NHL History: The Defining Moment of Each NHL Franchise
Any highlight reel can show you hockey's greatest hits, saves and goals, but the true magic of the NHL is in the sport's moments.
The stories that are passed from generation to generation, told and retold in stadium seats and on barstools are the most important memories of the sport. And, for each individual franchise, there is a different story to be told that defines the team and the culture surrounding it.
Some of these moments are glorious—etched in the minds of those who witnessed them and in the dreams of those who were too young to have been there.
Other moments are agonizing—provoking depression and rage with the simple mention of a name or a date.
But all of these moments unite those who sit in the stands and in front of televisions in a common history and passion.
These are the moments that, for better or for worse, defined each NHL franchise and shaped their identities.
Anaheim Ducks: Name Change Leads to Attitude Change (2005)
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From 1993 to 2005, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim served as a national homage to Disney’s Mighty Ducks movie series—an appropriate choice of name consider the fact that Disney owned the team.
But a professional hockey team should never conjure up images of the “Flying V” and the knucklepuck. It was a little hard to take the team seriously until Disney sold the franchise to Henry and Susan Samueli, who changed the name to the Anaheim Ducks.
Of course, “Ducks” would have been a hard team name to take seriously had the team not stormed through the playoffs to win a Stanley Cup two years later.
Boston Bruins: Bobby Orr Soars to Victory (1970)
Skates in the air, arms raised, face ecstatic…Bobby Orr’s flight, as he scored the Cup-winning goal in the 1970 Final against the St. Louis Blues, is one of the most iconic images in hockey history.
The moment is appropriately depicted in a statue outside the TD Garden, a remarkable feat by itself because, how do you construct a statue of a man flying through the air?
A Hall-of-Fame player in moment of victory for one of hockey’s most storied teams…no moment sums up the Bruins better than this.
Buffalo Sabres: Brett Hull's Controversial Cup-Clincher (1999)
The Buffalo Sabres have some of the greatest fans in hockey and most of them would agree that their franchise can be summed up by one moment in the 1999 Stanley Cup Final.
The team, which has faced hardship after hardship, disappointment after disappointment in its time in the NHL, was a goal away from forcing a Game 7 when Brett Hull pounded the puck past Dominik Hasek…with his foot in the crease.
At that time, a player could not score a goal while standing in the crease. The goal was not waved off and was never reviewed, and the Buffalo Sabres’ Cup hopes were dashed in the most deflating of fashions.
Calgary Flames: Vernon Keeps the Dream Alive (1989)
Vancouver’s Stan Smyl walked in on a breakaway, all alone in Game 7 of the first round of the 1989 playoffs.
Had Mike Vernon flinched, Vancouver would have moved on and the Flames’ season would have ended that night. Instead, Vernon held his ground and gloved Smyl’s shot, keeping the season alive.
For a franchise in the third-smallest hockey market in the NHL, a flair for the dramatic is a great way to keep an organization alive.
Carolina Hurricanes: 'Canes Never Give Up in Game 1 vs. Edmonton (2006)
Chicago Blackhawks: 'Hawks Come Back Strong After "Dollar Bill" Era (2007)
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The disgraceful manner in which Blackhawks’ owner Bill Wirtz handled the legendary franchise likely would have been enough to kill a lesser team.
Throughout the ‘90s and much of the ‘00s, Wirtz kept the Blackhawks under lock and key, not allowing the team to be broadcast locally because televising the team would somehow be unfair to season ticket holders.
The Blackhawks went back on television almost immediately after Wirtz died and was succeeded by his son, Rocky. The average attendance the year prior (2006-07) was under 13,000 per game, second-worst in the league.
In 2007-08, the ‘Hawks added 4,000 fans per game and, by 2008-09, Chicago was first in the league in attendance.
The proud fans of this franchise refused to support the corrupt ownership of their beloved hockey team but, when things changed, there was no hesitation to reconnect with the franchise.
Colorado Avalanche: "And After 22 Years...Raymond Bourque!" (2001)
Ray Bourque’s path to the Stanley Cup is a microcosm of the franchise’s own path to success.
