June 21, 2017

What is the hardest trophy in sports to win?

by Dan Bilicki In: Football, Ice Hockey, Soccer

Last week we argued that, despite what commentators will tell you, the Stanley Cup is no harder to win than any other league’s championship. In fact, it might actually be a little bit easier than some.

But if the Cup isn’t the hardest to win, then what is?

Just to prove that we’re not biased against ice hockey, we do believe one of the hardest championships in sports to win is actually the Memorial Cup – but it might also be one of the easiest, too.

To capture the Memorial Cup, you have to get through the grind of the OHL, QMJHL or WHL regular season and then win four rounds in the playoffs to even qualify. Then you have to beat the other league champions in a round-robin tournament to win it all. Or, you could just host the tournament, granting you a spot regardless of your finish in the playoffs, and then win it all like the Windsor Spitfires did this year. It’s a real tossup whether to throw the Mem Cup in the easy or hard category because of this fact.

If we’re talking about not just North American leagues, then really the debate ends in place: The Champions League final.

This is without a doubt one of, if not the toughest championships in sports to win.

Just think about the name itself: The Champions League. This is a tournament that features only the best teams in Europe and runs them through the gauntlet of group and then knockout stages – all while the teams continue to compete in their domestic competitions, hoping to secure a place in next season’s Champions League.

In all, this is essentially a two-year long competition to crown a winner of the aptly named Champions Cup. Imagine having to win the Stanley Cup just to qualify for another tournament the following year while you’re defending your title. That’s about as hard as it gets.

By sheer numbers, there’s no major tournament in the world bigger than England’s FA Cup. While many won’t start paying attention until the third or fourth rounds, when some teams with name recognition enter the tournament, at the beginning of this annual tournament, there are 736 teams involved.

Yes, you read that correctly: Seven hundred and thirty-six teams.

Semi-pro and amateur teams across England are eligible to qualify for the FA Cup, making it also one of the most inclusive tournaments around.

And if you don’t think that one of those beer league sides can make an honest run, you’re wrong: Fifth-tier Lincoln City actually hosted Arsenal in a quarterfinal game this year after beating several teams well above it in the tables – including Premier League side Burnley – along the way.

If we broaden our argument to international competition, then soccer, again, likely holds the most difficult trophy to win: The World Cup.

Starting with the fact that nearly every country in the world has a chance to qualify for the final tells you just the breadth of this whole thing. And while some countries are obviously better than others, you can’t overlook the fact that soccer is most widely played sport in the world.

Oh, and the whole process takes nearly four years to crown a champion, with qualifying starting just months after the previous tournament ends. Something else to consider is that being one of the best players ever in the sport, doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to hoist the World Cup trophy.

Two of the best players in the history of soccer – that are playing right now – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, haven’t won a World Cup. When you look at the list of the top scorers in NHL history, there is only one player in the Top 15, Marcel Dionne, that doesn’t have a ring.

But, oh, wait, there’s actually another club tournament that many won’t even think of: The FIFA Club World Cup. While it is true that only the representatives from Europe and Brazil have won the tournament the 11 times it has taken place, you can’t ignore that you literally have to be the best team from your continent to even compete in this tournament.

But due to the fact that it’s a small competition with just four teams in it and it takes place around the Christmas break, usually in Japan – making watching it very difficult due to the time difference – it’s easy to forget that the Club World Cup even exists.

So, when you figure that there are competitions of this scale taking place in Europe and around the globe, there’s no way , in good conscience, that you can claim that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in sports.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

June 14, 2017

The Stanley Cup isn’t the hardest trophy to win in sports

by Dan Bilicki In: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Ice Hockey

A lot was made on Monday night after Pittsburgh defeated Nashville to win the Stanley Cup about how it was the hardest trophy in sports to win.

While many get wrapped up in the romanticism of the Cup and its history, it’s no harder to win than other major league sports.

