BY Art Thiel 03:10PM 06/14/2019

Thiel: 2 first-time champs; a Mariners’ allegory

Title tTriumphs this week by bedraggled franchises in St. Louis and Toronto reinforce the notion that decades of despair do not last unto infinity. There’s hope for the Mariners.

Blues players Colton Parayko, left, and Ivan Barbashev celebrate with the Stanley Cup on the deck of a St. Louis bar Thursday. / St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Mariners fans alert: Sports-franchise enfeeblement is not a permanent condition.

Probably you knew that. But when the local nine leads the solar system in errors, strikeouts and double-digit losses, sometimes it’s important to hear the reminder over the Benny Hill-theme music playing on an endless loop in your minds.

The celebrations this week of champions in the NHL and the NBA had a commonality — both are first-time champions in cities that had longtime waits. The successes offer a glimmer that relieves a bit of the baseball bleakness. And the development also speaks a bit to the NHL future here.

The St. Louis Blues are NHL champions for the first time in their 51 years. The Toronto Raptors are NBA champs for the first time in their 24 years.

The feats are noteworthy locally because the Mariners are on their 43rd year without a World Series appearance, much less a win. But in the grand sweep of pro sports franchises, renegade malaise is not uncommon.

It does, however, inspire gallows humor, the latest being a question:

Who wins their first championship first — the Mariners or the NHL franchise that is two years from birth?

The question gains a little legitimacy given the NHL’s recent ability to surface orphans, destitutes and ne’er-do-wells. The abrupt, unforeseen Stanley Cup win by the Blues — in early January, they were the worst team by record in the West — follows the one by the success of another longtime street urchin. The Washington Capitals in 2018 won their first title in 45 years.

And a year ago, the NHL’s Las Vegas Golden Knights were the darlings of the sports universe. Their remarkable success — the initial first-year expansion team to reach the top nearly since Lewis and Clark won the walk to the mouth of the Columbia River — suggests that its sister expansionists in Seattle need not flail for decades.

But both winter sports leagues have dubious dollops of teams without championships.

Cup triumphs by Washington and St. Louis cut to 11 the number of active NHL franchises that have not won titles, at least since the 1927 start of the Cup’s designation as an NHL-only award.

Seven have played in the finals without winning: Vancouver Canucks (three times), Buffalo Sabres (twice), and one appearance each for Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Ottawa Senators (since 1992 expansion), San Jose Sharks and the Knights. The Canucks and Sabres, expansion sisters in 1970-71, have been at it the longest.

Four have yet to make the finals: Columbus, Atlanta/Winnipeg, Minnesota and Arizona.

The NBA also has 11 active non-champion franchises.

Five have been in the finals: Twice for Phoenix, New Orleans/Utah, New Jersey/Brooklyn and Orlando, and once each for Indiana. Six have yet to play in the finals: Buffalo/San Diego/Los Angeles Clippers, Charlotte, Denver, New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans, Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies and Minnesota.

In the NFL, 13 active franchises have not won a title since the 1967 start of the Super Bowl era.

Nine have been to the title game and lost: Four each for Minnesota and Buffalo; twice for Cincinnati, Carolina and Atlanta; and once for the SD/LA Chargers, Houston/Tennessee Titans, Cleveland (pre-1999) and St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals. Four have never been: Cleveland (post-1999), Detroit, Jacksonville and Houston Texans.

MLB, with many more seasons, has a mere two without a World Series appearance, the Montreal/Washington Nationals, begun in 1969, joining the Mariners (1977 start) in a duopoly of futility.

So a glance beyond baseball reveals lots of places with similar non-competitive droughts. Our friends in Phoenix show up empty on both winter sports lists. The sun-kissed sports mediocrity was disrupted with a lone World Series title by the 2001 Diamondbacks behind ex-Mariner Randy Johnson. The football Cardinals made the Super Bowl in 2008, losing to the Steelers.

In the NHL, the two most storied franchises, Montreal and Toronto, did a lot of winning when the league was six teams (pre-1968), the Canadiens taking 24 titles and the Maple Leafs 13 since 1915. But the Leafs last won in 1967 and the Canadiens not since 1993. The New York Islanders won five consecutive titles through 1984, and haven’t been to the Cup finals since.

