NESN Debates: In Which Sport Is It Toughest to Repeat as Champions?

NESN Debates: In Which Sport Is It Toughest to Repeat as Champions? Editor’s note: Each week, NESN.com’s editorial staff will debate a topic via email in a feature called “Field Judges.” We’ll post the conversation and the ruling on NESN.com.

Ricky Doyle, Assistant Editor, Monday, 10:54 p.m.:

When the Bruins raise their 2011 championship banner to the rafters Thursday night at TD Garden, it will mean the team’s Stanley Cup defense is officially under way. Most of last season’s squad will be returning this season, which means the word “repeat” will be tossed around, well, repeatedly.

But championship repeats are a rarity in sports because so much has to go right during each and every season in order to capture one title, never mind multiple in a row. Each sport presents its own sets of obstacles, making title runs different for each.

So I pose this difficult question to you all: In which sport is it toughest to repeat as champions?

Mike Cole, Assistant Editor, Monday, 11:24 p.m.:

They’re all tough. If repeating was easy, it would happen more often. Of course, I can’t use just that as a response, can I?

I’m leaning toward either hockey or football, and much of my reasoning stems from the physicality of both.

If I had to choose one, though, I’d probably go with hockey. It’s just so darn tough to win 16 games when things matter most. You play your 82-game schedule, and then you’re saddled with playing roughly 22-28 more games to win it all. It’s crazy.

If you lose one guy to injury (a real possibility due to the nature of the sport and the tournament), you’re done. One bounce of the puck can change the playoffs. Run into a hot goalie, and see you later.

There are so many factors that go into it, and that’s all on-ice matters. That’s not even considering how teams can run into salary cap problems after winning it all, much like the Blackhawks did last season.

Plus, you gotta wear a beard for, like a month and a half, and that gets itchy.

John Beattie, Associate Editor, Tuesday, 4:05 p.m.:

Well, it’s not hoops.

I’d have to say football.

When it comes to most successful playoff runs, most teams ride hot players. But how does one stay hot in football? They don’t, really.

Also, there are just too many things that could go wrong throughout training camp, 17 weeks of hard-fought, successful regular-season football and an added month of playoff football in the dead of winter. The injuries stack up, players lose focus, and opponents pick up on gameplans and zero in on everything you’ve been doing right all season.

Unlike most sports, if you lose one key player (I’m looking at you, Indy), your team is likely pushed back at least an entire season.

If a hockey team were to lose its starting goalie, for example, there is a backup ready to step up without having to learn the playbook and have teammates get acclimated to his style. If it loses its top center, there are 20-plus guys there to step up and a coach that has plenty of other options and ways to go about winning games.

If a baseball team loses its ace, it’s losing a guy who pitches once every five days — if that. If a football team loses its quarterback, it’s up the creek without a paddle.

Plus, it’s one-and-done in the NFL — there’s no Cowboy Up-ing after losing your first three games in a conference championship. If the best team in the league has an off-game when meeting an average team that has a good gameplan, it’s all over.

Football is, by far, the toughest to repeat.

Ben Watanabe, Assistant Editor, Tuesday, 4:13 p.m.:

As we’re all about to learn, winning consecutive titles is toughest in hockey. Every sport has aspects that are beyond the players’ control, but it’s different in hockey. The same group of players could play 10 seasons together against the same competition and come out with 10 different results. The debacle against the Flyers in 2010 and the run in 2011 are perfect examples.

If you’ve ever talked hockey with me for more than two minutes, you know how important I believe momentum is in hockey. To me, it’s more important in hockey than in any other sport. So often, one line or one goalie gets hot in April and ends up carrying a team to a title. It’s tough to capture that lightning in a bottle two years in a row.

Jeff Howe, NESN.com Patriots reporter, Tuesday, 5:02 p.m.:

I don’t think there’s a correct answer with this one, but I’ll bring up some important points.

