Chicago left the starting gate faster than any other team in NHL history, despite an inordinate amount of high-stick violations.
Stopped at 30 consecutive games without a regulation loss—including the final six of last season—the Chicago Blackhawks skated within sight of the all-time record of such sustained excellence, held by the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers, who eluded defeat for a staggering 35 straight contests. This is not only the record for an unbeaten streak in the NHL, but for all four major North American sports.
In the interest of fairness, I now make my fan-ancial disclosure that I am a long-time Flyers follower. But before you accuse me of Broad Street bias, this really isn’t about a favorite team's record being threatened—Chicago’s streak now moot anyway. It’s about the distaste I’ve always harbored for streaks continued from a previous season, like so many carried-over vacation days.
A team, or an individual player, whose streak began the previous season—even if it likely wasn’t recognizable as anything of note at the time—enjoyed benefits that stretch its legitimacy: an offseason of rest (although that, in itself, could work against a streak); often subpar competition against teams out of playoff contention, or saving themselves for the postseason; and, most importantly, losses during that postseason.
We Americans are obsessed with statistics. Raw numbers, sabermetrics, streaks, records, anything we can quantify. Particularly when it comes to sports, we are a bottom-line nation. ESPN and other media outlets almost daily spew any numerical accomplishment they can find, sometimes bordering on the ridiculous, such as LeBron James’ recent skein of six games scoring at least 30 points while shooting 60 percent from the field—one of the more inane and meaningless records in recent memory.
Or Friday’s nearly-as-vapid CBSSports.com wire report, regurgitated by Philadelphia sports-radio host Glen Macknow before the Miami Heat attempted to extend their 16-game win streak, that, with a victory over the hometown 76ers, the Heat would “make history” [Macknow's words] and enter into a tie for the 12th-longest win streak in NBA annals. (A seven-way tie, by the way.) Since when has 12th place in anything made headlines, let alone history?
Yes, we love to rate, rank and evaluate using every statistic we can get our eyes on—it’s very American.
Which is why I’ve always found it curious—almost nonsensical—that playoff statistics and performances are verboten when it comes to season records. It’s a strange official standpoint that a team can be recognized as undefeated even when losing at the most critical time, or that a player can maintain a streak despite failing when his team most needs him.
Competition in the playoffs is intensified. And with success in the playoffs being the goal of any franchise, postseason achievement is even more important than what’s done in the regular season.
To that end, even though three of the four games Chicago lost in last season’s first-round defeat to the Phoenix Coyotes occurred in overtime rather than regulation, Chicago got whitewashed, 4-0, in the deciding game.
It’s odd—almost contradictory—to celebrate a team for not losing when it, in fact, lost—when, amid their winning streak, those same players sat dejectedly in the locker room because their season ended in defeat.
We perform the same categorical whitewash of playoff performance in all sports.
Innumerable sources state that Roberto Clemente’s last Major League hit was his 3000th—an incredibly and, in its way, fortuitously coincidental achievement. But it was not Clemente’s last hit—the great right-fielder singled in the first inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series against the Cincinnati Reds a few weeks after the close of the regular season, less than three months before his tragic death.
A .318 hitter in five postseason series, Clemente collected 34 hits that are separate from his 3000. But suppose Clemente had finished the 1972 season, and his life, with only 2999 safeties—perhaps just one more questionable call at first base or great catch over an 18-year career. Is it fair to consider him excluded from that exalted milestone (even more exalted at the time because only 10 other players had reached 3000 hits) because those 34 hits don’t count?
A pitch was just as difficult to hit safely in those playoff games—probably more so, because Clemente, like any batter in postseason competition, faced the cream of the rotation during those short series, and opposing pitchers and fielders were bearing down harder than some mid-July contest with half the schedule still to play.
(Clemente faced both five 20-game winners and five future Hall of Famers making seven starts during his postseason career, including running the gauntlet in 1971 against a 20-win hurler every game of the seven-game Fall Classic—Roberto collected 12 hits against the Baltimore Orioles’ four-headed monster of Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, and Pat Dobson.)
In the case of Sam Rice, the Clemente scenario came to pass. Retiring 13 hits shy of 3000 (unbeknownst to Rice at the time; see his entry, No. 8, in my slideshow for a fuller explanation), this very deserving Hall of Famer waited 29 years for Cooperstown’s call even though Rice knocked 19 World Series hits, giving him an overall total of 3006. Had Rice’s World Series totals “counted,” he would have rightly received baseball’s ultimate honor many years earlier instead of savoring his glory only in old age.
Still, full credit to the Chicago Blackhawks. They made an amazing run, including unparalleled success to begin a season, during a compressed scheduled in which they enjoyed fewer days off than did the 1979-80 Flyers.
Even Flyers’ general manager Paul Holmgren, a member of that record-setting squad, himself stated that Chicago’s run is more impressive than Philadelphia's because of league parity—which is certainly true in terms of balanced competition: During its 25-0-10 run, Philadelphia played 18 games against teams that finished the season below .500 (several of them below .400).
Chicago faced off in only six contests against sub-.500 teams since its undefeated streak began late last season (although the Blackhawks did not have to play any Eastern Conference teams in the present truncated schedule).
Yet what gave Philadelphia’s 35-game unbeaten streak that extra luster was its continuity across a single season, unpunctuated by an offseason or playoff loss.
Had it been achieved by, say, going undefeated over the last 15 games of the previous season and then the first 20 games of the 1979-80 slate—especially if those mini-streaks sandwiched postseason disappointment—the streak’s enormity would have been lessened and 1979-80 might glisten no more brightly than any of the other bittersweet seasons in which Philadelphia reached the Stanley Cup Final.
I doubt we would feel the same about Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak—perhaps the most celebrated individual achievement in all of American sport—had Joltin’ Joe garnered his hits over two seasons (as, ironically, did the man whose record he eclipsed, Willie Keeler) rather than in the crucible of one wondrous, uninterrupted, pressure-cooker season.
And, despite the fact that Major League Baseball distinguishes between single-season and multi-season streaks, I am certain that if a player eventually surpasses DiMaggio’s feat, but accomplishes it over the course of two seasons, the new record will never possess that same mystique—not because he’s not the iconic DiMaggio or because it didn’t occur in the silvered mist of pre-war America, but simply because it didn't capture a nation’s imagination over one, brief magical summer.