Mario Lemieux touched the Prince of Wales Trophy twice. So did Sidney Crosby, and he’ll soon touch it for a third time.
Wayne Gretzky touched the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl. So did Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic.
All of these captains are not only in (or will be in) the Hall of Fame, but all of them led their teams to a Stanley Cup victory a week or two after touching their respective Conference championship trophy.
Yet on Monday evening, the hapless deputy commissioner Bill Daly performed his unenviable, pointless annual rite of spring: presenting trophies that nobody wants anymore. Last night in Nashville, the Predators conformed to recent tradition when they refused to touch the Campbell Bowl, their prize for winning their first-ever Western Conference Championship.
We’ve all heard the stated reason repeatedly: teams do not raise, touch or even show much elation at winning the Conference Trophies since winning a semi-final series is not the ultimate goal. To celebrate winning a Conference brings a curse on the club before the Stanley Cup Final.
Does it really? In the words of Evgeni Malkin: “I say no.”
Disregarding how in real life, touching or not touching a trophy has zero correlation with winning or losing the next round of playoffs, even the basic facts don’t support the custom. In the 34 completed seasons comprising 1982-2016 when the Wales Trophy and Campbell Bowl have both been awarded to playoff Conference champions, there were eight seasons where one semi-final champion touched their Conference trophy while the other semi-final champion did not. Touchers went on to win the Stanley Cup five times while non-touchers only won three times.
Shouldn’t superstitions actually make sense? So why do players and teams continue to illogically disparage winning the Eastern or Western Conference title?
My best guess is that since conferences and divisions have changed so much over the years in the NHL, there is no real historic connection for a modern-day club to understand the context of its achievement. This is sadly ironic for a league that once was unique for honoring its history by using builders’ names (Patrick, Adams, Smythe, Norris) for its divisions until 1993 when it acceded to dull geographic designations. Nashville, the 2017 Western Champion, can’t really compare themselves to say, the 1983 Oilers, when expansion, franchise relocation, realigned divisions, length of schedule and altered playoff formats are taken into account.
Also, the Wales Trophy and Campbell Bowl have been awarded for different reasons over their lengthy history. Prior to 1982, the Wales Trophy was an award for the regular season – not playoffs – Eastern Conference champion. Before expansion in 1967, the Wales Trophy was earned by the top regular season NHL club, essentially that era’s Presidents’ Trophy. So again, with a constantly evolving criteria for winning them, the Conference trophies are viewed with disdain and mean much less to today’s players. They simply don’t have the same cachet as the Stanley Cup – consistent, timeless and unchanged in its symbolism as professional hockey’s highest team championship award.
Finally, a few observations about the touch vs. no-touch superstition. Philadelphia’s Eric Lindros in 1997 was the first to refuse to touch a conference trophy after captains had all accepted the award the previous 30 times. It’s not surprising that he would demonstrate such ingratitude. It’s also not surprising that a team under Lindros’ “leadership” would be swept in the subsequent Stanley Cup Final. Mike “Leadership” Richards, tried the opposite in 2010, making contact with the Wales Trophy. The Flyers still failed to win the Cup.
Lemieux not only touched but hoisted and skated with the Wales Trophy at Civic Arena after defeating Boston in Game 6 of the Wales Conference Final in 1991. Two weeks later, Pittsburgh won its first Stanley Cup. The following year at Boston Garden, the Penguins swept the Bruins in a rematch and Lemieux again held the Wales Trophy. Their next game was arguably the greatest game in team history and led to another sweep and an NHL record eleven straight playoff wins culminating in another Cup.
Sixteen years later, Crosby, in the spirit of the times, chose not to touch the Wales Trophy after their victory over the Flyers. Detroit easily beat the Penguins in the 2008 Stanley Cup Final. The following spring, after repeating as Eastern champions in a sweep at Carolina, Crosby held the Wales Trophy with Malkin and Sergei Gonchar at his side. The Pens scraped by Detroit (non-touchers) in seven for the Cup. Last season, Crosby and his alternates did the same thing when the Wales Trophy was presented on Consol/PPG ice for the first time. Pittsburgh earned its fourth Cup by beating San Jose (non-touchers).
When Daly hands the Wales Trophy to Crosby tonight in Ottawa, there is zero doubt that the captain, creature of habit, will hold it chest-high, with Malkin and Chris Kunitz flanking him, just like last year. The touching/no-touching superstition is pure bull but why mess with success?