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A brief history of guaranteeing victory in sports

Alex Ovechkin joined a short, famous list of athletes who guaranteed victory in crucial moments of their careers. Here's a look at some other famous win prophecies, from Namath to Messier.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Did Alex Ovechkin really guarantee a victory for his Washington Capitals in Game 7 against the New York Rangers, which goes down Wednesday?

As a media member, I'll admit, it's a bit of a stretch. "We're going to come back and win the series," Ovechkin told reporters Sunday night. "We're gonna play our game, and we're gonna come back, and we're gonna play Montreal or Tampa."

Not the most emphatic statement in the world, even if it officially meets the requirements of a guarantee. And what is a guarantee in sports, really? What athlete in his right mind won't publicly give his team a vote of confidence when prompted to discuss an upcoming game? The guarantees don't have to mean much, but we decide that they do, probably because they make for exciting narratives. Nothing wrong with that. Sports and sports storylines are fun. It is interesting, though, that certain quotes are universally declared "guarantees," living on forever, and others are lost in the ocean of pre-and post-game interviews. For whatever reason, Ovie's statement gained admission to the Sports Guarantee Pantheon. It'll be remembered, especially if the Caps win Game 7 at Madison Square Garden and still if they lose.

What are some other famous guarantees in sports history? Here's a brief rundown (with honorable mention to Babe Ruth and Owen Nolan. They called their shots. This list is about calling victories):

Cassius Clay, 1964

Muhammad Ali is a legend, perhaps the most famous athlete ever. But he was once a cocky kid named Cassius Clay. A few years after winning an Olympic gold medal, Clay worked his way up the heavyweight boxing ranks and earned a title shot against seemingly invincible knockout artist Sonny Liston. The brash, loud, charismatic Clay campaigned non-stop about how he'd stop the champ in eight rounds. Few put any stock in Clay's words, and he entered the fight a 7 to 1 underdog. The kid's victory guarantee came true, though. Liston didn't answer the bell for the seventh round – close enough – and Clay won by TKO. Clay trumpeted his greatness to the ringside media. A superstar was born.

Joe Namath, 1969

Long before he was warning us about vapor lock and searching for sideline kisses, 'Broadway Joe' was a superstar quarterback and the talk of pro football. The line he uttered before his New York Jets battled the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III: "We're gonna win this game. I guarantee it." It remains arguably the most famous of all victory guarantees, given (a) it was before a championship game, (b) that game was the Super Bowl and (c) he was right, of course. Jets 16, Colts 7.

Moses Malone, 1983

The NBA has a few epic predictions on its resume. Michael Jordan in 1998 against the Indiana Pacers. Rasheed Wallace's 'Guaranshee' in 2004. But neither can top Hall of Famer Moses Malone, who predicted the entire playoffs with three words.

Malone, asked what he expected his Philadelphia 76ers to do in three rounds of 1982-83 post-season play: "Fo-fo-fo."

That meant three four-game sweeps in a row. Malone was off by one game, as Philly swept the first and final rounds, with a five-gamer in between.

Jim Harbaugh, 1986

Another quarterback with a gutsy, crystal-clear guarantee. Harbaugh, then under center for the Michigan Wolverines, was utterly convinced his team would best its bitter rival to capture the Big Ten conference title.

"Were going to play in the Rose Bowl this year, I guarantee it," Harbaugh told the media. "We'll beat Ohio State. We'll be in Pasadena January 1. People might not give us a snowball's chance in hell to beat them in Columbus, but we're going to."

Nailed it. Michigan won 26-24 and went to the Rose Bowl. Harbaugh can revisit the proud moment now that he's back in Michigan as head coach.

Mark Messier, 1994

Messier's guarantee trumps all the others for hockey fans, of course, hence the fact it's known today simply as 'The Guarantee.' Messier's 1994 Rangers trailed the New Jersey Devils 3-2 heading back across the Hudson River for an elimination game on the road. Messier's simple quip: "We're going to go in there and win Game 6.'

