Winning the championship is the pinnacle of achievement for a professional sports team. Repeat next year is rare. But deals are made, and players retire. Injuries occur, as well as disturbances. Post-season play is a daunting task to run, and it continues to expand. Winning the third title in a row is one of the toughest achievements in team sports, and it looks like it’s getting tougher.
The Tampa Bay Lightning takes to the ice Wednesday night in a bid to win the Stanley Cup for the third time in a row. It’s been 20 years since any team has won three consecutive championships in one of North America’s major professional sports.
When a team, like Lightning, can win two championships in a row, how hard has it been, historically, to get the third?
recurs: 17 since 1927, including lightning.
three times: five, with two title rounds stretching to four in a row and one, Montreal Canadiens from 1956-60, to five in a row. The two-time champion has a 31% pass rate the next season.
It turns out that 31 percent is pretty close to the baseline for most leagues, with one exception.
the most recent: Islanders 1981 – 1982, the series reached four the following season. “At the beginning of the year, people thought the islanders were going to win it,” said Roger Nelson, coach of the Vancouver Canucks, who lost the cup final in 1982. In the playoffs, people thought they were going to win it. It takes a real team to get through that kind of pressure.”
As for the chance of getting three more in 40 years: “When you grow up in Canada, you always dream of putting your name in the Stanley Cup,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “And getting there the first time, it was a dream come true. Getting there again the following year was a dream, as if there was no going back. Going for the third time is unimaginable.”
Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Islanders were one of the best teams in the NHL, but the Stanley Cup consistently eluded them. The most disappointing years of the decade came in 1978 and 1979, when they finished with the most points in their conference during the regular season but failed to reach the finals.
So in 1980, when the islanders won the Stanley Cup in six games over the Philadelphia Flyers, there was a gorilla-sized burden lifted off the players’ backs.
Butch Goering, an islander center from 1980 to 1985, said, “There was a lot of pressure on the guys, and that was tremendous pressure, but we finally got it done, and there was a lot of relief throughout the organization.”
After that first title, Göring said, the win was “relatively easy” for the islanders, and the statistics back that up. The Islanders set a post-season record that still stands across North American professional sports, with 19 consecutive game series wins from 1980 to 1984.
“In the second cup, we never sweated,” Göring said. “Yes, we had to play, not only did we throw sticks on the ice, but we were able to play to our level because we understood that. We knew exactly what we had to do, and the pressure was kind of, so we knew what we had to do.”
And for the third championship, Göring said the feeling was the same: “We felt during those first three years that if we gave our best, you couldn’t beat us.”
recurs: 13 since 1947.
three times: Five, with the 1966 Celtics completed an unfathomable eight in a row. 38 percent success rate. The term “threepeat” was copyrighted in 1988 by Pat Riley, now head of the Miami Heat. Riley, the Lakers coach at the time, won two consecutive titles, but ultimately his team failed to earn royalties for their third title in 1989.
the most recentThe 2002 Lakers, who also stand as the last team to win a triple-double in a major North American professional league.
“One, it’s a novelty and feels good,” Kobe Bryant said after No. 3, sweeping the New Jersey Nets. “The first will always be the best. The second, the adversities we went through throughout the year made those adversities special. We proved that we belong. That, it kind of made us rise as one of the great teams.”
Steve Kerr, who was on the three-game winning Chicago Bulls in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and came close to coaching the Golden State Warriors in 2019, said that feat is very difficult to achieve.
“I just think the buildup of feelings and the physical wear and tear that you deal with over time. I think you go from year one, where it’s kind of fresh and new, and by year three, every other team is chasing you and everyone is building their team to try and beat you. You’ve had short seasons out. “Out of the ordinary for a few years in a row. It just tires you out for sure. So I think winning three in a row in any sport is a very impressive achievement.”
recurs: 14 since 1903.
three times: Four, including four and five in a row, of course, Yankees. Success rate of 29 percent.
the most recent: 2000 Yankees. “We won the bigs,” said curator Mariano Rivera. “That’s why we are so good.”
Not everyone bought this explanation. “If every club was allowed to spend $100 million on payroll, you wouldn’t have the same team winning every year,” Jim Bowden, general manager of the Cincinnati Reds said at the time. “But let us not discount what the Yankees have accomplished. They are to be commended where credit is due.”
Bowden would have been surprised to learn that despite that spending, the Yankees wouldn’t win again until 2009, and they haven’t won since.
Repeats: 17 since 1920.
three times: only three – a long time ago – and none of the four or more. Success rate: The meanest in sports at 18%. And one of the three is questionable: The Canton Bulldogs won titles in 1922 and 1923, then merged, moved to Cleveland, and won again, although not many consider that the same franchise. Don’t count that, and it’s down to 12 percent.
the most recent: 1967 Green Bay Packers, making the NFL stream wait three times longer. (The other trio was undisputed by the Packers in 1931.)
Only the last two of the Packers’ three titles in the 1960s were in the new Super Bowl, so no team has won this big game three times in a row. The Miami Dolphins appeared in three consecutive Super Bowls, and the Bills lost four consecutive times in the 1990s.
Upstart Dolphins lost Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys, 24-3. The stinging defeat spurred the Dolphins the following year, when they completed their only perfect sports season, going 17-0 and beating Washington in Super Bowl VII. With roughly the same roster, the Dolphins repeated as champions in the 1973 season.
“You get injured players, you might get a deal or two, but in those good years, we haven’t had a lot of changes,” said Dick Anderson, strong team safety and one of their defensive leaders.
The Dolphins were still a formidable team heading into the 1974 season. There was no free agency at the time, so the team’s key players were still under contract. But the coaches were free to leave, and Bill Arnsberger, Dolphins’ defensive coordinator, became the Giants’ head coach. Arnsparger was Dolphins’ top-ranked No Name Defense engineer, and Anderson said that despite the players’ talent, it would have been more difficult without their soft-spoken but stubborn captain.
“I don’t remember ever questioning the defense he called,” Anderson said. “He’s been a brilliant coach, and people don’t realize when you look at the other coaches, they’ve also had other jobs,” including offensive coordinators Howard Schnelenberger and Monty Clark.
It has a much shorter history, but no team has made it three times in MLS since it started in 1996, despite having three. The Houston Comets won their first four WNBA titles, but there’s only been one other team—the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002—to repeat since the league began in 1997. By adding the two junior leagues, we get a 20 percent success rate.
Regardless of the sport, this third title in a row is hard to come by.
Ken BilsonAnd the Scott Caciolaand Chris Reem and Shauna Richer Contribute to the preparation of reports.