Now, first off, I’ll state that while the Stanley Cup isn’t the hardest trophy to win, it’s also not the easiest. That in itself is part of my argument.

The first thing that many ice hockey fans point to is that many NHL players compete while injured. I’ve got some not-exactly breaking news for you: Players in every sport compete while hurt. It’s a fact of life in sports. If you think that this is exclusive to ice hockey, you’re dead wrong.

Football players are very rarely at 100%, basketball players play through their fair share of pain and as for baseball, does nobody remember Curt Schilling’s bloody sock game?

As for the sports themselves and the toll it takes on the competitors, you’re crazy to think that ice hockey is any tougher than a sport like football. Sure, the NHL season is much longer than the NFL’s , but it would be unrealistic and borderline inhumane to ask football players to compete any more than once per week – and we’ve seen how quality of play drops when teams play on just three days’ rest.

When looking at the physicality of each sport, many will argue that the grind of a NHL is the hardest – another point that just isn’t so. Even if you figure that NFL teams play far less games than NHLers, the amount of hits in an NFL season are still greater.

Look at, for example, Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final. There were 47 hits, total. When you consider that there were 136 tackles made during the Super Bowl – a number that doesn’t include the contact accumulated from blocks and hits away from the play, each NFL game has the same amount of physicality as an entire NHL playoff SERIES.

Then, there’s the numbers, which simply don’t add up for the NHL. Statistically, a team has the same odds to the Stanley Cup as the NBA championship or World Series. Each of the 30 teams starts the season with same odds as any other, while in the NFL, where there are 32 teams, it’s a bit trickier.

But when you consider that only 10 of 30 MLB teams reach the post-season while more than half of the 30 NHL and NBA teams make it, it’s actually harder to win in baseball. The NFL, which sees 12 of 32 teams make the playoffs, is harder as well.

An argument that I’ve heard is that the NHL is more competitive than other sports because any team that reaches the post-season has a realistic chance, unlike the NBA, where a superteam like the Warriors or Cavs were the only two squads with realistic shots. But this argument is a double-edged sword.

While the “anyone can win” mentality could be construed as making it harder for all, on the other side, is it not harder for a lower-ranked team like the Portland Trail Blazers or Indiana Pacers to win it all than, say, the Nashville Predators? Seeing the Preds make it to the Cup final shows it might actually be easier to win the Cup than the NBA title as an underdog.

So what is the hardest trophy to win in sports? That’s a discussion for another day, but let’s please stop saying that the Stanley Cup is the toughest to win – it’s merely just the best-looking of the five major North American sports.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

May 30, 2017

FREE KICKS: This summer’s big questions

by Dan Bilicki In: Soccer

Now that the table has been set for next season’s Premier League, we can ask some questions about the off-season that produces as many headlines as the actual season does. And we can start with the newest member of England’s elite: Huddersfield Town.

So, what do we know about the Terriers? Well, we might not need to know them for long.

Huddersfield was just fifth in the Championship and needed two penalty shootouts in the playoffs to achieve promotion. During the season, it was just 14th in goals scored and had a minus-2 goal differential. If this side can’t dominate the second tier, how can it hope to compete with the big sides of the Premier League?

-Will Jose Mourinho be able to win it all in his second season at Manchester United?

Mourinho’s recent MO has been to slowly build in his first season at a new club and then win it all in his second. He has his work cut out for him, but he did manage it with Chelsea in his most recent EPL stop.

If he can bring in some more top-flight talent this summer, it’s not out of the question that the Red Devils will return to glory. Which leads us to our next question.

-Who will be the biggest summer signing?

Man City has already singed Bernardo Silva from Monaco, but it’s a safe bet that it won’t be the last big splash in the transfer market. City is also linked with Spurs right back Kyle Walker to the tune of 40-million pounds.

United is linked with Antoine Griezmann, which would likely win this battle, but anything can happen. Goalkeeping in Manchester is also a hot topic, especially whether or not David De Gea will get his supposed dream move to Real Madrid.

