The 11 Most Unlikely Success Stories in NHL History

Tom Urtz Jr.Contributor IApril 14, 2013

The 11 Most Unlikely Success Stories in NHL History

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    Throughout the history of the NHL, there have been unlikely success stories that involve undrafted players, late draft picks and players who unexpectedly became superstars.

    Undrafted players like Dino Ciccarelli and Adam Oates had solid performances as amateurs, despite not being drafted, and they were expected to be good players.

    Martin St.Louis is one of the greatest examples of a player exceeding expectations because no one expected this undrafted and undersized forward to make an impact, but he has had a Hall of Fame career to date.

    There have also been instances where players have had unlikely success throughout the playoffs.

    Other players have come from playing overseas to make an impact, and those listed here exceeded all expectations.

    Here are 11 of the most unlikely success stories in NHL history.

Honorable Mention: Cory Conacher

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    Although Cory Conacher is a rookie, he has accomplished much. He deserves recognition because of the long road he has taken to the NHL.

    Conacher has overcome a ton of odds to get to the NHL, and it was unlikely that he would be able to have a successful life let alone a pro career.

    Conacher has battled type 1 diabetes since age eight, and that put him at a disadvantage when playing sports.

    He is also one of the smallest players in the NHL today, and that only makes playing hockey even harder.

    Conacher was able to use his determination to play successful NCAA hockey at Canisius College, and he was eventually signed by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    The youngster has had immediate success, thus far, since entering the league, and he was even valuable enough for the team to trade him to the Ottawa Senators for Ben Bishop.

    Conacher has overcome a ton of obstacles just to get to the NHL, so anything he does while in the league will be an unexpected success.

Pavel Datsyuk

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    Pavel Datsyuk is a player who has overcome a lot to become an NHL player both on and off the ice.

    He lost his mother when he was only 16 years old, and he often had to overcome his lack of size as a youngster.

    Datsyuk is only 5'11" and weighs under 200 pounds. That is small for an NHL player.

    During his youth, Datsyuk played in RSL before being drafted in 1998 after being passed over in 1996 and 1997.

    Although he had talent, his size was always an issue. It took a while for him to fully make an impact.

    Now Datsyuk is considered one of the best players in the world, but his journey to superstardom was unlikely and unprecedented.

Mel Hill

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    Mel "Sudden Death" Hill was an average forward who had the most unlikely success in the playoffs, despite having a mediocre career during the regular season.

    In 1937-38, Hill played in six games, and he had a small impact. The next season, he played a full season and scored only 10 goals, but he became one of the most clutch players in NHL playoff history.

    During the semifinals against the New York Rangers, Hill scored three sudden-death overtime goals, and he was a major reason why Boston won the series.

    The Bruins ended up winning the Stanley Cup. He had nine points in 12 games. His career only lasted 324 games, but he played a sizable role in winning three Stanley Cups.

Brian Rafalski

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    Brian Rafalski had a decent college career at the University of Wisconsin, but he was undrafted. Rafalski then went to Sweden where he played for Brynäs IF in the SEL, and he went to Finland for HPK and HIFK in the SM-liiga league

    Rafalski was an elite player overseas, and it appeared he would continue his career in the Swedish leagues, but he eventually came to the NHL.

    Rafalski was offered a contract and signed with the New Jersey Devils in 1999.

    The rookie defenseman had a great rookie season that was capped off with a Stanley Cup win.

    He would go on to win the 2002-03 Stanley Cup with the Devils, and he went on to win another Cup in 2007-08 with the Detroit Red Wings.

    In 833 regular-season games, Rafalski had 515 points, and in 169 playoff games, he had 100 points.

    The play of Rafalski was totally unexpected once he arrived to the NHL. His rise-to-greatness story is one of the best in NHL history.

Martin St.Louis

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    Martin St.Louis is probably the best "little man" in the NHL today, and he has had an amazing career.

    It is tough to be a small player, having the need to prove the ability to hang in the league, and things only get worse when you consider he was undrafted.

    He had a solid career at the University of Vermont, but his size was always the main issue teams had with him.

    Eventually, his luck turned around, and he was able to find a team to fit in with.

    St.Louis was signed by both the Calgary Flames and Ottawa Senators, but he didn't stick with either team. He ended up with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    From that point on, the rest is history, as St.Louis has been a point-per-game player and an amazing forward.

Gordie Howe

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    Gordie Howe is one of the NHL's all-time greats, but his journey to the league was not expected. As a 15-year-old phenom in the 1940s, he got a  tryout with the New York Rangers, but he did not make the team.

    He then got a tryout with the Detroit Red Wings, and he made the team. However, it took him a while to crack the roster, but once he did, he had a sizable impact.

    During that time period, there were not many players Howe's age who were able to parlay a tryout into a career.

    When you consider how young Howe was as a player and how he was able to become a dominant player at such a young age, you realize how unlikely it was for him to have the career he had.

