Winning a championship is the peak achievement for a professional sports team. Repeating the next year is a rarity. But trades get made, and players retire. Injuries happen, and so do upsets. Postseason play is a grueling gantlet to run, and it keeps expanding. Winning a third straight title is one of the toughest feats in team sports, and it is seemingly getting tougher.
The Tampa Bay Lightning take to the ice on Wednesday night in a bid to win a third straight Stanley Cup. It’s been 20 years since any team won three consecutive championships in a major North American professional sport.
When a team, like the Lightning, does manage to win two straight championships, just how hard is it, historically, to get the third?
repeats: 17 since 1927, including the Lightning.
threepeats: Five, with two title runs stretching to four in a row and one, the Montreal Canadiens from 1956-60, to five straight. The league’s two-time champs have a 31 percent success rate the next season.
It turns out that 31 percent is pretty close to the baseline for most leagues, with one exception.
Most recent: The 1981-82 Islanders, a string that reached four the following season. “At the beginning of the year, people figured the Islanders would win it,” said Roger Neilson, the coach of the Vancouver Canucks, the losing Cup finalist in 1982. “In the middle of the season, people said they would, and heading into the playoffs, people figured they’d win it. It takes a real team to get through that kind of pressure.”
As for the chance of another threepeat 40 years later: “When you’re growing up in Canada, you always dream about having your name on the Stanley Cup,” Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said. “And to get there the first time, it was a dream come true. To get there a second time the next year was like a dream, like there’s no way we’re going back. And to go a third time is unthinkable.”
Starting 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 from the players’ backs.
“There was a lot of pressure on the guys, and it was a tremendous grind,” said Butch Goring, a center for the Islanders from 1980-85, “but we finally got it done, and there was tremendous relief throughout the entire organization .”
After that first title, Goring said, winning was “relatively easy” for the Islanders, and the stats back that up. The Islanders set a postseason record that still stands across North American professional sports, with 19 straight playoff series wins from 1980 to 1984 .
“In cup two, we never broke sweat,” Goring said. “Yes, we had to play, we didn’t just throw our sticks on the ice, but we were able to play to our level because we understood. We knew exactly what we had to do, and the pressure was kind of off, so we knew what we had to do.”
And for the third championship, Goring said the feeling was the same: “We felt during those first three years that if we played our best, you couldn’t beat us.”
repeats: 13 since 1947.
threepeats: Five, with the 1966 Celtics completing an unfathomable eight in a row. A 38 percent success rate. The term “threepeat” was copyrighted in 1988 by Pat Riley, now the Miami Heat team president. Riley, the Lakers’ coach at the time, had won two titles in a row, but in the end his team failed to earn him royalties with a third title in 1989.
Most recent: The 2002 Lakers, who also stood as the last team to threepeat in a major North American pro league.
“The first one, it’s a novelty and it feels good,” Kobe Bryant said after No. 3, a sweep of the New Jersey Nets. “The first one will always be the best one. The second one, adversity that we went through throughout the course of the year made that one special. We proved that we belonged. This one, it’s kind of making us step up as one of the great teams.”
Steve Kerr, who was on the Chicago Bulls team that won three consecutive titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and came close as coach of the Golden State Warriors to doing the same in 2019, said accomplishing the feat is extraordinarily difficult.
“I just think the accumulation of emotion and the physical wear and tear that you deal with over time. I think you go from the first year, where it’s kind of fresh and new, and by the third year, you’ve been hunted by every other team and everyone’s building their team to try to beat you. You’ve had short off-seasons for a couple years in a row. It just wears you out, for sure. So I think winning three in a row in any sport is a pretty incredible accomplishment.”
repeats: 14 since 1903.
threepeats: Four, including a four- and a five-in-a-row by, of course, the Yankees. A 29 percent success rate.
Most recent: 2000 Yankees. “We win the big ones,” reliever Mariano Rivera said. “That’s why we’re so good.”
Not everyone bought that explanation. “If every club were allowed to spend $100 million in payroll, you would not have the same team winning every year,” Jim Bowden, the Cincinnati Reds’ general manager at the time, said. “But let’s not take away from what the Yankees have accomplished. They deserve the credit where credit is due.”
Bowden would have been surprised to learn that despite that spending, the Yankees would not win again until 2009, and they haven’t won since.
Repeats: 17 since 1920.
threepeats: Just three — a long time ago — and none of four or more. Success rate: The stingiest in sport at 18 percent. And one of the three is iffy: The Canton Bulldogs won titles in 1922 and 1923, then merged and moved to Cleveland and won again, though many don’t consider that the same franchise. Don’t count that, and you’re down to 12 percent.
Most recent: The 1967 Green Bay Packers, making the NFL’s current wait the longest for a threepeat. (The other undisputed triple was by the 1931 Packers.)
Only the last two of the three Packers titles in the 1960s were in the new Super Bowl, so no team has won that big game three straight times. The Miami Dolphins have appeared in three consecutive Super Bowls, and the Bills lost four in a row in the 1990s.
The upstart Dolphins lost Super Bowl VI to the Dallas Cowboys, 24-3. The stinging defeat motivated the Dolphins the following year, when they completed the sport’s only perfect season, going 17-0 and beating Washington in Super Bowl VII. With almost the same roster, the Dolphins repeated as champions in the 1973 season.
“You get injured players, you might get a trade or two, but in those good years we didn’t have many changes,” said Dick Anderson, the team’s strong safety and one of its defensive leaders.
The Dolphins were a still 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 coaches were free to leave, and Bill Arnsparger, the Dolphins’ defensive coordinator, became head coach of the Giants. Arnsparger was the architect of the Dolphins’ top-ranked No Name Defense and Anderson said that as talented as the players were, it was harder without their soft-spoken but heady leader.
“I don’t remember ever questioning a defense he called,” Anderson said. “He was a brilliant coach, and people don’t realize when you look at the other coaches, they also got other jobs,” including offensive coordinators Howard Schnellenberger and Monte Clark.
It has a much shorter history, but no team has threepeated in MLS since it started in 1996, though there have been three repeats. The Houston Comets won the first four titles in the WNBA, but there has been only one other team — the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001 and 2002 — to even repeat since the league started in 1997. Adding up the two young leagues we get a 20 percent success rate.
No matter the sport, it’s hard to get that third straight title.
Ken Belson, Scott CacciolaKris Rhim and Shawna Richer contributed reporting.