After playing 20 full seasons with the Boston Bruins without the ultimate payoff, Bourque was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in the middle of the 1999-2000 season. A year later, in his final attempt, Bourque finally reached the Promised Land, hoisting the Stanley Cup in arguably the most emotional championship moment in the sports history.
The Avs themselves struggled for years as the Quebec Nordiques, who joined the NHL in 1979. Amidst financial troubles caused by the weaker Canadian dollar and Commissioner Gary Bettman’s desire to tap into larger markets, the Nordiques were relocated to Denver and renamed the Colorado Avalanche.
The franchise captured its first Cup in its first year in the Rockies, the ultimate payoff for those who had worked hard to get there, at the expense of the Quebecois who had laid the groundwork for the team.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Jackets Swept in Only Playoff Series (2009)
No team in NHL history has struggled to find its footing more than the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Jackets were an expansion team that entered the league with the Minnesota Wild in 2000, bringing the NHL to an even 30 teams across the board.
In 11 seasons of existence, the Jackets have finished better than fourth in the division exactly one time, have made the playoffs exactly one time, and have won exactly zero postseason games. This unfortunate franchise has had trouble getting off the ground.
Dallas Stars: Darryl Sydor Does Whatever It Takes (2000)
The Dallas Stars were the only team not named the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche or New Jersey Devils to win a Stanley Cup between 1995 and 2003, and Darryl Sydor’s crawl to the front of the net in the 2000 Stanley Cup Final shows exactly how the Stars’ mentality had won them the Cup the year prior.
Sydor suffered a knee injury attempting to hit New Jersey’s Scott Gomez and, when the play was allowed to continue, Sydor left it all on the ice by literally crawling across it.
Even in a debilitated state, Sydor’s first thought was to make himself useful for his team.
While the Stars would ultimately lose the game and the series, that willingness to do whatever it takes defined the Stars during that era of hockey and it will be the mentality the team needs to return to glory this season.
Detroit Red Wings: Vladimir Konstantinov's Victory Lap (1998)
There are so many moments that could be the highlights of this storied franchise’s existence, but for a franchise that exemplifies not only the spirit of hockey, but the spirit of sportsmanship and class, this moment stands alone.
Vladimir Konstantinov had won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings the year prior, but was paralyzed in a limousine accident six days later. When Detroit managed to repeat in 1998, the team did not celebrate amongst themselves before paying tribute to their former teammate.
Konstantinov was wheeled onto the ice as a member of the Red Wings’ Cup-winning team and took the first victory lap with the Stanley Cup. The moment is perhaps the most emotional in NHL history and, for all the goals, saves and hits the game provides, this scene is truly and undeniably the greatest thing about hockey.
Edmonton Oilers: Oilers Give the World the Great One (1979)
More than two decades later, it is impossible to think about the Edmonton Oilers without thinking of Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky played one season for the Oilers in the World Hockey Association before the league merged with the NHL in 1979. He made a name for himself and his team in his first NHL season, tying Marcel Dionne for the league lead in points (137) and capturing his first of eight consecutive Hart Trophies.
Gretzky’s Oilers would win four Stanley Cups in five years during the 1980s and are the only team from the WHA to have survived without being relocated. One can only wonder what would have happened if the NHL and WHA had never merged, and hockey’s greatest player never played in its biggest league.
Florida Panthers: The Rats Are Back (2012)
The Florida Panthers went 15 years without winning a single playoff game between 1997 and 2012 but, this past spring, the Panthers finally broke through and played a dramatic 7-game series with the New Jersey Devils after winning the division for the first time in franchise history.
After so many years as the least impressive team in the NHL, the Panthers’ first defeat of the Devils sent the franchise back in time to the days of the “Rat Trick,” as toy rats rained down on the celebrating team.
It would have been understandable for Floridians to be slow to jump back on the Panthers’ bandwagon but, when given the opportunity, the fans proved to be committed not just to the current squad but to the franchise’s entire history.
