With the renewal of the storied and fierce Celtics vs. Lakers rivalry last weekend, it seems a good time to rank and review the greatest championship series rivalries of North American pro team sports. Throughout this article, we’ll explore the storied championship rivalries featuring the Boston Celtics vs. the Los Angeles Lakers, the Yankees vs. the Dodgers, the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. the Montreal Canadiens, and the Pittsburgh Steelers vs. the Dallas Cowboys.
As this is CelticsBlog, the number-one rivalry should come as no surprise:
1) Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Even the Celtics-Lakers regular-season rivalry could measure up to the championship rivalries on this list for its longevity. Amazingly, when the two arch-rivals met on February 3, 2017 in Boston, both clubs were tied for the most all-time NBA regular-season wins with 3,252.
After the Celtics won that game 113-107 to break the tie, they led the all-time series 199-159, with Gang Green ahead 156-128 in regular season play over the last 70 years.
Unfortunately, the NBA changed its regular-season schedule the very season Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson entered and revived the floundering league in 1979. In order to reduce travel and player fatigue, the NBA reduced the number of times Eastern Conference teams faced those from the West from four games to two.
Thus, the legendary Celtic vs. Laker battles became even more rare and special, with just one visit from each inter-conference foe. Often the battles were renowned, with the 100-98 Laker win in Bird's rookie season at Boston in 1980 one of the greatest and most anticipated regular-season meetings ever between the rivals.
Even in the leanest years of the rivalry, the games have often been classics because tradition and ancient enmity inspired bad teams to great heights.
Witness the February 22, 2015 classic between a rebuilding 20-32 Celtic team and a sinking, Kobe-less 13-41 Laker club. The two sub-.500 teams battled into overtime after a last-second Avery Bradley three-pointer capped an improbable Boston rally that saw him score eight points in the final 27 seconds to force OT in the Celtic debut of Isaiah Thomas.
After their 118-111 overtime win snapped a seven-game LA losing skid, then-Laker head coach and former shooting guard Byron Scott succinctly summed up the rivalry's smoldering intensity.
"I still look at them as a team that we would love to beat—probably more than any other team in the league—just because of the rivalry that we had in the 1980s," said Scott, who won two of his four championship rings with Los Angeles at Boston's expense.
"It was probably the best rivalry in all of sports at that particular time...you're talking about two of the best franchises in all of sports."
Boston vs. the Lakers conjures up all sorts of classic memories and emotions in fans who identify, live and die with the two iconic franchises. The classic rivalry captured the imagination of fans the world over while basketball replaced the national pastime as the cool sport of the in crowd and the young for its fast pace and individual artistic capabilities. Both teams represented a way of life for their devoted fans, albeit very different in how they operated.
In the 1960s the clubs respected each other, but that friendliness started to turn to dislike by the time the frustrated Lakers had lost five times in 11 years to Boston after consecutive Finals defeats in 1968-69.
When Boston clinched the 1963 NBA title in the popular Bob Cousy's career swansong at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, the Laker fans actually cheered Cooz.
By the 1980s a new hate engulfed the rivalry, as Celtic fans chanted "Beat LA" to the 76ers after arch-rival Philadelphia eliminated Boston in game seven at the Garden in the 1982 Eastern finals.
Out West the ill feelings ran much deeper, as envy fueled classless Laker fan behavior at the Forum. A bitter seven-game loss to Boston in the contentious 1984 Finals only threw gas on the rivalry's raging fire from the Laker side.
In 1985, multiple fights marred their rematch, won by LA in six for their first series triumph over Boston in nine Finals tries. When Kevin McHale hobbled off the floor after re-injuring his broken foot early in the rancorous 1987 Finals, the LA fans cheered and jeered the valiant McHale, who was in obvious pain. There was no polite applause by then for the Celtics in LA-LA land.
One franchise seemed to rest on incredible tradition, the genius deal-making of Red Auerbach, character, intelligence and skill, determination, unselfish superstars, and the sacrificing of great individual talent to make the sum of the parts even greater.
The other symbolized tremendous one-on-one artistry, superstar scorers, flash, glamour, Western domination and entertainment in addition to all the great players and coaches.
It was Celtic Pride vs. Laker venom. Boston vs. Los Angeles, East coast vs. West coast. The Hub vs. Hollywood. Green and white vs. purple and gold. Glitz vs. substance. The rat-infested, tradition-rich Boston Garden, the LA Sports Arena and the Fabulous Forum.
The parquet floor vs. Forum blue and gold. TD Garden and the Staples Center. Tradition. Perhaps the two deadliest clutch outside shooters in NBA history in Larry Bird and Jerry West. Red and the victory cigar, Pat Riley's wardrobe, slick hair and super-fan Jack Nicholson in the first row wearing shades.
