2010: The year sports droughts ended
The New Orleans Saints. The Chicago Blackhawks. Spain. The San Francisco Giants.
Sensing a 2010 sports theme yet?
Yes, the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Boston Celtics in the final, but if the NBA has never much cared that about 40 per cent of its teams have resided in also-ran status for years or decades, why should we?
The past year was one in which long-suffering fans got to see their team take top honours in football, hockey, soccer, and baseball. As far as World Cup years go, you’d be hard-pressed to find another in which there were as many first time or long-in-the-making champions (See fullbar at end of story).
Sports fans had never seen the Saints or Spain triumph on the biggest stage, and most weren't around the last time the Blackhawks or Giants did.
We could rehash Patrick Kane’s fluky winner, talk about how Drew Brees and his cohorts salved, not solved, post-Katrina ills, and so on. Those stories can be found in the related links. Here instead is a snapshot of the long journey to the top, with a look at some of their lowest moments along the way.
Blackhawks: From Wirtz to first
"It was storybook with Patrick scoring the game-winner. I dedicate this to my father, my grandfather, my uncle and everybody in our family who worked their asses off for so long.'' — Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz said to The Chicago Tribune.
Backstory: The Associated Press headline heralded: Blackhawks End Long Stanley Cup Drought.
It was April 16, 1961 and it appeared the Blackhawks would only get better after beating Detroit for their first championship in 23 years. There were veterans like Glenn Hall and Pierre Pilote, Bill Hay was in his prime, and Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita were not yet 23.
Chicago would play for the Cup four times in the next dozen years, but lose each time.
The Blackhawks were a strong franchise, making the playoffs in every year but one until 1998. What followed was a grim decade marked by just one playoff appearance and the refusal of owner Bill Wirtz to get with the times when it came to marketing or broadcasting his team’s exploits.
Wirtz expressed confidence at the turn of the century that new hire Mike Smith could turn around the club.
There was progress for a time and the final two drafts with Smith at the helm garnered future Cup linchpins Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Dustin Byfuglien. But the damage for the GM had already been done by that point.
The 18 months or so beginning in 2003 were particularly grim. The club was playing .500 hockey until a January tailspin, punctuated by a Columbus strip club incident that spelled the end of Theo Fleury’s career, with Phil Housley soon following him.
Smith was fired early the next season, a disastrous one in which the club finished with 59 points.
Here comes the ironic part, and not in an Alanis way.
Smith’s biggest criticism came from a pair of brutal drafts in 1999 and 2000, which forever solidified his To Russia With Love credentials. He drafted seven Russians who would go on to contribute a grand total of 53 NHL points, with most not making it across the ocean.
The 2004 NHL lottery would be won by a 59-point team all right — Washington. The Capitals picked Alexander Ovechkin. The Penguins selected Evgeni Malkin. The Blackhawks got Cam Barker.
Poor Barker. Guy didn’t even see the journey through either, traded in February to Minnesota.
Saints: After the storm
"We played for so much more than just ourselves; we played for our city. We played for the entire Gulf Coast region. We played for the entire Who Dat nation that has been behind us every step of the way." — Drew Brees
Backstory: The Saints were not born of purity. The NFL-AFL merger faced cries of antitrust from some members of Congress and House Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana was called upon by Pete Rozelle’s team to use his influence to make the opposition go away. Presto, New Orleans was awarded a franchise soon after. The team didn’t even have an owner yet.
The first draft in 1967 proved inauspicious. The decision was made to trade the first pick — used to select future superstar Bubba Smith — for two solid but unspectacular veterans. Future Saints president Jim Finks, then GM with Minnesota, insisted years later that during the same period New Orleans also declined interest in obtaining future Hall of Famer Fran Tarkenton, who the Vikings were shopping.
By the time the Sainted managed the franchise’s long-awaited 55th win, they’d racked up over 150 losses.
Hopes were high after an 8-8 season in 1979 under head coach Mike Nolan, the first .500 season in 13 years of existence.
But some of the worst special teams play in NFL history and a defence that gave up 30 points per game helped get Nolan canned after an 0-12 start.
Along the way a bartender and so-called fan started selling paper bags to patrons of the Superdome. Only a few thousand wore them over their heads at any time, but the image of "The ‘Aints" was indelible.
The first practice under interim coach Dick Stanfel went well. Players Derland Moore and Don Reese got into a fistfight.
"These people don’t know how to win," Moore told reporters later.
Moore’s teammates put that assertion to the ultimate test in their 14th game. New Orleans outscored San Francisco 35-7. But that was only the halftime score, as Joe Montana began to make his bones by rallying the Niners to a 38-35 overtime win.
New Orleans would squeak by the Jets by a point for that 55th win in franchise history, and their only one of 1980.
Bum Phillips took over as coach in January.
"This was not my idea of the best way to get to the Super Bowl", he quipped.
New Orleans got to draft first at least. George Rogers turned out to be a fine running back, and he won a Super Bowl — seven years later with Washington. Lawrence Taylor and Ronnie Lott, drafted in the next several minutes, won with the teams which selected them.