Los Angeles Kings: The Perennial Underdogs Finally Pull Through (2012)
The Los Angeles Kings did not simply win the 2012 Stanley Cup, they corralled it from the bottom of the Western Conference.
The team de-legitimized every argument ever made about the NHL playoffs being too inclusive by featuring 16 teams, as the eighth seed in the West captured hockey’s ultimate prize.
They did so by eliminating the three division winners in the West, as well as the Eastern Conference Champion Devils.
For a team like the Kings, who have been put-upon since joining the league as part of the Second Six, it was only appropriate that they defy expectations to find themselves on top of the sport.
Minnesota Wild: Minnesota Hockey Won't Go Away (2003)
The Minnesota North Stars relocated to Dallas in 1993, but pro hockey in Minnesota would not stay away. The Wild entered the NHL with the Columbus Blue Jackets in the NHL’s last expansion in 2000, and made the playoffs for the first time in 2003.
Much like the sport of hockey in Minnesota, the Wild refused to fade that playoff year. In the first round, the Colorado Avalanche took a 3-1 series lead, only to see the Wild storm back and win three in a row, including Games 6 and 7 in overtime.
The next round, the Wild would again come back from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Vancouver Canucks. Minnesota hockey is nothing if not resilient.
Montreal Canadiens: Habs Start Their Winning Tradition (1924)
Image courtesy of sportsillustrated.cnn.com
The Montreal Canadiens are the most historic franchise in the NHL, as well as the most successful. In fact, the team's 24 championships (23 as members of the NHL) are second only to the New York Yankees among major sports franchises in North America.
The Canadiens won their first Stanley Cup in 1916 while members of the National Hockey Association. The NHL formed in 1918 and teams from the NHL competed with teams from two other leagues for the Stanley Cup.
The Habs became the first contemporary team to win the Stanley Cup as a member of the NHL in 1924. Winning would become part of Montreal's mantra and today they are the undisputed historic kings of the NHL.
Nashville Predators: Poile Matches Absurd Offer Sheet for Shea Weber (2012)
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Sam Page at On The Forecheck made the declaration that the 14-year, $110 million offer sheet signed by Shea Weber and subsequently matched by the Predators was a franchise-defining moment for the young organization.
That's a tough claim to dispute. The Predators' brass was essentially presented with two options: build a championship team at all costs or put their wallets ahead of their will to win. In the end, they refused to be bullied by the big-market Flyers.
There are no assurances that the move will pay off for Nashville but, if nothing else, they have sent the message that the Predators are ready to compete for a Cup, no matter the cost.
New Jersey Devils: The 1990 Draft Sets Everything in Motion (1990)
The Devils' only first-round pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft was the 20th of 21 first-round selections. With players like Jaromir Jagr, Owen Nolan and Derian Hatcher comprising some of the impressive first-round picks, who would have thought New Jersey would wind up making the most important pick in the draft?
A young goalie named Martin Brodeur was taken 20th overall, setting the Devils up to be one of the most successful franchises for the next two decades. He would win three Stanley Cups, four Vezina Trophies and two Olympic gold medals.
The Devils would not have become a dynasty without him.
New York Islanders: Bobby Nystrom Begins a Dynasty (1980)
The New York Islanders were the last franchise to win four consecutive Stanley Cups and the only NHL franchise not named the Montreal Canadiens to accomplish the feat.
And it all started with a cheeky backhand goal by Bobby Nystrom.
Staring down the Philadelphia Flyers, who had gone on a 35-game unbeaten streak earlier in the year, the Isles had a 3-2 series lead while playing overtime of Game 6. Nystrom's overtime winner was the start of something special.
The Long Island faithful would get to celebrate three more Cups in the next three years. It may seem like a distant memory given the organization's current struggles but winning was once an undeniable part of the Islanders' culture.
New York Rangers: Mark Messier Guarantees Victory, and Delivers (1994)
Mark Messier's Rangers were trailing the New Jersey Devils 3-2 heading to the Meadowlands for Game 6. Before the contest Messier famously guaranteed victory for his squad.