The foregoing represents a lot of data points featuring emptiness, but the compilation seemed worthwhile as thousands poured into the streets in St. Louis and Toronto to celebrate a novel thing that that only the most resolute local imaginations could conjure: A championship after decades of denial.

Some will try to discount the Raptors’ victory because of injuries to Warriors stars Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Wrong. Attrition is always a part of every sports season. It’s a shame for all when it happens, but should never diminish the accomplishments of the winners.

Sonics fans will forever lament the back injury to Nate McMillan that compromised him in the 1996 Finals against the Bulls. The same can be said about Seahawks fans for the injuries to Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril in the Phoenix Super Bowl against New England. The what-if game is always irresistible after a loss, but also irrelevant in judging the worthiness of the winner.

Cementing the cred of both teams as legitimate champs, the Raptors and Blues each won three road games. That feat by itself deserves its own civic parade.

Regarding the Seattle question of who wins first, I’m going to say it’s the Mariners, based exclusively on this spring’s exorcisms in St. Louis and Toronto. The Mariners have been at the sports-misery thing way longer.

Vindication of the forsaken. It’s a trend.



  • Tian Biao

    you’re on, Art! I’ll take the Seattle Whatnots hockey team to win a title long before the Mariners based on simple logic: it is not possible to be worse than the M’s.

    • art thiel

      There’s a cheery outlook. The M’s looked great Friday night.

      • Tian Biao

        yes, I suppose we need to take our nuggets of optimism wherever we find them. they did look good last night! here’s to tonight . . .

        • Husky73

          Down 3-0 after the first inning……

  • jafabian

    Though they’ve yet to play in the World Series that might have been different in 2001 if Jamie Moyer didn’t get injured right before the ALCS. Heck, if the M’s didn’t have to do a one game playoff with the Angels in 95 Randy would have been more rested for the playoffs.

    • art thiel

      The if-thens in sports are relentless and enduring.

      Oft-forgotten from the M’s in 95 is that they had to play three games in three days in three cities in three time zones — Arlington, Seattle and New York. I attended each and finally recovered about three months ago.

    • LarryLurex70

      Next you’re going to go on and on and on about how if only the strike hadn’t happened, the Expos would’ve won the WS in ‘94.

  • Larry StoneB

    Well done Art, thanks. I lived in Missouri in 1967-68. Al Arbour was my favorite player for the Blues. Strong defense, professional…and wore glasses on the ice! It was exciting to see the Blues go to the Cup finals so quickly after being formed. I suspect the Kraken will be good out of the gate.

    • art thiel

      With all six expansion teams in the same conference, someone had to win.

      I hope the Hansen brothers glasses stage a comeback.

  • Husky73

    The Mariners don’t need Benny Hill. They need Benny Hinn.

  • bevdog

    Is it possible that the Mariners will finally make it to the World Series? Is their game plan for their “Road to Vindication” to dump salary at first, acquire young, inexpensive position players and pitching talent and convince a few great pichers to sign on?
    We shall see.
    Here’s a potential future position player lineup to demonstrate the money saving concept:

    Mallex Smith CF $578K
    J.P Crawford SS $555K
    Mitch Haniger RF $590K
    Daniel Vogelbach IB $558K
    Omar Narvaez C $581K
    Ryan Healy DH $580K
    Mac Williamson LF $555K
    Dylan Moore 3B $565K
    Shed Long 2B $555K
    Total Starting Position Player Payroll: $5,117,000

    If this is what the M’s have in mind (stay tuned), it would free up a lot of money in order to acquire more pitching talent which is an obvious need. Any thoughts or ideas on pitchers and pitching prospects would be appreciated as following their revolving pitching door has been a challenge to follow. Thanks.

    • LarryLurex70

      If you’re thinking the M’s might “acquire more pitching talent” through free agency, you’ve completely forgotten to consider that these are the Mariners of 2019, not 1999. No high-priced top level talent is going to want to sign with Seattle. Which is probably for the best. High-priced household name players who achieved super star status before ending up in Seattle have rarely continued to perform at that level once they get here. I’m not talking about only MLB, either.

      • art thiel

        I think the premise was that the pitching would come from prospects recently acquired as well as draftees. A high-priced free agent pitcher makes sense only if he’s the final piece.

        • LarryLurex70

          They’re years away from that.