Ranking the 10 Most Tumultuous Offseasons in NHL History
With the NHL’s salary cap set to slim down to $64.3 million and the rise of a particularly celestial draft class, the summer leading up to the 2013-14 season has the potential to go down as one of the more tumultuous in league history.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary variously defines the term “tumultuous” as “loud, excited and emotional," “tending or disposed to cause or incite a tumult” or “marked by a violent or overwhelming turbulence or upheaval.”
When one applies the adjective in question to an NHL offseason, it can thus range from describing anticipation to anxiety to anguish.
It could entail simultaneous melancholy and euphoria as a team relocates, thus leaving one fanbase to jubilantly await a new era and another to brace itself for when the cold reality of a much emptier winter sinks in.
It could involve a sense of catharsis as a long-deprived market regains NHL membership through relocation or expansion or, in rare cases, the return of all member clubs to normal activity after more than a year-long hiatus.
Summertime tumult could involve a league-wide eagerness to see a new young star break in, as is the case this year with Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones. Or it could describe an accelerated appetite for action after watching familiar faces compete in an offseason international tournament.
Here are 10 of the most memorable NHL offseasons that were defined by one or more of these sorts of developments.
Translation: There was a double dose of positive and negative tumultuous emotion for a combined four fanbases in one offseason.
The NHL’s franchise populace changed in a variety of ways prior to the 1993-94 season. The Dallas Stars debuted upon transplanting themselves from Minnesota while the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and Florida Panthers constituted the league’s newest expansion class.
So far, this constitutes the NHL's only offseason in which a team moved to another market while a brand-new franchise surfaced altogether.
At the height of the so-called “golden era,” namely the seasons between 1942 and 1967 when nobody but the Original Six competed, the NHL adopted a new means of building each team’s pipeline with amateur prospects.
In a 2007 feature story on Garry Monahan, the first-ever NHL draftee, Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun wrote that “The NHL Draft began when president Clarence Campbell determined the league needed a more equitable manner of distributing young talent.”
There was no question that the league could have stood to cultivate more parity at the time. In the years between 1942 and the first-ever entry draft in 1963, with the exception of the Chicago Blackhawks in 1961, all Stanley Cups were split between Detroit, Montreal and Toronto.
For the other half of the NHL and its fanbases at the time, any rule change geared toward better title odds for all down the road had to be welcome.
Professional hockey’s presence in the United States took its first significant stride prior to the 1926-27 season, when three new American-based franchises began.
League membership instantly swelled to 10 over the 1926 offseason with indoor ponds flooded for a second New York franchise, the Rangers, as well as teams in Chicago and Detroit. The Detroit Cougars (later Red Wings) were officially born on May 15, 1926 and the Blackhawks on September 25 of the same year.
In turn, the NHL simultaneously implemented its first franchises west of Lake Erie and outside of the Eastern time zone while doubling its number of American chapters.
The NHL was just coming off of a season that ended with Mario Lemieux, arguably the most electrifying player at the time other than Wayne Gretzky, winning his first Stanley Cup.
Within weeks of the playoffs' conclusion, the spotlight turned to a prospect bearing the moniker “The Next One.” While shouldering expectations that he would be Gretzky’s greatest challenger for the title of the league’s best talent, Eric Lindros went first overall to the Quebec Nordiques in the 1991 draft.
That would have made for a momentous summer even without the subsequent soap opera, which would culminate in a trade to Philadelphia before Lindros made his professional debut.
Lindros was involved in another wave of headlines prior to his first NHL game, and he teamed up with the likes of Gretzky to make it happen. In September, Lindros posted a 3-2-5 scoring log while Gretzky led all participating skaters with 12 points en route to a Canadian triumph in the 1991 Canada Cup.
The fact that Canada needed to vanquish the United States in the final game of that tournament doubtlessly helped to whet the continent’s collective craving for more action in the approaching 1991-92 NHL season.
That season, the league’s 75th anniversary campaign, would also feature the debut of the expansion San Jose Sharks. Puckheads in the Bay Area, who had lost their Seals 15 years prior, had the summer to anticipate the arrival of the NHL’s first new franchise after it had harbored 21 teams for 12 straight seasons.