Then, to make sure he didn't have to eat his words after the game, Messier scored three goals in the third period to defeat the Devils 4-2 and send the series to a seventh game.
The guarantee may only have pertained to that game, but it rang true for the rest of the playoffs for the Rangers. Because of without Messier's guarantee, there would be no "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" or "Saved by Richter!"
And there would sure as hell be no "This one will last a lifetime!"
Ottawa Senators: Hockey Returns to the Homeland's Capital (1992)
Bruce Firestone, left, celebrates the NHL's decision to grant Ottawa a franchise. Image courtesy of senstown.com
The original Ottawa Senators won 11 Stanley Cups, including four as members of the National Hockey League, but the franchise went through hardships in the 1930s and relocated to St. Louis before ultimately folding.
Amazingly, the capital of Canada was without hockey through the entire Original Six era, the Second Six expansion and even the WHA-NHL merger.
It wasn't until a real estate developer named Bruce Firestone put together a group and a campaign to bring an NHL franchise to Ottawa that the city found itself back in the NHL spotlight. The new Ottawa Senators would enter the NHL in 1992.
During an era when the Canadian economy forced some Canadian teams (the Nordiques and Jets) to relocate to larger U.S. markets, the Ottawa Senators were so successful that they were able to build a team. It is hard to picture a future where the city of Ottawa does not have an NHL team.
Philadelphia Flyers: Broad Street Bullies Scare off the Soviets (1976)
The mid-70s saw the Philadelphia Flyers capture a place in NHL lore via the Broad Street Bullies identity, a nickname which described the team's tendency to win through intimidation.
1976 brought the Super Series, where two Soviet hockey teams each played four NHL teams. In the eight games, the Soviet teams went 5-2-1, with one of those losses coming decisively at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Flyers were so aggressive that, after a hit by Ed Van Impe on the Red Army's Valeri Kharlamov, the Soviets refused to continue the game for fear of Philadelphia's dirty tactics. They were eventually forced back onto the ice and lost the game 4-1 but the ability of the Flyers to bully some of the toughest hockey players in the world forever linked toughness on the ice to the city of Philadelphia.
Phoenix Coyotes: The NHL Takes Ownership (2009)
When the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix in 1996, did anyone really think that hockey was going to thrive in a desert? The Coyotes not only played in hockey's most unnatural environment, but they had to compete with three other major sports teams.
In 2008, it was revealed that the Coyotes were in financial trouble and, by 2009, the NHL had taken over the bankrupt organization in an attempt to prevent the team from being sold to an owner who would relocate.
Hockey simply cannot survive in this market and, even with Greg Jamison getting his ducks in a row to purchase the franchise, it seems inconceivable that the team will remain in Arizona much longer.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Mario Lemieux Saves the Franchise (2007)
Few of Pittsburgh's greatest moments have not centered around Mario Lemieux.
The franchise is undeniably defined by its superstars, from Jagr to Malkin to Crosby, and Lemieux was the greatest of these. But his biggest contribution to the franchise didn't come on the ice, it came in the front office.
After bad seasons in the early 2000s, the Penguins were on the verge of being sold and arena issues brought forth the possibility that the team would leave the city of Pittsburgh. But Lemieux, now part of the team's ownership group, helped negotiate a contract for a new arena and successfully kept the team in the city he had dazzled for so many years.
San Jose Sharks: Freak Goal Ends Playoff Hopes (2011)
The San Jose Sharks are well known for their passionate fan base and their competitive spirit. The Shark Tank is one of the hardest places to play in the NHL.
Unfortunately, the Sharks have their own terrible place to play...the playoffs.
San Jose has only missed the postseason once since 1998, but in that time the team has never made a Stanley Cup appearance. In fact, despite 15 playoff appearances and three trips to the Western Conference Finals, the Sharks have only managed three wins in the Conference Finals.
It would seem that the Sharks are cursed in some way. The Sharks' playoff woes can be summed up by this season-ending goal scored by Kevin Bieksa, when a freak carom of the puck left everyone looking the wrong direction and amazingly ended another Sharks' season.