First, I’ll eliminate the NBA because teams repeat a lot, especially when they’ve got the best player in the game. It also seams to be easier to turn it on in time for the playoffs in the NBA.

While no one has repeated in baseball over the last decade, I feel like the absence of a salary cap permits a more welcoming formula to build an elite roster if the front office spends the money wisely after thoroughly scouting talent and personalities. Of course, that theory doesn’t hold a lot of water with the Yankees of the early 2000s and the Red Sox of 2011, but both organizations had a better chance to field a champion than three-quarters of Major League Baseball.

That leaves the NFL and NHL, the only two leagues with a hard salary cap and the only two sports where raw passion and energy can be more vital to success than talent. Teams falter when they don’t bring it mentally and physically, which has bred a mixed bag of success for each league’s two finalists the following season.

I think complacency can be a much greater issue in the NHL than the NFL, so I want to lean toward hockey for this debate. But the NFL’s injury bug is something I just can’t shake.

Avoiding severe, season-ending injuries is largely about luck, and the NFLPA has said 20 percent of the league winds up on injured reserve each season. While the Packers suffered a rash of injuries in 2010, including during the Super Bowl, they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if Aaron Rodgers went down. Quarterback Drew Brees dealt with a knee issue in 2010, and combined with a level of Saints complacency, that organization couldn’t repeat. And the 2008 Patriots and 2011 Colts didn’t (and don’t) have a chance to win a Super Bowl without Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, respectively.

So yeah, the NFL guy will go with the NFL. I’ll color you shocked.

Ricky Doyle, Tuesday, 8:12 p.m.:

I’m going to have to go with hockey and my reasoning is quite simple: I believe hockey is the most difficult sport in which to win a championship. Therefore, winning two championships back-to-back is also the most difficult — nearly impossible.

The grind of an NHL postseason is absolutely insane. I mean, think about it. The Bruins played 25 games during this past postseason, and that’s including an under-handed toss in the form of a four-game sweep of the Flyers. I’m no mathematician, but if my math is correct (I carried the right amount of one’s, and such), that means the B’s played over 30 percent of a typical regular season after the actual regular season ended. Considering the physical grind that hockey demands, it’s a wonder the B’s had the energy to party like they did upon winning the Cup.

I can understand where Beattie comes from with the one-loss-and-you’re-out theory for football. But I also think that makes it much easier to repeat as champions because it could also be looked at as a one-win-and-you-advance theory. The three other sports demand that you bring your best game for an entire series, and I think that no sport commands more out of a single series or postseason than hockey.

Plus, if you win the Cup, you’re automatically at a disadvantage for the following season because of such a shortened offseason. That can be said for all sports, but a Stanley Cup run can cut two-plus months off a team’s typical offseason, therefore making a Cup victory even more difficult. Just ask the Bruins, as they were barely off the Duck Boats before training camp started back up.

Also, going off Ben’s point about momentum in hockey. While momentum might carry a great deal of weight within a game, I think it’s a bit overrated when looked at game-to-game, as is home-ice advantage. The Bruins proved that multiple times this past postseason. I think that, though, also adds to the degree of difficulty.

And, yes, beards do get itchy. I’m sure my baby face will find out some day.

Michael Hurley, Senior Assistant Editor, Tuesday, 9:57 p.m.:

Ricky just made about every point I wanted to, and he even got his math right, which I wouldn’t have done.

What it comes down to, like he said, is that it’s almost impossible to win one championship in hockey. No other sport has the playoff grind of the NHL. Each and every game in the playoffs is the most intense game of every player’s life. Then the next night, it happens all over again. And again. And again.

Just look at last year. If the puck doesn’t hit a Canadiens defenseman, or if Tim Thomas doesn’t make that insane save on Brian Gionta in double overtime, or if Tyler Seguin doesn’t turn into Wayne Gretzky for one night against Tampa, and so on and so forth, the Bruins don’t win the Cup. It requires a lot of grit to win a Cup, but it requires an equal amount of luck.

