Eight Oddities of the Early Days of the NHL Draft

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NHL fans love draft weekend. It marks the unofficial start of the offseason, and it serves as a period of renewal as a new rookie class is welcomed while teams wheel and deal to begin the long process of remaking their rosters.

But while the results are inherently unpredictable, the draft itself features a certain sense of familiarity. The league has been holding these things for over half a century, and by now we all know what to expect. We get a bust here, a late-round sleeper there, a trade or two if we’re lucky, and everyone is on a flight home by Saturday night. There’s a rhythm to the whole production that’s become ingrained in its DNA.

It wasn’t always that way. The NHL draft used to be chaos.

Specifically, the draft was chaos for pretty much all of the 1970s. It was still vaguely similar to what we know today, just familiar enough to be recognizable, but none of it made any sense.

If you’re not old enough to remember what went on — or if, like most people, you figured it was just better to pretend the whole decade never happened — then it’s worth your while to take a look back at the madness. Let’s just say it was an odd time to be a hockey fan.

Draft oddity no. 1: It was still relatively new

The first NHL draft wasn’t held until 1963; up until then, amateur players had been allocated exclusively based on club sponsorships and the use of C forms to lock up prospects. Those earliest drafts were quick and relatively unimportant affairs, with as few as 11 players taken across the league and teams frequently passing on their picks.

By the 1970s, the draft had come to more closely resemble what we’re used to today. But it was still fairly new1 and teams were still figuring out how to approach it. Some franchises spent heavily on amateur scouting; others all but ignored it. Some drafted based on what they needed right then; others looked long term. And some teams viewed their draft picks as critical assets, while others were more than willing to use them as cheap trade bait for acquiring immediate help.

That last factor turned out to be especially important, because it gave a smart GM an opportunity to take advantage of a market inefficiency. More on that in a minute.

Draft oddity no. 2: There was another league out there

The rival World Hockey Association had appeared in 1972 and would last until 1979, creating the odd dynamic of two professional leagues drafting from the same pool of players. That meant that NHL and WHA teams could end up drafting the same players, and teams ran the risk of picking guys who’d report to the rival league instead.

That was especially rough on the WHA, which typically saw most of its first-round talent choose to head to the higher profile NHL.2 But it complicated things for NHL teams, too, and that uncertainty led to some of the unusual behavior we’ll see in the next few sections. It also created a bizarre situation in which the two leagues would occasionally try to keep their drafts secret, to prevent the other side from knowing who’d been taken where.

Maybe more importantly, the WHA also helped create a landscape where the NHL felt the need to continue adding teams to keep up. That left the league with an eclectic mix of long-established franchises and brand-new markets. There were more front-office jobs than ever before. And not everyone knew what they were doing.

Draft oddity no. 3: Most teams hadn’t figured out the value of their picks

These days, every NHL team pays lip service to the idea that you have to build through the draft, and it’s getting increasingly difficult to get a GM to part with a high pick. But in the ’70s, you could build a Stanley Cup dynasty just by taking advantage of GMs who didn’t understand the value of an asset that the league was giving them for free. You just had to be smart about it. And there haven’t been many GMs smarter than Montreal’s Sam Pollock.

Pollock became the Canadiens’ general manager in 1964, the very early days of the league’s drafting era. He quickly realized that draft picks could serve as a critical building block. More importantly, he realized that most of his colleagues weren’t valuing them properly. And as the GM of a team on solid financial footing that didn’t need to win now just to survive, he also understood that he could exploit the market and stockpile future picks.

So that’s exactly what he did, embarking on a series of trades in which he’d give up some middling talent now in exchange for high draft picks years down the road. The first of those deals came in 1968, when he sent Gerry Desjardins to the Kings for first-round picks in 1969 and 1972. At the time, that deal probably seemed crazy to some — you’re giving up a decent player today for two unknowns, one of which you won’t even get to use for four years? But it became the model for Pollock and the Habs, who spent the next several years fleecing teams of their future picks,3 then turning those selections into the building blocks of a dynasty.

The results are almost comical: Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson in 1971; Steve Shutt in 1972; Bob Gainey in 1973;4 Mario Tremblay in 1974. All five were acquired with picks that Pollock dealt for a year or more in advance, and all five went on to become key Montreal players for the rest of the decade. Four went on to induction in the Hall of Fame.

At the time, Pollock’s mastery of draft-pick trading bordered on the ridiculous. The 1973-74 Canadiens were a pretty good team, posting 99 points and finishing with the league’s fourth-best record. But they still wound up owning five of the draft’s first 15 picks, thanks to Pollock’s trademark hoarding.

Eventually, the rest of the league caught up with Pollock’s thinking, but by then it was too late. The Canadiens were stacked, and they went on to win the decade’s last four Stanley Cups.

Draft oddity no. 4: The Wheel

Let’s say you had two expansion teams and you needed a quick way to figure out which one should get the first overall pick. What would you do?

If you said “flip a coin,” you fail, because this was the ’70s and that would have made way too much sense. No, when it came time for the NHL to sort out the first overall pick between the expansion Canucks and Sabres at the 1970 draft, they went for The Wheel.

That would be a giant roulette-style wheel, which commissioner Clarence Campbell would spin to decide the pick. To make matters even more complicated, the league used a wheel with 13 numbers, apparently unaware it would need an even number of spots to make things fair.5 It divided the numbers up. It spun the wheel. Then it misread the result and gave the pick to the wrong team.

I feel like I need to stop here and assure you that I am not making any of this up. Campbell spun the wheel and announced that it had landed on no. 1, resulting in Vancouver winning the top pick. While the Canucks celebrated, Campbell looked again and realized that the wheel had actually stopped on no. 11, meaning the Sabres had won.

