE LEAFS. ELEVEN SEASONS LATER, HE COACHED PHILADELPHIA TO THE NHL’s LONGEST UNDEFEATED STREAK.
• The 1984 Detroit Tigers winning 35 of their first 40 games (Apr. 3 to May 24). Included, was a pair of nine–game win streaks: Apr. 3–18 and May 14–24. Detroit’s record after 17 games was 16–1. No other team in Major League history has won 35 times in a 40–game span. The Tigers cooled off considerably, going 69–53 for the remainder of the season. They did, however, win the ’84 World Series over the San Diego Padres.
• The Chicago Bulls winning six NBA championships in an eight–year span (1991–98). The streak was interrupted by the Houston Rockets’ consecutive titles in 1994–95. Yes, the Bulls had the most dynamic basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan, but this dynasty occurred in a salary–capped league that encompassed 27 teams in 1991 and 29 in 1998. Much different than the nine–team NBA of the early–60’s.
• The Golden State Warriors, over the span of two seasons, threatening the NBA–record 33–game win streak of the Los Angeles Lakers. From Apr. 9, 2015 (a 116–105 win over the Portland Trailblazers at Oracle Arena in Oakland) through Dec. 11, 2015 (a 124–119 overtime conquest of the Boston Celtics at TD Garden), the Warriors won 28 consecutive matches. Remarkably, the streak ended in the same city as that of the ’71–72 Lakers: Milwaukee. Steph Curry and the Warriors lost 108–95 to the Bucks at the Bradley Center on Dec. 12, 2015. Between Apr. 9 and Dec. 28, 2015, Golden State won 52 of 56 regular–season games.
All of these streaks were incredible and there are others not mentioned here.
In my view, however, two of them stand out:
It is impossible to envision a team in the current–day NHL going undefeated over a span of nearly half–a–season. As mentioned, the 25–0–10 streak of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1979–80 cannot be matched, as ties no longer exist. But, even if a club compiled that record today — with the 10 column being losses in overtime or the shootout — can you imagine a team so dominant in the salary–cap era as to horde 60 of 70 available points at any juncture of the schedule? Neither can I. The NHL had 21 teams in 1979–80. The Flyers finished atop the overall standings with 116 points. But, there were other strong clubs: Montreal (107 points); Buffalo (110); Boston (105); New York Islanders (91). And, a first–year kid named Gretzky finished in a tie for the league scoring title with Marcel Dionne. In fact, the Flyers didn’t even win the Stanley Cup in 1980. They were upset in six games by the Islanders, who began their run of four consecutive championships. So, I say Philadelphia’s 35–game undefeated streak is the most astounding of all time in professional sport.
Second place is tough for me — contemplating the Pittsburgh Steelers’ remarkable defensive performance in the second half of the 1976 NFL season and the Golden State Warriors winning 52 of 56 NBA games over the span of two seasons, including 28 consecutively, in the salary–cap era. But, I’m going with the Steelers.
“MEAN JOE” GREENE (75) OF THE UNPARALLELED 1976 PITTSBURGH STEELERS.
Five shutouts and 28 points allowed for an average of only 3.1 over a nine–game span was otherworldly. Even the 1985 Chicago Bears — considered the most–bruising defensive team in modern NFL history — couldn’t match the ’76 Steelers. They came close, mind you, limiting opponents to 39 points over a seven–game span (Oct. 13 to Nov. 24), or 5.6 per match. And, unlike the ’76 Steelers, the Bears romped to victory in Super Bowl XX (46–10 over New England). But, Pittsburgh finished the ’76 season without three of its most–important players (quarterback Terry Bradshaw; running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier; all injured). The Oakland Raiders therefore won the AFC title and went on to rout Minnesota (32–14) in Super Bowl XI.
50 YEARS AGO
in The Hockey News
While we’re talking sports history, let’s go back to a half–century ago this week in THE HOCKEY NEWS. The great Bobby Hull of Chicago was threatening his own NHL mark of 54 goals in one season. Terry Sawchuk of the Toronto Maple Leafs recorded the 100th shutout of his Hall–of–Fame career — a record no one thought would be approached until Martin Brodeur was born. The Maple Leafs had rebounded from losing 10 consecutive games (Jan. 19 to Feb. 8, 1967) and were building toward their most–recent Stanley Cup.
And, Bobby Orr was piling up points as a rookie on defense with the Boston Bruins.