The NFL, though, isn’t far behind. One blown assignment, one tipped pass or one gust of wind could alter a team’s fate in a split-second. The Patriots’ accomplishment earlier this decade was absolutely remarkable, and it will be just as impressive when Green Bay does it again in February (control yourself, Mr. Cole).

Douglas Flynn, NESN.com Bruins reporter, Tuesday, 11:19 p.m.:

I’ll admit I’m a bit biased on this subject, but I really don’t think this should be much of a debate.

Having seen firsthand what it took for the Bruins to win the Cup this past spring, I find it hard to fathom how a team can survive that gauntlet two years in a row.

That may be bad news for the Bruins, though they are better positioned than most recent champs, as they have almost everyone back and no salary cap issues. Still, they played an extra 25 grueling games that took an immense physical and mental toll just to win the first championship. Asking them to do that again after a short offseason and another 82-game regular-season slate might, with everyone in the league gunning for them, be too much. It certainly has been for every other champion since 1998.

Hockey’s postseason is like no other in sport. It’s what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs so enthralling to watch, and the chance to hoist that silver chalice the most treasured experience in sports.

Major League Baseball and the NBA don’t even belong in this discussion. Winning the World Series or an NBA title are great accomplishments, but they pale in comparison to the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl.

The NFL does at least offer physical punishment similar to the grind of the NHL. And the one-and-done nature of the NFL playoffs do add an element of risk that a better team could lose under fluke circumstances. But as has been noted, the one-and-done format also means a champion can be crowned with as few as three wins, with at least a week between each game, and even more time to recuperate if a team has a bye in the opening week and with an extra week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl.

The NHL, by comparison, features games every other day from the middle of April to late June. No other sport can compare to that grind. Coupled with the parity imposed by the salary cap, and it’s easy to see why the Stanley Cup keeps changing hands every year.

Ben Watanabe, Wednesday, 8:24 a.m.:
I agree with Doug that hockey is the toughest, but let’s not get carried away.

“Major League Baseball and the NBA don’t even belong in this discussion. Winning the World Series or an NBA title are great accomplishments, but they pale in comparison to the Stanley Cup and Super Bowl.”

And…

“The NHL…features games every other day from the middle of April to late June. No other sport can compare to that grind.”

The NBA playoffs features exactly the same type of playoff format as the NHL, and it’s just as much a grind. Baseball is just as grueling — want to ask the Rays if the last month and five days have been rough on the psyche?

This isn’t an argument over which sport is the toughest to win a championship in -– I-d argue they-re all about the same -– but which one is toughest to repeat. There are equal chances to let it slip away in every sport, but in hockey, so many of those chances are based on factors beyond the players’ control that it’s hard to see all those bounces going a team’s way two straight years.

Michael Ryder will not be in position to make that save this season. Tim Thomas probably won’t be in a zone like that again in his career. It’s unlikely the Bruins will get as many surprise contributions from rookies like Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand in the future.

Ricky Doyle, Wednesday, 5:54 p.m.:

For the record, are we talking about the same NBA in which most teams neglect to play defense these days?

Michael Hurley, Wednesday, literally seconds later:

What is the NBA?

Ricky Doyle, Wednesday, seconds after that:

Do they still use a red, white and blue ball?

RULING

While it’s obviously difficult to win a championship in any sport and even more difficult to repeat as champions, the physical grind of football and hockey are grueling. Therefore, it’s more difficult to repeat as champions in the NFL and NHL than in the MLB or NBA.

But as physically demanding as the NFL is, the idea of having to win four playoff series that could potentially go as many as seven games each — while also playing a physical game — is crazy. Players are put to the test mentally and physically throughout an NHL postseason, making winning one championship incredible and winning two in a row nearly impossible.

In other words, the Bruins have their work cut out for them. And it all starts Thursday night.

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