They used the first overall pick on a kid named Gilbert Perreault, who’d go on to play his 17 seasons in Buffalo and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1990. That same year, he became the first Sabre to have his number retired, as the team honored famous no. 1. Wait, no, make that eleven. It’s easy to get those confused.

Draft oddity no. 5: It could go on forever

Today, the NHL draft lasts for a quick and tidy seven rounds. Through much of the 1980s, it lasted for 12. But for most of the 1970s, the draft lasted … well, pretty much as long as the teams wanted it to. Back then, there was no set number of rounds; teams could keep picking players until they chose to pass. Once every team had passed, they were all allowed to hang up and go home.

Some teams took this as an opportunity to add a handful of prospects who their scouts liked. Others saw it as a chance to draft everybody. It wasn’t unusual for the number of rounds to drift well into the late teens, often with just a few teams still participating. You know that guy in the front row who keeps putting his hand up even though everyone else has already packed away their stuff and just wants to go home? He was an NHL GM in the 1970s.

The most extreme example of this phenomenon came in 1974. The league featured 18 teams, all of which stuck around for the first seven rounds. That’s when teams started to pass. By Round 12, a dozen teams were left. By Round 14, it was down to eight. After 15 rounds, all but five were done.

And that’s when it got weird, because the Capitals, Islanders, and Rangers just would not leave. Those three teams turned the draft into a test of endurance, like some weird Survivor immunity challenge. The Islanders finally tapped out after Round 20. The Rangers hung around until Round 23. That left the Capitals all alone, and they made two more picks before finally running out of names after 25 rounds.6

In case you were wondering if there ended up being any point to all of that, the last 11 rounds of the 1974 draft produced exactly one player who scored so much as a single NHL goal: Warren Miller, who initially chose to sign in the WHA but eventually played a few seasons for the Rangers and Whalers.

Draft oddity no. 6: Sometimes, teams just ceased to exist the day before the draft

Well, OK, that actually only happened once — to the Cleveland Barons, in 1978. The former California Golden Seals had moved to Cleveland in 1976 and barely survived their first year, missing several payrolls and nearly folding midseason. Their second year wasn’t much better, and on June 14, 1978, the league announced that the Barons would be absorbed by the Minnesota North Stars.

That created a bit of a problem, since the amateur draft was scheduled to be held the next day. The league hastily put together a mini-dispersal draft, during which only two Barons players were selected. From there it was on to the amateur draft, which presented another problem: What should be done with the Barons’ picks?

Obviously, the Barons wouldn’t need any of the picks they were schedule to make, since they were no longer a going concern. But they’d already traded some of those picks to other teams; the Capitals owned Cleveland’s second-round pick, and the Islanders owned their fourth-rounder. That led to an almost philosophical debate: Can you still use a team’s draft pick if that team doesn’t exist anymore?

This being the 1970s, the NHL had to figure out a way to handle the situation that would make no sense at all, and so that’s what it did, by letting one team keep the pick while voiding the other. The Capitals were allowed to use their pick, the 23rd overall, and took defenseman Paul MacKinnon. But the Islanders’ pick was forfeited, erased from the record books along with Cleveland’s other picks.

Was that fair? Probably not. Then again, the Islanders turned out OK, so we all just agreed to forget that it happened.

Draft oddity no. 7: You could buy picks

Prior to the implementation of the salary cap in 2005, the NHL allowed teams to include cash in trades. This occasionally led to transactions like Kris Draper being traded from Winnipeg to Detroit in exchange for one dollar. But it also led to a brief trend in the ’70s of teams buying late-round draft picks.

Remember, teams could keep picking as long as they wanted, so the supply of draft picks was theoretically limitless. But the order was predetermined, so it could make sense to seek out a team that was done for the day, then throw a few bucks their way to use their picks to jump the line.

The first team to exploit this loophole was the Minnesota North Stars, who bought half of the 10th round in 1972. A few years later, the Maple Leafs bought five late-round picks in the 1975 draft (including a 12th-rounder they used on future Red Wings GM Ken Holland). The Flyers and Canadiens took turns buying up much of the later rounds in 1977, throwing pocket change at the Sabres and Islanders to purchase a total of 12 picks, which they then used on players who’d go on to combine for just 11 career games played.

The trend reached peak silliness in 1978, when the St. Louis Blues bought an astounding 19 late-round draft picks. They even hit on a few, landing useful pieces like Paul MacLean and Bob Froese with purchased picks. Of course, they also bought themselves the chance to pick guys like Dan Lerg and Gerd Truntschka.

That was the nature of the business, I suppose. Sometimes you end up with a winner. Sometimes you end up with Lerg and Gerd.

Draft oddity no. 8: When teams got bored, they drafted fictional players from Japan

Again, this actually happened. I’m telling you, there may have been something wrong with people in the ’70s.

Eventually, they got it all figured out (mostly)

The end of the WHA in 1979 essentially doubled as the end of the NHL’s era of draft nonsense. The amateur draft became the entry draft, and by the time the 1970s ended, the NHL draft had mostly settled into the relatively straightforward event we see today.

There were still occasional hiccups, like the time in 1983 that the Blues didn’t bother picking anyone because the franchise was on the verge of folding. And the year that two teams tried to draft the same player. And the time that only one team realized a future Hall of Famer was actually eligible to be picked.

OK, so the league still finds ways to screw things up occasionally. But when it comes to making a mess of the draft, no period in league history comes close to the ’70s. That decade is clearly no. 1.

Or maybe no. 11. Who can tell the difference, right?

Filed Under: NHL, nhl draft, Montreal Canadiens

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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