The players who embodied the rivalry are many of the greatest in league annals. Even though they met only once in the Finals with the Celtics and Lakers (1969), Wilt vs. Russell was the most ballyhooed matchup in league history. It was the greatest offensive force vs the greatest defender ever, in Russell's final season no less.
Then there were the hangtime drives and improvisation of Elgin Baylor vs. the versatile skills and athleticism of poker-faced runner John "Hondo" Havlicek. Mr. Clutch Jerry West vs. sharpshooter Bill Sharman and the Jones boys. Tom Heinsohn, Satch Sanders and Bailey Howell vs. Elgin, Rudy LaRusso and Gail Goodrich.
Then came the new, updated 1980s version of the Green vs. Gold enmity. Their epic trio of Finals showdowns were headlined by two charismatic NBA saviors and richly underpinned with several juicy undercards. Larry Legend vs. Magic was, of course, the heavyweight bout everyone wanted to see, a rivalry that was the greatest of a golden era in pro sports.
You also had the stoic Chief and Big Bill vs. the ageless Kareem and his sky hook in the middle. The unstoppable inside moves of McHale vs. Worthy. Cornbread vs. Silk Wilkes. The great defender Dennis Johnson vs. Earvin Johnson. The Laker stopper Michael Cooper vs. Bird, who called the Laker sixth man his toughest matchup. Riley vs. KC. Red vs. Jerry upstairs.
After a 21-year hiatus, the rivalry was renewed in 2008 with a new cast of stars. KG vs. Pau Gasol. Kobe vs. Ray Allen. Crazy Metta World Peace vs. the Truth. Phil vs Doc on the sidelines.
Underwriting it all were the numerous banners wafting in the wind of the Garden rafters and all the retired numbers to intimidate opponents at the end of close games. The leprechaun under center court. The Hollywood mystique and the leisurely LA beach/outdoor mentality vs. the winter cold and hard-nosed history of Beantown, and the bewitching history of New England.
Any way you slice it, Celtics vs. Lakers has become the greatest championship series rivalry in North American pro sports history. Even though the series is somewhat one-sided for Boston, the matchups have generally been much closer than the final won-loss ledger indicates.
And with more great players, coaches, moments and dramatic series than any title round rivalry, it has to rank number one. The number 33 also conjures up two great uniform jersey numbers in the rivalry for Boston and LA in Bird and Jabbar, as well as the number of banners the teams have combined to hang.
The franchises have won 33 of the 70 NBA titles so far, with Boston holding a narrow 17-16 edge (five of the Laker titles came in the 1950s behind the league's first great center in George Mikan when the team was located in Minneapolis). Eleven of the Laker crowns have been won while located in Los Angeles, with 10 coming during a rich era from 1980-2010.
Sixteen of the 17 Celtic titles came during an unprecedented 30-year run of success from 1957-86. Boston won a record eight in a row from 1959-66, as well as 11 of 13 titles from 1957-69, with six coming at the expense of the long-suffering Lakers.
If not for injuries, death and stiff Eastern competition in the 1980s, Boston could easily have doubled its total of three banners in that star-studded decade.
The two long-time foes have met in the Finals 12 times, with the Celtics winning nine of 12, although LA has won three of the last four meetings. Similarly, the Yankees lead the Dodgers 8-3, with the Dodgers having won three of the last six Series.
In total NBA Finals games the Celtics lead the Lakers, 43-31. The greatness of both teams extends off the court to the microphone, with Johnny Most and Laker legend Chick Hearn the two most famous, long-standing and accomplished play-by-play announcers in NBA annals.
Only twice has there been a sweep in either rivalry. Boston swept the Minneapolis Lakers, led by rookie Elgin Baylor, in 1959. The newly-christened LA Dodgers swept the Yanks 4-0 in 1963.
Five of the 12 Celtic/Laker Finals have gone seven games, while four Dodger/Yankees series went the distance. Boston won in seven in 1962, 1965, 1969 and 1984, with each game being a classic. In 2010, LA won a defensive battle in the Staples Center.
In 1962, Boston won in overtime after Frank Selvy missed a potential title-winning mid-range jumper just before th ebuzzer in regulation.
Three years later, Jerry West led a great late Laker rally that came up just short, 95-93. In 1969, Wilt and Russell faced off in the Finals although West and John Havlicek were the superstars of the series.
For the first time in the series rivalry, LA had the homecourt advantage and took a 2-0 lead. Boston stayed alive by winning game four 89-88 on a Sam Jones 17-footer atthe buzzer that tied the series, 2-2.
The teams held serve and then met in the Forum for one of the most dramatic games in BNBA history. An aging Russell and Jones were playing their final games and looking for title number 11 in 13 years.