With this being the definitive team sport, it is not often that a single development revolving around a single individual player can impact the game with much significance. But there was one can’t-miss exception to that principle in August 1988, when the Edmonton Oilers dealt the aforementioned Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.
As stunning and sacrilegious as the swap may have appeared to Canadians, it meant placing the face of the game in the NHL’s largest so-called “non-traditional” market. It was a recipe for a refreshing wave of publicity for the sport in a time and place that needed nothing more.
On the 20-year anniversary of the trade, the Windsor Star ran an extensive retrospective feature, mentioning that the Kings ticket office made more than 2,000 season-ticket sales within 36 hours of Gretzky joining the team.
That stat, more than any other, was a telling gauge on the instant eruption of excitement that defined the remaining two months of the 1988 offseason.
NHL fans were subjected to a 16-month offseason by an unprecedented season-deleting lockout in 2004-05.
In addition to resuming operation in time for Crosby to begin his career as early as possible, the NHL also put an end to the delayed debuts of previous draft class stars, such as Alexander Ovechkin and Zach Parise. Fans of their respective teams and of the sport in general had every right to be enthralled with the mass influx of touted new blood.
The single-most swollen slew of expansion teams surfaced when NHL membership doubled from six to 12 franchises in the summer of 1967. Los Angeles, Minnesota, Oakland, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis all commenced operation the following autumn.
Never have so many new chapters emerged all at once before or since, and this happened on the heels of a full quarter-century of just the Original Six.
Furthermore, the introduction of the Seals and Kings marked the first time the NHL based a franchise west of St. Louis, let alone two all the way on the Pacific coast.
Four months prior to the 1967-68 season, the new landscape of the league began to sink in with the help of the expansion draft. Several established marquee names at the time left their Original Six employers to don brand-new crests while others became household names later on.
A few of the already well-known expansion draftees included, in order of selection, Terry Sawchuk, Glenn Hall, Bobby Baun, Al Arbour, Leo Boivin and Andy Bathgate.
As monumental as the great expansion of 1967 was, two major developments defined the NHL’s offseason of 1972, one for the better, the other for the worse.
To start with the less savory event, the formation of the World Hockey Association led to a mass exodus of stardom from the now-14-team NHL, which had expanded to Buffalo and Vancouver in 1970.
After more than a decade of dazzling performances in Chicago, Bobby Hull piloted the flight to the WHA by signing a then-unheard of pact with the Winnipeg Jets.
Hull and those who followed his lead were barred from participation in the summer’s other landmark occurrence. The NHL assembled the best of its remaining, healthy Canadian-born stars to engage the Soviet Union in an eight-game exhibition series throughout the month of September.
The Summit Series proved to be an ultra-competitive derby for national pride, staged in four different Canadian cities before the latter four games took place in Moscow. There, the NHL ambassadors completed a comeback to stamp a 4-3-1 record in the series, taking a climactic Game 8 by a 6-5 score.
With those two franchises, the NYC area became a multi-team hockey market while the NHL ventured deep into the southeastern United States for the first time. The first of those facts has rigidly remained and, even though Atlanta is now without a team, there are other stable franchises operating around the region.
The presence of established legends such as the aforementioned Hull and Gordie Howe could not lend much staying power to the WHA. Neither could the arrival of a touted phenom in Gretzky, who began his professional career in 1978-79 in the dying circuit with the Indianapolis Racers and Edmonton Oilers.
The demise of the WHA after that season left four surviving franchises to merge into the NHL, Edmonton included. In turn, puckheads who had shunned the ill-fated competitor league could now delight in the opportunity to see the likes of Gretzky visit their nearest hockey mansion.
Gretzky, who was coming off of a 46-goal, 110-point campaign as a WHA rookie, joined a 51-year-old Howe in the transfer. Howe had been playing for the New England Whalers and would stick with the franchise for its first season under the Hartford dateline and under NHL auspices.
The impending arrival of Gretzky and return of Howe had symbolic significance for the summer development’s multigenerational impact on the NHL’s fanbase. A broader array of younger fans would now more readily see what their fathers raved above when reminiscing on Howe’s Red Wing days while witnessing the instant impact of the sport’s newest living legend.