St. Louis Blues: Roman Turek Ruins a Season (2000)
When the St. Louis Blues won their first President's Trophy in 1999-2000, the team, which had qualified for 21 consecutive NHL playoffs, finally seemed to be equipped to go all the way.
Unfortunately, St. Louis hockey has been forever defined by the triumph of hardships over hard efforts, as the team has never won a Stanley Cup despite making the playoffs for 25 straight seasons from 1980 to the lockout-shortened season of 2004-05.
When the Blues and Sharks faced off in the first round of the 2000 postseason, Roman Turek managed to erase all of his team's hard work over the course of the whole regular season with one unforgivable blunder.
Owen Nolan's blue line blast proved to be the series winner and will forever haunt this impressive but ultimately unsuccessful franchise.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Little Marty St. Louis Puts the Team on His Back (2004)
The Lightning now have 20 years of history, but the franchise seems to be centered around a diminutive, undrafted free agent who will one day have his jersey hang from the rafters at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Martin St. Louis has become the Lightning franchise and he demonstrated that fact in Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.
The Lightning trailed the Calgary Flames 3-2 in the series when the game went to double overtime. St. Louis made sure to be in the right place to turn a harmless point shot into an unstoppable rebound goal, sending the game to a decisive seventh game and allowing the Lightning to capture their first Stanley Cup.
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Bill Barilko Curse (1951-1962)
The Toronto Maple Leafs are as storied a franchise as you'll find in the National Hockey League and it is surely impossible to pick just one moment that defines the team. But in terms of legendary hockey moments, Bill Barilko's glorious goal and tragic end is a tale difficult to match.
A team as big as the Leafs requires a moment equally larger than life. Barilko was a defenseman playing for the Leafs in the 1951 Final when he scored the Cup-winning goal in overtime of Game 5.
During the offseason, Barilko and a friend disappeared on a fishing trip and the Leafs would fail to win another championship until 1962, the year that Barilko's plane and body were finally found.
Vancouver Canucks: Richter Robs Bure, Steals Cup Dreams (1994)
Unfortunately, the Vancouver Canucks are defined by nothing if not their playoff misfortunes. The team has appeared in three Stanley Cup Finals and took the 1994 and 2011 runs to a decisive seventh game, ultimately to lose.
The frustration was captured in a moment when Pavel Bure had an opportunity to increase his team's lead in Game 4 of the 1994 Final, with the Canucks trailing the series 2-1.
Mike Richter came way out of his net but reacted quickly enough to stone Bure on the near post. The save motivated the Rangers and deflated the Canucks, ultimately preventing Vancouver from winning this 7-game series.
Washington Capitals: Draft Lottery Defines Franchise (2004)
The Penguins and Capitals were set on a collision course for rivalry at the 2004 Draft Lottery. The Penguins had the worst record in the league, but the Capitals won the lottery, allowing them to draft Alexander Ovechkin with the top overall pick.
Ovechkin has gone on to become the face of the franchise in more ways than one. He has become one of hockey's most prolific goal scorers and recognizable personalities, bringing hockey to D.C. in a whole new way.
Ovechkin is committed to the Capitals through 2020-21 thanks to a massive 13-year deal worth $124 million, meaning that he will be facing off against the Penguins for years to come.
Incidentally, that 2004 Draft Lottery and the lockout that followed allowed the Penguins a second chance at the first overall pick in 2005. With that pick, the Pens drafted Ovechkin's chief media rival: Sidney Crosby.
Winnipeg Jets: MTS Centre Named Loudest Arena in Hockey (2012)
The Winnipeg Jets left town in 1996 and relocated to Phoenix. So how did the city get its team back in 2011?
This story from the Winnipeg Free Press makes it obvious: the fans.
The MTS Centre was named the loudest arena in the NHL in 2011-12, a testament to the passion and will of the Winnipeg fans who would not silently allow their beloved Jets to be taken from them.
In time, the Jets will incur plenty more significant moments. But more so than any other team, they will owe those moments to the people in the stands.
Dan Kelley has been a Bleacher Report Featured Columnist since 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @dxkelley