1991, Eric Lindros, and the San Jose Screwjob

1970 was the year that the last vestiges of the NHL’s old junior sponsorship system went away for good, replaced entirely by the all-encompassing Amateur Draft.  Rather than carving up Canada to identify and sign talented players at a young age, a set of guidelines was established to create a common pool for teams to select eligible young players from.

1970 also marked the year that the league expanded from 12 to 14 teams, with the additions of the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks into the fold.

The question was who should have first drafting rights, the new Vancouver team represented by general manager Bud Poile or Buffalo led by general manager George “Punch” Imlach.  The league decided to answer the question by playing games of chance.  First, Imlach won a coin flip for the right to pick first from players left unprotected on big league rosters.  Then he won a coin flip for the right to choose players from waiver lists.  And then came the big attraction, a spin of a “wheel of fortune” for the right to select first in the amateur draft.  This would decide who would get [top prospect Gilbert] Perreault.

MacPeek, Walt. Hot Shots of Pro Hockey. New York: Random House, Inc. 1974. Print.

Long story short: the wheel was spun, NHL President Clarence Campbell called the wrong (winning) number, and Vancouver thought that they had won the first pick.  Imlach looked at the wheel closely, informed Campbell that the wheel was sitting on #11 and not on the number that he had called, and that the Sabres had therefore won the spin.  Imlach was correct, and Perreault wore #11 for the duration of a glorious career that would eventually see him skate into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

(As a side note, I do want to acknowledge my older brother for procuring a copy of the book cited.  There was a school book sale at some point and he snagged it for me for a couple bucks.  I think I was in third grade at the time, and I still have it and obviously use it.)

In 1972, the expansion New York Islanders won the top overall pick over the expansion Atlanta Flames; they took Billy Harris first, with Atlanta selecting Jacques Richard.

In 1974, expansion Washington won the first pick in the entry draft and took Greg Joly, while expansion brothers Kansas City picked Wilf Paiement second overall.

1979 saw the absorption of four teams from the WHA (the Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, Hartford Whalers, and Quebec Nordiques).  After a very convoluted process that saw those four teams gutted of their rosters and then rebuilt, they were given the last four picks in each round of the Entry Draft that year.  This situation was quite a bit different, as the WHA and NHL had engaged in a seven-year war that created a lot of hard feelings and a lot of fallout.  The onerous terms imposed upon these four teams made it clear that they were being punished upon entry into the league rather than being accepted as partners.  (Note: this is a very cursory summation of what happened.)

Regardless, the expansions of the 1970s set a particular precedent: expansion teams will be slotted at the top of the draft, although who picks in what particular spot is something that would have to be determined using another method.

Fast forward a decade, as the struggling Minnesota North Stars were looking at the possibility of moving to greener pastures.  The team had been hemorrhaging money for years, and the Bay Area was enticing.

George Gund wants to stay in hockey probably more than his brother Gordon wants to get out.

“I hope something can be worked out,” George said in response to a question about whether there’s a deal afloat to keep him in hockey. On his way to San Francisco, he dropped out of the sky above Chicago for the North Stars’ first playoff game.

Both George and Gordon want to quit losing money at a rate so rapid it could make them not-quite-so-rich if it continued long enough. Poor is out of the question.

Gordon enjoys hockey. George loves it. George has played hockey outside the Kremlin walls in the middle of the night, he’s a member of international ice hockey committees, hockey people are his friends.

Amid efforts to sell the North Stars to either Howard Baldwin, the front man for some rich guys in California, or Peter Karmanos, a rich guy in Detroit, there’s a plan that would keep the Gunds – at least George – in hockey.

It may mortgage the North Stars’ future, but what the heck!

It could be settled soon, but, according to some reports, could drag on until the June draft.

None of the principals are anxious to talk about proposals before they become deals. The only trial balloons these guys fly bear corporate emblems.

However, according to sources close to the negotiations, one plan being tossed about would send most of the North Stars’ minor-league players to California – San Francisco for two interim seasons, then on to the new arena in San Jose – and include the sharing of prospects in the North Stars’ system and of players taken in an expansion draft.

This plan, or a compromise similar to it, offers solutions to several hangups:

It provides a way for Gordon Gund to abandon his hard-line price of “at least $50 million.” A team’s value depends on its talent pool, real and imagined.

It gives George Gund hockey in his backyard. Home is really his personal jet, but he has offices, and a house, in the Marina district of San Francisco.

It provides San Jose with a team somewhat better than a bottom-line expansion team. It also satisfies Baldwin’s efforts to bring hockey to northern California. “I’ve always maintained that any end result should include San Jose getting a NHL team,” he said. As importantly, it gives him a job in hockey again.

It provides the NHL with a solution to a potentially – if not already – embarrassing situation. The league wants hockey in Minnesota and doesn’t want to screw up San Jose as an expansion city. Losing an established team in one of the two U.S. hockey hotbeds could effect the concept of expansion as well as the NHL’s uppity $50 million pricetag.