Laker owner Jack Kent Cooke suspended a victory celebration of balloons at the Forum ceiling to commemorate the first Laker title in LA. But someone forgot to tell the proud Celtics, who raced to a 91-76 lead after three periods of play before a stunned crowd.
West, playing with an injured hamstring, led a heroic Laker rally with Wilt sidelined by a knee injury. Scoring 42 points with 13 rebounds and 12 assists, West got the Lakers within a point of Boston late.
Wilt asked back in the game but was refused by Laker head coach Butch van Brredka Kolff. Both he and Russell were palying with five fouls, and Chamberlain had never fouled out of a game in his pro career.
But then Don Nelson canned a 15-footer that bounced off the back of the rim high into the air and through the hoop. Russell blocked a Mel Counts reverse layup, and Havlicek made a great steal. Larry Siegfried hit some clutch foul shots and Boston held on for a 108-106 victory.
West was named Finals MVP, and he is still the only player from a losing team to win the honor. However, the car he won as MVP was green and he gave it away, saying that it was the only time the Lakers were better than Boston.
Fifteen years later, Boston and LA renewed their rivalry with a new and great cast of characters. Larry Bird vs. Eavin Johnson. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar vs. Robert Parish. James Worthy and Jamaal Wilkes against Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell. Dennis Johnson vs. Earvin Johnson. KC Jones vs. Pat Riley.
In the front office, it was Red Auerbach vs. West. Hall of Famers and All-Stars at every position. Scott Wedman vs. Michael Cooper off the bench.
The 1984 Finals featured several dramatic moments, twist and turns. LA shocked Boston and stole home court with a game one upset in the Garden. The Lakers appeared poised tograba 2-0 lead late in game two when Gerald Henderson's steal and layup at the end of regulation forced overtime. Wedman's baseline jumper in the final seconds gave Boston a much-needed victory and 1-1 tie.
Out in LA, the Lakers ran Boston into submission in a game three blowout. An angry Celtic team rallied to put game four into another classic overtime after McHale's infamous clothesline of Kurt Rambis on a fast nreak layup. Two clutch Bird foul shots forced OT, and Larry's famous fadeaway over his nemesis Johnson knotted it 2-2.
Back in Boston for the 97-degree "Sauna Game," Bird authored perhaps the greatest game of his 31-game Finals career. Amid the stifling heat, Larry Legend canned 15 of 20 shots, including two three's, and grabbed 17 rebounds to lead Boston to a series and momentum-changing game five blowout victory.
Out in LA for game six, Boston appeared ready to drive the final stake into the heart of the demoralized Lakers. James Worthy returned the favor for the Rambis takedown with a hard push into the back of his former boyhood idol Cedric Maxwell on a fast break that sent Cornbread flying into the basket stanchion.
But LA rallied from a big second half deficit to force the fourth seventh game in Celtic/Laker history. Back in Beantown, Boston built a double-digit fourth period lead before the explosive Lakers began to rally late one last time.
They pulled within 105-102 in the final minute before egregious back to back turnovers by Earvin Johnson led to six title-clinching free throws by Boston in the final seconds.
A hungry Bird clinched his first Finals MVP by cleanly sinking the final four clutch foul shots. Only after sinking the penultimate foul shot for a 110-102 lead did the under-control, understated Larry allow himself a small sign of emotion and celebration, a self-clap and fist pump that showed hthat he knew they finally had won the seven-game basketball war.
His all-around excellence (27 points, 14 rebounds per game in the Finals) and determination had finally put the Lakers to sleep and avenged his NCAA title loss of 1979 to Johnson and Michigan State.
When asked by CBS legend Brent Musburger in the victorious locker room celebration if the victory "got him even" with Johnson for the devastating NCAA title game defeat, Bird replied tellingly.
"No, we're professionals now...but I won this one for Terre Haute," giving away his real feelings. For five years he had practiced countless hours alone in season and in the summer, dreaming of his chance to get even with Johnson.
Over their first four seasons, one or the other won the title three times, but somehow the rivals had managed to avoid one another in the Finals until 1984. When he finally got his opportunity for revenge in season five, Bird was not going to be denied.
Deep into that night and hours later into the championship celebration, Larry confided to close friend and teammate Quinn Buckner "I finally got him."
Certainly the 1980s revival of the Celtic/Laker rivalry had massive racial overtones. Skilled and cerebral Boston was seen as a white team that white fans rooted for. The flashy Lakers appealed more to the casual fans with no rooting interest because they were the oppressed and had always lost to Boston, were superficially entertaining and had a crossover star that America could like in Earvin Johnson.
Yet underneath the stereotypes the Celtics were immensely talented, with more Hall of Famers, and the Lakers were tougher, more physical and grittier than portrayed. The 1984 Celtics started four blacks and Bird, although McHale was basically a sixth starter.