As part of our THN oral history of the '94 Rangers for the 20th anniversary last year, we spoke to pretty much the entire team about key components of that season, including The Guarantee. Proof the media can make or break a sports guarantee: the players' opinions on the quote's resonance conflicted.

Steve Larmer said many of the Rangers didn't even know Messier said the line until after the fact, and that no one focused on the media during the playoffs. Remember, sports coverage wasn't nearly as ubiquitous back then.

"We didn't have the Facebooks, Twitters back then," Stephane Matteau told THN. "It would have been all over our phones. The only clip of papers available was, a media guy would come in the morning and put all the clips from the New York papers or the New Jersey papers on the table. It was there for you to read it or not, so I never read it."

Other members of the team, like backup goalie Glenn Healy, remembered Messier's prophecy vividly.

"So you make the guarantee, it makes headlines, and you score three goals in the third period? Seriously?" Healy said. "How many of us have had these great plans, and they never come to fruition? Then the greatest leader in sports makes them and seals the deal with a hat trick, on his own, in the third. Never discount what 'Mess' says. That's one thing I've learned."

Yep, a hat trick. Messier scored three to lift the Rangers back to Game 7 at Madison Square Garden, where they triumphed on Matteau's overtime winner and advanced to the final, which they also won. Did the guarantee make the difference and galvanize the team? Maybe, maybe not. Adam Graves described the performance as "something only Mark could do," and said it spoke to Messier's leadership. 'The Moose' himself, however, didn't think much of his own famous words.

"What transpired in the papers and the guarantee didn’t put any more pressure on me than I had already put on myself to try and find a way to win that game," Messier told THN. "Once the game started, luckily enough for me, I had a lot of experience playing in those types of situations, and the one thing that experience teaches you is that you can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You have to stay in the moment and try and execute a game plan from the start of the game to the end."

Daniel Alfredsson, 2003

Not every guarantee comes to fruition. Daniel Alfredsson, for instance, ended up with egg on his face. He felt so strongly about his powerhouse Ottawa Senators squad in December 2003 that he predicted emphatically they'd go all the way.

"I really like the way the team has been built up, and I like the chemistry as well. Go ahead and write it. I guarantee we'll win the Cup."

Oops. Ottawa bowed out in the first round in a seven-game loss to Toronto that spring.

Plaxico Burress, 2008

Burress delivered one of the most underrated guarantees of all-time considering he predicted a Super Bowl victory over an undefeated opponent. The New England Patriots needed one more win to go 19-0 and eclipse the 1972 Miami Dolphins for sports supremacy.

During one of countless interviews in the week leading up to the Super Bowl, Burress boldly offered up a score: Giants 23, Patriots 17. Pats quarterback Tom Brady scoffed when told about it. But Burress stuck to his guns when asked about it again later. He seemed to understand what guarantees are all about, and why we love them:

"I don't understand what the fuss is about – nobody wants to lose," Burress said to reporters. "All this is entertainment. It's sports, and sports are entertainment. So 23-17 is the prediction I made, but the game still has to be played."

Final score: Burress' Giants win 17-14 and, naturally, he catches the winning touchdown with 35 seconds left. Talk about backing it up.

Calvin Borel, 2009

The 2009 thoroughbred horse racing season was historically good for jockey Calvin Borel even before the Belmont Stakes arrived. He'd won the Kentucky Derby riding 'Mine That Bird' and the Preakness Stakes riding 'Rachel Alexandra,' becoming the first jockey to win the first two Triple Crown legs atop two different horses. Borel was so confident he'd win the third leg that he guaranteed it.

At press conferences leading up to the third race, reporters offered to let Borel off the hook, but he adamantly stuck to his guarantee. He was that confident. Alas, he wound up finishing third atop Mine That Bird.

Alex Ovechkin, 2015

Ovie's Game 7 guarantee feels a lot less forceful juxtaposed with these other famous great ones, doesn't it? Then again, if it comes to fruition, and particularly if he delivers a big performance, it will be talked up with the best of 'em for years to come.

Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the Post-To-Post blogFor more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazineFollow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin



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