Borje Salming

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    Borje Salming was one of the first major European players to come to the NHL to play, and he had a Hall of Fame career with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    In Sweden, Salming played with Kiruna AIF in Sweden's "B" league before joining Brynäs IF in the SEL.

    Salming then made the jump to the NHL and he had an unexpected impact with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Although he played in only 1,148 games, Salming had 787 points and was a five-time All-Star.

Joe Mullen

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    Joe Mullen was one of the smaller forwards in NHL history to have a successful hockey career, and he almost wasn't able to further his career. Mullen grew up in New York City and didn't learn how to skate until he was 10.

    Mullen played limited hockey in his youth and eventually got a partial scholarship from Boston College.

    During his first season, Mullen had no choice but to pay the rest of his tuition, but his on-ice play eventually convinced the school to pick up the rest of his tuition. 

    Despite having a successful career, Mullen was not drafted, and instead, was offered a spot on the "Miracle on Ice" team.

    He eventually turned it down and was signed by the St.Louis Blues and sent to the minors. After a few years in the minors, Mullen finally got his big break, and his journey to the NHL took off.

    When his career was finally over, Mullen had over a point per-game average in 1,062 games, and he won three Stanley Cups.

Henrik Lundqvist

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    Henrik Lundqvist's success, thus far, has been pretty solid for a seventh-round draft pick, and if not for a couple of injuries and freak circumstances, he wouldn't have become an NHL starter as soon as he did.

    Lundqvist played in Sweden and was drafted by the Rangers, but he was never really in their long-term plans.

    Dan Blackburn was the heir apparent to the New York Rangers' goaltending throne after Mike Richter was forced to retire, even though Lundqvist was in Sweden. 

    Lundqvist was drafted in 2000, but Blackburn was drafted No. 10 overall in 2001. Blackburn suffered a freak injury that forced him into retirement in 2005.

    Even before that, the Rangers had drafted another goalie, Al Montoya, in the first round in 2004 with their sixth overall pick.

    Despite Lundqvist's play in Sweden, the Rangers had made other plans with their goaltending. What happened next was just a case of taking a bad situation and turning it into a positive. 

    The lockout scrubbed the 2004-05 season, and in 2005-06, Lundqvist came to North America with a chance of starting in the AHL.

    He ultimately became the backup for Kevin Weekes, but he was thrown into the spotlight when Weekes suffered an injury.

    From that point onward, Lundqvist became the legitimate No. 1 starter, and the rest is history.

Ed Giacomin

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    Ed Giacomin is a Hall of Fame goaltender who, if not for a trade to the New York Rangers, could have spent most of his career in the minors.

    During the early days of the Original Six, NHL it was hard for a goalie to break into the league. Each team had a goalie, and there were no backups.

    However things finally broke Giacomin's way when things looked like it wouldn't work out.

    In 1965, he finally made his NHL debut, and he had a rough start, but he went on to become a real star. Giacomin was a six-time All-Star, he won a Vezina Trophy and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1987.

Tim Thomas

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    Tim Thomas is currently in exile from the NHL on his sabbatical, but he had one of the most unlikely journeys to the NHL.

    Thomas, by all accounts, should have been able to start his career on time, but things didn't pan out for him. Here is a time line of Thomas' career arc.

    * 1993-97: University of Vermont (NCAA)

    * 1997-98: HIFK (SM-I), Birmingham Bulls (ECHL) and Houston Aeros (IHL)

    • 1998-99: Hamilton Bulldogs (AHL) and HIFK (SM-I) 

    • 1999-00: Detroit Vipers (IHL)

    • 2000-01: AIK (SEL)

    • 2001-02: Kärpät (SM-I)

    • 2002-04: Providence Bruins (AHL), Boston Bruins (NHL)

    • 2004-05: Jokerit (SM-I) 

    • 2005-06: Providence Bruins (AHL)

    • 2005-2012: Boston Bruins (NHL)

    Looking at this list, Thomas really bounced around between leagues, cities and continents before sticking at the NHL level, but once he got to the NHL, he had amazing success.

    Thomas won two Vezina Trophies, a Conn Smythe, a Stanley Cup and he was a four-time All-Star. If you look at the journey Thomas took, no one probably expected him to turn into a star.

Peter Šťastný

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    Peter Šťastný is one of the greatest European-born players in league history, and his journey to the NHL was very historic. 

    Šťastný defected from Czechoslovakia in 1980 during a time when communism was running rampant in Europe under the Iron Curtain.

    Šťastný had played well for HC Slovan Bratislava, but no one could have anticipated him exploding with the Quebec Nordiques by scoring 109 points in first year.

    He would go on to record five more seasons in which he scored at least 100 points, and this type of play had been seldom seen before.

    The Hall of Famer really advanced very quickly, and when you factor in all the variables, his rise to the top was very unexpected.