And uninformed fans who saw Boston, a city with historical racial divisions, as an old school establishment franchise with some sort of latent white supremacist leanings, do not realize that team architect Red Auerbach was simply a classic contrarian bent on winning.
In the mid-1960s, Red was the first NBA coach to regularly start an all-black five, even though sixth man extraordinaire John Havlicek was the team's best all-around player and second most valuable asset behind Bill Russell.
In 1966 when Red stepped down as coach, he made Russell the first black head coach of a modern North American major pro sports franchise, roughly 20 years ahead of the NFL and almost a decade ahead of major league baseball.
The Celtics employed five black head coaches (Russell, Satch Sanders, K.C. Jones, M.L. Carr and Doc Rivers) before the supposedly progressive Lakers ever hired one full-time black head coach in Mike Brown, who barely lasted a season a few years ago.
Of course by 1986 the Celtics were two-thirds white, with its best players being Bird and McHale. The racial factor simply added another layer of intensity to the fascinating rivalry. But injuries and questionable officiating cost Boston in 1987, and to a lesser extent, in 1985, both six-game defeats to the hated Lakers.
Debilitating injuries and age suffered by Bird, DJ, Parish and McHale—plus the tragic deaths of two players who were to be the bridge to the 1990s era of Boston basketball in Len Bias and Reggie Lewis—caused the fall of the Celtic dynasty, and brought a two-decade halt to the storied Boston/LA title rivalry.
But in 2008, the teams renewed their championship series rivalry after a 21-year hiatus. Now it was Paul Pierce vs. Kobe, KG vs. Pau Gasol, and Phil Jackson vs. Doc Rivers as the headlines. Boston won 4-2, with a record game six drubbing, as long-time Celtic Pierce fittingly won the Finals MVP.
Two years later, the Lakers gained revenge by winning a tense seventh game in the Staples Center. LA rallied from 13 points dwon in the third quarter to win a thrilling defensive battle, 83-79.
Bryant shot just six for 24 from the field but Gasol dominated inside/on the boards (18 rebounds) and made several big plays late as LA enjoyed a huge free throw and rebound advantage at home. A severe game-six knee injury to Celtic center Kendrick Perkins also contributed to the Laker win as Boston was short-handed once again in the Finals vs. the Lakers.
Of course, LA fans would view the Celtic injuries of 1985, 1987 and 2010 as karma for all their tortuously close, bad bounce losses to Boston, especially in 1962, 1966 and 1984.
It was the first time in the history of the rivalry that LA clinched a title over Boston in a seventh game at home. Their other series wins over the Celtics came in six at Boston in 1985, and again in six at LA in 1987 over depleted Boston squads.
Boston vs. Lakers championship series history (Celtics 9, Lakers 3)
1959 NBA Finals: Celtics won (over Minneaplois Lakers), 4–0
1962 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–3
1963 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–2
1965 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–1
1966 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–3
1968 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–2
1969 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–3
1984 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–3
1985 NBA Finals: Lakers won, 4–2
1987 NBA Finals: Lakers won, 4–2
2008 NBA Finals: Celtics won, 4–2
2010 NBA Finals: Lakers won, 4–3
2) Yankees vs. Dodgers.
The only other North American championship pro team rivalries that come close are Yankees vs. Dodgers in baseball, and Montreal vs. Toronto in hockey. Ironically, the Yanks and Dodgers have also combined to win 33 titles, but it is a lopsided ledger with 27 going to New York and six to the Dodgers.
Yet the Laker/Celtic and Yankee/Dodger rivalries have many similarities. Both were completely dominated by the East coast establishment franchise early, while the other rival started in one city (Minneapolis and Brooklyn) before moving to Los Angeles two years apart (1960/1958).
Dodgers/Yankees and Celtics/Lakers defined what kind of person or fan you were in many ways. Boston had come to symbolize talented team play, pride and metronomic winning, while the Lakers were the flashy team of stylish one-on-one stars in the entertainment capital of the world who often came oh so close, but never got th ebrass ring (or cigar).
The Yankees were the establishment, like the Celtics, with a whiff of WASP-y East coast snobbishness (to their detractors) and an incredible, no-nonsense tradition of winning championships.
The Lakers and Dodgers had the pretty new West coast stadiums and colorful uniforms/players, while the Celts and Yanks preferred classic understated uniforms of green and white or navy pinstripes and white, and rotting old stadia that oozed tradition, rowdy crowds and intimidation.
Like the Lakers, the Dodgers gained the sympathy vote of casual fans and Celtic/Yankee haters because they seemed to always lose in agonizing fashion to their championship tormentors.
Stylish play and uber-popular stars like Jerry West, Kobe Bryant and Earvin Johnson helped make the Lakers America's Team in many ways. Rooting for the Celtics and Yankees by the time the counter-culture 1960s rolled around had became sort of like rooting for IBM, because they won so consistently and were seen as the system.
Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese embodied the lovable Brooklyn "Boys of Summer," made even more popular by their frequent second-place finishes to the damn Yankees.
The Yankees beat the Dodgers in each of their first five meetings from 1941-53, including three seven-game thrillers. Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen's infamous missed third strike on the last out helped cost the Dodgers the 1941 Series as Joe DiMaggio led a ninth inning, two-out Yankee rally.
In 1947, New York hurler Bill Bevens lost what would have been the first-ever World Series no-hitter AND game four 3-2 on a two-out double in the ninth by Brooklyn pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto.
Never mind the fact that Bevens had walked an amazing 10 Dodgers over the first 8 2/3 innings of his near no-no (and the winning two-run double came on the very last pitch he would throw in the majors), the dramatic finish would have felled teams of lesser character than the Yankees.
In game six, Dodger left fielder Al Gionfriddo made his famous running catch to rob Joe D of a three-run homer and help tie the series 3-3, but the resilient Yankees still came back to win game seven at home before 71,548 fans, 5-2.
By 1952 a young Mickey Mantle had taken DiMaggio's place in center field, yet Casey Stengel's Yankees kept on winning over the Duke, Pee Wee and the ground-breaking Jackie.
Future managerial great Billy Martin's clutch running catch of a pop-up with the bases loaded preserved a game-seven Yankee victory. The next year, the Yankees won their record fifth World Series in a row over the Dodgers, 4-2.
The Dodger refrain became "wait til next year" after "Dem Bums"—as they were called by their long-suffering fans for losing so many close battles to their crosstown rivals—were growing weary of being on the losing end of their numerous Subway Series battles.
Finally in 1955, next year arrived. The Dodgers beat the Yankees 4-3, with Johnny Podres pitching a shutout in the taut game seven 2-0 clincher. Was it truly real, had they finally beaten the hated Yanks? Yes Virginia, it was real. The Dodger "Sym-phony" of fans could finally rejoice.
Unfortunately, their joy would not last long, and three years later, their hearts were broken.
The next year, the Dodgers were on the verge of a repeat when those damn Yankees rallied after Don Larsen's perfect game to win the World Series, 4-3.
In both the 1955 and 1956 World Series, the home team won the first six games of the World Series, but lost Game 7.
The Dodgers shocked America by moving cross country to LA two years later, and a new chapter began in the rivalry. In 1960, the Lakers would move from Minneapolis to LA as the great "NBA logo" Jerry West arrived out West to form the most prolific one-two punch in NBA history with the stylish Baylor.
In 1963, the new Los Angeles Dodgers swept the aging Yankee dynasty 4-0 in the Series as southpaw Sandy Koufax dominated the Bronx Bombers with a then-record 15-strikeout outing.
Fourteen years later, the two rivals would renew acquaintances with a new set of stars. In 1977 and 1978 it was the pinstripe navy blue Yanks of Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson, Catfish and Sparky, Billy Martin and Graig Nettles, vs. Steve (Popeye forearms) Garvey and Ron "the Penguin" Cey, Davey Lopes and Dusty Baker, the other Reggie (Smith) and bombastic Tommy LaSorda's Dodger blue.
The two rivals engaged in a pair of memorable six-game Series, with the Yankees prevailing each time. The 1977 edition was highlighted by a 12-inning game one thriller amid a controversial call at home plate that went against LA.
Had Garvey been called safe at home when he tried to score from first on a hit-and-run single by Glenn Burke, the Dodgers would have won the game and perhaps the Series. Replays showed Garvey was safe and beat the toss home from normally weak-throwing Yankee center fielder Mickey Rivers. Instead, the Yankees got the home field call, won the game 4-3 and the Series in six.
In game six back at Yankee Stadium, Jackson finished off LA and the 1977 Series with a historic bang, hitting home runs on three successive pitches off three different pitchers in the clincher.
The 1978 rematch was a little less dramatic, as the Yankees closed it out in six at LA. After losing the first two games in Dodger Stadium, New York roared back to take the next four and the title. Gold glover Nettles made several great plays at third base to help struggling southpaw Ron Guidry (25-3 that season) win game three and keep the Yankees from falling down 0-3.
Three years later, the rivals met again, for the last time as of 2016. LA fell behind 2-0 in the Series and looked to be the Yankee victim again. But this time the comeback Dodgers would not go down.
Rookie pitching sensation Fernando Valenzuela gutted his way through a complete-game, 153-pitch outing in game three at home. Constantly pitching out of trouble, the screwballing southpaw kept LA alive with a must-win 5-4 effort as he scattered nine hits and seven walks.