Arsenal obviously needs reinforcements given its poor finish while rival Spurs need that something extra to push them to the top of the table.

And don’t forget about Chelsea and the deep pockets of owner Roman Abramovich, who needs to add -to the squad in order to compete in Champions League while defending its Premier League title.

-Who will play in net for City?

Wily Caballero ended the season in net for the Sky Blues, but he has already been shown the door. Joe Hart is returning from his loan in Italy, but who knows where he stands with Pep Guardiola and is more likely to be sold. Finally, Claudio Bravo didn’t just fail to live up to expectations, he basically cratered in his first season in England.

Ederson is looking inbound, but will he be the answer to one of City’s biggest pressing questions?

-Will Liverpool sell Philippe Coutinho?

The Reds got out of the habit of selling their best player ever summer last year, but now the question surrounds Coutinho with Real Madrid reportedly coming calling.

The Brazilian signed a big extension in the winter and has pledged allegiance, but you can’t overlook the fact that Real is a big step up from the Merseyside squad.

-Liverpool’s other team, Everton, has a massive question of its own: Will Romelu Lukaku stay?

The 24-year-old Belgian is already the Toffees’ top scorer ever, but he isn’t satisfied missing out on Champions League year after year. He would certainly garner a big transfer fee, but his departure could cripple Everton’s attack.

-Lukaku could actually be the answer to our next question: Who will Chelsea bring in to help defend its title?

With Diego Costa forever on the verge of a massive move to China, the Blues could be lacking up front. Lukaku, a former Chelsea man, would fit in excellently.

Depth is also needed with extra European fixtures this season and a replacement for Victor Moses should be in the cards, too. Pedro and Cesc Fabregas are also getting older and could see their time cut down if replacements are found.

-What is Arsenal doing with Arsene Wenger?

The unpopular Arsenal manager received a new two-year deal this week, but will he see the whole thing out? His FA Cup win clinched a new deal, but it’s entirely possible that he’ll be moved upstairs if things turn sour for the Gunners.

Finishing out of the top four for the first time in what feels like forever and the prominence of “Wenger out” signs should be telling that his days are numbered at the North London club.

We wonder if a technical director title would be more his speed at this point of his illustrious career.

-Where will English legends Wayne Rooney and John Terry end up?

Terry we know is out at Chelsea after barely playing this season. The Blues’ “Captain, leader, legend” may not be done playing yet. Would a move to MLS or China suit the defender, or perhaps sticking around the Premier League with, perhaps, Crystal Palace or another midtable club? If he does retire, I’m sure Chelsea will find a spot on its coaching staff for him, even if it’s symbolic.

As for Rooney, the rumours of a move to China have not disappeared since the winter window closed. It would be a huge-money move for the aging veteran that has literally done everything for United.

While we’d usually bandy about a move to MLS, the money that China is offering may just be too much to pass up. Or will he sit another season on United’s bench?

AROUND THE LEAGUE

Congratulations to Manchester United for making it into Champions League through the back door, winning Europa League. Whether you want to say Jose Mourinho is smart for dedicating his team to the second-tier European competition over domestic play remains to be seen, but at least he can say he won the final piece of silverware that United was missing … City has already shown Bacary Sagna, Gael Clichy, Jesus Navas, Caballero and West Ham-bound Pablo Zabaleta the door and will reportedly have 300-million Euros to spend this summer. We think buying some wing backs will be in order … Marco Silva couldn’t save Hull City from relegation, but he impressed enough to stay in the Premier League, taking over at Watford. I guess he likes his teams wearing orange and black … It’s pretty easy to find a scapegoat for Chelsea’s FA Cup loss: Victor Moses. How do you dive when you’re already on a yellow? His red card was completely avoidable and sank the Blues – even if they did equalize shortly after.

Follow me on Twitter @danbilicki

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