Giants: San Francisco treat
"This team is all about San Francisco — a bunch of misfits who overachieve." — Fan Elisa Viramontes, to the San Francisco Chonicle.
Backstory: It would be 19,193 days before the Giants brought a World Series to the Bay Area after arriving from Brooklyn, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Giants were a formidable bunch in the 1960s, always finishing with a winning record, reaching the playoffs twice, and losing in the World Series in 1962.
But fans of the franchise would endure 19 losing seasons between 1972 and 2009, as well as several threats to move the team.
Owner Bob Lurie was seen as a white knight in 1976 after buying the club from Horace Stoneham. Stoneham had been rejected by the courts after an attempt to sell the team to a prospective ownership group who wanted to see baseball played in a new, exotic location — Labatt’s, CIBC and Globe and Mail publisher R. Howard Webster.
In 1985, San Francisco sports fans saw their 49ers dominate earlier in the year en route to their second Super Bowl, but the Giants were woeful.
Bob Brenly led all Giants hitters with just 19 home runs. Vida Blue, 36 and suspended for all of 1984 due to a drug conviction, was the only starter to manage a .500 record.
President Al Rosen said he was tired of "major leaguers running just 45 feet on a ground ball."
The bigger trouble was off the field, or more specifically, the field itself. Just over 800,000 came to see the team play its home games that year, less than half of the 1978 attendance.
Lurie’s love for his ballclub was exceeded by his loathing for cold and windy Candlestick Park. He tried in vain to buy out a lease that still had about a decade to go and was rebuffed by Oakland when he divined to share the Coliseum with the Athletics.
Lurie even took meetings with a Denver group before returning begrudgingly to "The Stick."
Detroit pitching guru Roger Craig took over on the field, with a 21-game improvement the next season part of a positive stretch highlighted by a runner-up finish in the earthquake-hit Bay Area World Series of 1989.
Lurie sold the club to a local owner in 1992, but only after looking into San Jose as a site, as well as an attempt to sell to a group that would have relocated to Florida.
The next owner was able to get that new stadium built.
Spain: Fighting spirit found
"You brought together all Spaniards, made our dreams a reality and projected the name of Spain to the world." — King Juan Carlos
Backstory: The Spanish national team's record of underachievement in international soccer was legendary.
Prior to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Spaniards qualified for 12 tournaments but managed to advance beyond the quarter-finals only once, in 1950.
Aside from winning the 1964 and 2008 European championships, Spain had chronically disappointed at the international level. It was a puzzling track record for a country that boasts one of the best professional leagues in the world and arguably the greatest club in all of soccer, Real Madrid, which has won the Champions League/European Cup nine times.
Expectations were high as Spain hosted the 12th World Cup. Some turned to numerology — why not an even sixth host champion?
Spain was the beneficiary of some home cooking in their first match, escaping with a draw courtesy of a goal gained from a dubious penalty call late against Honduras.
The hosts were down 1-0 early in their next match against Yugoslavia, when they were awarded another penalty. Ufarte’s penalty kick was wide, but the Spaniards caught a break when the referee ruled the Yugoslavian keeper left early. The second attempt was good and Spain would ultimately win 2-1.
Spain barely avoided the shame of going out in the first round, however, after losing 1-0 to a 10-man side from Northern Ireland. Goal differential saw them through.
Enigmatic coach Jose Santamaria lamented the fact that, " … in three attacks against us, [the opposition] have scored three goals."
Superstitious about practising too many tactics in front of the media, Santamaria vowed the second round — not a knockout stage back then — would see the team put it all together.
"We play with more fighting spirit, intensity and power than West Germany and or England," the former Real Madrid star said of their next opponents. "Spaniards know how to fight."
The rest of the country by then wasn’t so sure, according to a New York Times article, Spain: Unified Against Spain.
The team was a collection of individual stars who couldn’t play selflessly, many believed.
''Real Madrid, El Barca, Valencia, Espanola. You could take any of them and they would do better than Spain," a taxi driver told Times reporter George Vecsey.
Spain and the Germans were scoreless after the first half in front of 90,000 in Madrid but it all turned within a 20-minute span.
If Santamaria thought his earlier words would spur on Arconada, it didn’t work. The keeper had an impressive career, but some regrettable moments on the international stage. Not quite as egregious as his misplay of a Michel Platini shot two years later, Arconada would cough up a rebound to give Germany the first of its two goals.
Spain saved face with a late goal, and Arconada later shut the door on the slim hopes of England, but for that final match there were about 15,000 less at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.
Santamaria was soon shown the door after a tournament ledger of just one win in five matches.
It's not much as far as numerology, but 28 years after ‘82, Spain were on top of the world.
The sports chart
As you can see, in previous World Cup years there was a higher preponderance of familiar or repeat champions.
Given that there's more collective sports history behind us, 2010 was impressive indeed in terms of crowning long-suffering sports teams.
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