An inspired LA club roared from a 4-0 deficit to win game four, 8-7. After another tense one-run win at home in game five, the Dodgers sweetly clinched the Series crown in hallowed Yankee Stadium with a 9-2 blowout win.
The Yankees lead in World Series game wins vs. the Dodgers, 37-28. Since the Bums moved to LA, they lead in Series games won, 12-10, while splitting four World Series meetings.
However, 36 years later the once constantly-meeting rivals have yet to face off again with the title on the line. In the interim, Boston and the Lakers have met in five more dramatic NBA Finals to unseat their rivalry as the greatest.
Yankees/Dodgers World Series history (Yankees 8, Dodgers 3)
1941 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–1
1947 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–3
1949 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–1
1952 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–3
1953 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–1
1955 World Series: Dodgers defeat Yankees, 4–3
1956 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–3
1963 World Series: Dodgers defeat Yankees, 4–0
1977 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–2
1978 World Series: Yankees defeat Dodgers, 4–2
1981 World Series: Dodgers defeat Yankees, 4–2
3) The Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs have met five times in the Stanley Cup Finals, with Toronto holding a slight 3-2 edge. However, the long-term rivals have not met in the Cup Finals since 1967, when the Leafs upset the Habs 4-2.
After the league expanded in 1968, the teams have been in the same conference and could not meet in the Cup title round. Still, they have met 13 times total in the playoffs, with Montreal holding a 7-6 edge.
Adding to the layers of that rivalry are the fact that Montreal and Toronto are the two largest cities in Canada. Language and religious divides add to the ferocity of play, just as race, style of play and culture often have with the Celtics and Lakers.
From the time of the French loss of Quebec City in 1759, the chief tension in what eventually became Canada has been between English- and French-speaking Canadians. The English Canadians were mostly Protestant and of British ethnic ancestry, and were associated with the British Crown.
In contrast the French-Canadians from Quebec and other provinces were not only of French descent, but were also heavily Roman Catholic. Thus as a group they did not possess strong allegiances with what was seen as the imperialist British Crown.
When the NHL was created in 1917, these differences continued to play themselves out in the rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, two of the Original Six franchises still operating today in the 30-team NHL.
The Maple Leaf fan base consisted mainly of English-speaking Canadians of British ancestry. In addition, the team's leaf logo from 1927 onward was a stylized version of the Canadian Army's Cap Badge Insignia worn during World War I.
The tradition-rich Canadiens captured the imagination of French-speaking fans, mainly concentrated in the province of Quebec. The Habs and their winning ways also attracted, to a slightly lesser degree, English-speaking Catholic and Jewish fans in Montreal, as well as English-speaking Catholic fans in eastern Ontario.
The regional fan base is not dissimilar to the Celtic popularity in New England, and both franchises developed national fan bases for their championships, tradition, great players and mystique.
In contrast to the anthem practice in Toronto at the time, the Canadiens pioneered the use of the current Canadian national anthem, "O Canada," at the Montreal Forum with bilingual lyrics.
Canadien legend and Montreal native Maurice "the Rocket" Richard embodied the fierce rivalry in the 1940s/50s as a French-speaking scoring machine.
In a way the intense, Catholic Richard was a minor NHL version of baseball's Jackie Robinson, and was one of the great goal scorers in league history. He became the first player to net 50 goals in a season in 1944-45, and was the NHL all-time goal leader when he retired in 1960.
Richard helped lead Montreal to five consecutive Cup crowns in his final five seasons from 1956-60. The eldest of eight children, Richard emerged from a poverty-stricken family during the Great Depression and became a physical goal scorer who was a 14-time All-Star.
Richard was involved in a vicious on-ice incident late in the 1954–55 season during which he struck a linesman. NHL President Clarence Campbell suspended him for the remainder of the season and playoffs, which precipitated the "Richard Riot" in Montreal.
The infamous riot is often viewed as a precursor to Quebec's Quiet Revolution. In English Canada, Campbell was praised for doing what he could to control the volatile Richard. Unknown to most at the time, Campbell reportedly had long wanted to impose a lengthy suspension on Richard due to his previous outbursts.
In French Quebec the suspension was viewed as an unfair punishment given to a Francophone hero by the Anglophone establishment. Richard's supporters reacted angrily to Campbell, who received several death threats. Upon taking his customary seat at the next Canadiens game vs. the Red Wings, unruly fans pelted him with vegetables, eggs and other debris.
One fan threw a tear gas bomb at Campbell, which resulted in evacuation of the Forum and the game's forfeit to Detroit. Fans fleeing the arena were met by a large group of demonstrators who had massed outside prior to the game's start.
Soon, a mob of over 20,000 people developed into a riot. Windows and doors were smashed at the Montreal Forum and surrounding businesses. By the next morning, between 65 and 70 people had been arrested. Over 50 stores were looted and 37 people injured. Damages were estimated at $100,000 (almost $900,000 in today's currency).
The jet black-haired, bug-eyed Maurice Richard was a cultural icon among Quebec's francophone population, and when he died in 2000 the hockey hero became the first non-politician honored by the province of Quebec with a state funeral.
Richard played in four of the five Leafs/Habs Finals showdowns. In 1947 and 1951, Toronto triumphed in five and six games, respectively. In the Rocket's last two seasons, the Canadiens turned the tables and won over Toronto in five and then in a sweep to cap off five straight Cups. Racked by injuries and age, Richard then retired in the fall of 1960.
The rivalry heated up further in the 1960s, where the two opposing franchises won every Stanley Cup of the decade except for 1961, when Chicago claimed the coveted trophy. The ferocious feud reached its peak in 1967, when the foes met in the Cup Finals amid the backdrop of Canada's Confederation celebration and Montreal hosting Expo '67.
The Canadiens were heavy favorites, but the Leafs upset Montreal 4-2. Underdog Toronto won despite having the oldest average age (31) of any team to ever win the Cup. Two of their key players were in their early 40s.
Fifty years have passed and the rivals still have not met again in the Finals, nor in the post-season in 38 years. Meanwhile Montreal has avenged that bitter 1967 defeat by going on to win 10 more Cups (including eight of 12 from 1968-79) and establish themselves as the league's most iconic franchise.
From 1981-98, the rivals were in opposite conferences and could have met in the Finals. But only in 1993 have they come close to another Stanley Cup championship showdown. Montreal won the 1993 title—its 24th and most recent, as well as the last one won by a Canadian franchise—over the LA Kings, who had knocked off Toronto 4-3 in the Western Conference finals.
Is it a coincidence that the Canadiens have won no titles since they moved out of the old Forum in 1996, and that the Celtics have won just one crown since closing down the aged Boston Garden in 1995?
The Forum was built in 1924, with the Garden (originally named Boston Madison Square Garden) erected in 1928 after being designed by legendary boxing promoter Tex Rickard.
The Boston Garden was demolished in 1998, and with it went some of the Celtic mystique as the dreadful Rick Pitino era began in the new Garden. The Montreal Forum was completely gutted and converted into a downtown entertainment center consisting of a multiplex theatre, shops and restaurants.
Interestingly, the Canadiens have the second-most titles of any North American major pro sports franchise with 24. The Yankees are first with 27, while the Celtics sit third with 17 and Lakers are fourth at 16. Fifth-place Toronto has won 13 Stanley Cups, but none in the last 50 years.
At the time of their last title, the Maple Leafs were third behind only the Yankees (20 titles) and were a mere one crown in arrears of rival Canadiens (14). But motivated Montreal has won 10 Stanley Cup crowns since their 1967 upset loss to the Leafs, albeit none since 1993.
Beginning in 1998, Montreal and Toronto have been in the same division, which precludes any new potential Stanley Cup final showdowns, yet the two foes have not met in the playoffs since 1979, reducing the once-fierce playoff rivalry to a regular season skirmish.
Of course since the Leafs and Canadiens cannot meet in the Cup finals and have not since 1967, the dormant championship rivalry takes a back seat to Celtics/Lakers and Yankees/Dodgers.
The Canadiens have actually met another epic rival, the Boston Bruins, a whopping 34 times in the playoffs, and have won 25 of those heated series.
The rivals have met seven times in the Cup Finals (1930-43-46-53-57-77-78), with Montreal winning each and every time. The Habs hold a lopsided 26-7 edge in Cup final games vs. the Bruins, and Boston has never won more than two games in any title round series vs. Montreal.
Because of their one-sided Cup finals history and the cultural layers of the more competitive Toronto vs. Montreal enmity, the Bruin/Hab feud ranks behind the Leafs/Canadiens title rivalry. They reside in the same conference and cannot meet in the Cup finals anymore either.
Perhaps the greatest Canadien victory in the Boston series (and most devastating Bruin loss) came in 1971, when the Habs upset the defending champion Bruins.
Boston romped through the regular season with a superb 57-14-7 record (24 points ahead of third-place Montreal) and placed a record four players on the NHL first team, led by league MVP Bobby Orr and scoring champion Phil Esposito. In fact the top four scorers in the league that year, amazingly, were Bruins.
However Montreal, led by rookie goaltender Ken Dryden, pulled off a major upset in seven games over the Bruins. Down 1-0, game two featured one of the greatest comebacks in NHL history. With the Bruins leading 5–2 at the Garden heading into the third period, the Canadiens roared back to score five goals in the final period and win 7–5 to turn the series momentum in shocking fashion.
The 1971 Bruin loss is reminiscent of the agonizing 4-3 Celtic defeat in the 1973 Eastern finals to the rival Knicks after John Havlicek injured his shooting shoulder in game three. The Celtics actually posted the best record in franchise annals at 68-14 in 1972-73 behind Hondo and league MVP Dave Cowens, but were upset by their fierce East coast rival.
In 1971, the third-place Habs went on to rally past Chicago to also upset the Western champion Blackhawks in the Cup finals, 4-3. Their comeback win was much like the aging, fourth-place Celtics run to the 1969 title in the final NBA games for Russell and Sam Jones.
Montreal captain and long-time superstar Jean Beliveau also retired after the Canadiens' improbable Cup 1971 triumph. Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups with Montreal in 18 full seasons from 1953-71, one less ring than Russell.
Furthermore, the home team won the first six games of both the 1969 NBA Finals and 1971 Stanley Cup finals. But in each case, the underdog then won a tense game seven on the road.
Montreal came back from a 2-0 deficit in the final 23 minutes to eke out a 3-2 win in Chicago Stadium in game seven of the 1971 Stanley Cup finals, which proved to be the last game for Blackhawk superstar Bobby Hull in a Chicago uniform as he jumped to the upstart WHA the next season.
Meanwhile, the 1969 Celtics held on for a 108-106 seventh game win in the LA Forum to clinch banner number 11.
All-time Leafs/Canadiens series: 396–314–88–8, in favor of Montreal
Regular season series: 354–285–88–8, in favor of Montreal
Post-season results: 42–29, in favor of Montreal
Montreal vs. Toronto Stanley Cup Finals meetings (Toronto 3, Montreal 2)
1947 Stanley Cup Finals: Maple Leafs, 4-2
1951 Stanley Cup Finals: Maple Leafs, 4-1
1959 Stanley Cup Finals: Canadiens, 4-1
1960 Stanley Cup Finals: Canadiens, 4-0
1967 Stanley Cup Finals: Toronto 4, Montreal 2
4) In the NFL Super Bowl era, the greatest championship rivalry has been between two football-crazy regions and fan bases, Dallas vs. Pittsburgh. However, they only have met three times for the title in 51 years of Super Bowl competition.
The Steelers won the initial two title round meetings, a pair of classic 1970s battles, by scores of 21-17 and 35-31.
In Super Bowl X, wide receiver Lynn Swan made two spectacular catches to spur the Steelers to victory and earn MVP honors. Still, the Steelers had to intercept a last-second Roger Staubach Hail Mary heave into the end zone.
Four years later in the rematch, Dallas was the defending champion looking to repeat and capture their third title of the decade. But it was Pittsburgh who held off a 14-point fourth quarter Dallas rally led by Staubach to win their third Super Bowl of the decade.
The epic, star-studded showdown featured 20 future NFL Hall of Fame players, coaches and front office executives. It is still considered one of the best Super Bowls ever. It would be 17 more years before the two iconic franchises would maeet again in football's biggest showcase.
In Super Bowl XXX, the Cowboys gained a measure of revenge in 1996 with a workmanlike 27-17 victory to notch their third Super Bowl win in four seasons. Dallas leads their all-time series, 17-15, but Pittsburgh holds the all-important championship meetings edge, 2-1.
In the pre-Super Bowl era, the Green Bay Packers vs. the Chicago Bears was the greatest and most enduring rivalry. As of 2017, the all-time series is actually tied, 94-94 with six ties.
However, since the teams have been in the same division and conference for much of their existence, they could not meet in the NFL title game often. In 1941, The Bears won their first playoff meeting 33-14 to advance to the title game, which they won over the Giants.
Twice the Bears, who dominated the rivalry early on, led by as many as 24 games in the head-to-head series.
In 2010, the ancient rivals met in the NFC title game, with Green Bay coming out on top 21-14.
The Packers have won a record 13 NFL titles, including four Super Bowls. The Bears have nine NFL crowns, including one Super Bowl. All-time, Green Bay has a record of 752-568-37, while Chicago is almost identical at 758-573-42.
In their 194 all-time meetings, Green Bay has scored 3,335 points while Chicago has tallied 3,331.
Because of their 12 dramatic meetings, the 51 Hall of Famers on their rosters (28 for Boston, 23 for the Lakers), the iconic coaches (Red, Riley, Phil) and front office executives, not to mention all the great games, moments and the longevity of their title round rivalry (1959-2010, Celtics vs. Lakers has overtaken the dormant Yankees vs. Dodgers World Series history as the greatest championship rivalry in North American pro sports annals.
It will be interesting to see when Boston visits Los Angeles on March 3 how far their narrow all-time NBA wins edge over the Lakers has been extended. And how intense their second and last meeting of the season will be despite the difference in the team's directions. For it promises to be a rugged battle no matter what the records.
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