The most optimistic of those involved believe this plan could be in place by fall with San Francisco-San Jose playing in the NHL by September.

Unlikely. Even the NHL can’t be dumb enough to virtually hand deliver Eric Lindros, hockey’s next budding superstar, to an expansion team. However, for the right price…

Olson, Gary. “GEORGE GUND MORE INTERESTED THAN BROTHER IN REMAINING IN HOCKEY.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 8 Apr. 1990, Sports, 11C

There’s that name that would come into play: Eric Lindros.  Universally acclaimed as the next great franchise talent, and the most hyped prospect since Mario Lemieux some years earlier, Lindros would be the perfect building block for an expansion team.  Certainly that’s what prior precedent dictated would happen, with the incoming team slotted at the top of the draft.

Less than one month later, more news:

Minnesota North Star co-owners George and Gordon Gund have signed a lease agreement with the Cow Palace that would allow an NHL team to play home games at that Daly City facility as soon as next season.

The Gunds are on the verge of selling the North Stars to former Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin. As part of the sale agreement, the Bay Area would be guaranteed an expansion franchise, which would be owned by the Gunds.

The contract was signed Saturday morning and runs through the 1991-92 NHL season, with an extension option. Assuming that the North Stars’ sale to Baldwin goes through, the Gunds would be granted a Bay Area team for ’91-92. That team would play at the Cow Palace, then move to San Jose upon completion of that city’s new arena.

“All parties are interested in making it happen at the Cow Palace,” said Cow Palace general manager Mike Wegher. “It’s a solid, signed agreement. The money is in the bank. What we have in the bank is pretty much nonrefundable.”

Wegher wouldn’t say how much the Gunds paid for the agreement, but that they “were serious about getting a team here. This is terrific for the Bay Area, good for (the Gunds) and good for the Cow Palace.”

This team-to-be could be playing at the 50-year-old Cow Palace longer than just a season. The San Jose arena, originally scheduled to be open in fall of 1992, could be delayed until December of that year due to toxic substances found on the development site.

When – or if – the Bay Area gets an NHL team will be determined during the league’s Board of Governors meeting in Chicago May 8-9. Of course, if the NHL blocks a Baldwin purchase of the Stars (a deal with the Gunds is said to be imminent), the Cow Palace agreement is meaningless.

“Everything is subject to league approval,” Wegher said.

However, the league doesn’t figure to turn the Gunds down. In fact, the Gunds are apparently already putting together the pieces for an expansion team. One rumor says the Gunds want to stock the new team with half the players on the current North Star roster, then secure a guarantee from the league that their new team would get the first pick in the ’91 junior draft.

That player would be 6-foot-4, 225-pound prodigy Eric Lindros, a 16-year-old currently playing junior hockey in Canada. Lindros is considered, as one observer said, “The biggest thing since Christ” – a cross between Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

This arrangement would make the Bay Area entry fairly competitive right away. A team trying to set up shop in a place which hasn’t had an NHL hockey team in more than a decade will need all the help it can get to sustain fan support.

“The Gunds are trying to get all they can,” said Randy Hahn, vice president of Pro Hockey San Jose, an organization trying to bring the NHL to that city. “It makes business sense for the Gunds to request that. It would make sense for the league, to bring a certain amount of credibility to the Bay Area.”

Maybe so, but it wouldn’t make sense to the NHL’s lesser teams, who no doubt want a shot a Lindros and won’t be too amenable to helping out an expansion outfit.

Cooper, Tony. “NHL’s Gunds Sign Cow Palace Lease.” THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, 1 May 1990, SPORTS, D1

Based off of the long-established precedent, the idea that San Jose would need to secure a guarantee for the first overall pick seemed superfluous.  However, this marked the first time that there was even the possibility floated out that San Jose would not be automatically granted the first overall pick, as the established precedent would lead them to believe.

Nine days later, things were made official.

The NHL Board of Governors on Wednesday approved the sale of the North Stars to Howard Baldwin and accepted all of the conditions sellers George and Gordon Gund tied to the sale, including an expansion team for the Bay Area for the 1991-92 season and the sharing of the Stars’ talent pool.

The Gunds will play at least the 1991-92 season in the dowdy Cow Palace in San Francisco before their anticipated move to a new, $100 million arena in SanJose, Calif., for the 1992 season.

The team will be stocked in June 1991 by an expansion draft – the 20 teams except Minnesota can protect only 16 skaters and two goalies – the yearly entry draft and a sharing of the North Stars’ talent pool, something Ziegler called “the cross-pollination draft.” (The North Stars) will be able to protect only 14 skaters and two goalies with at least 50 games experience from the Gunds.

The Stars will recoup some of their losses by sharing the 20 players the Gunds get from the expansion draft.

“None of our players will be affected by this until after next season,” Baldwin said. “I owe it to our fans to try to win next season, and if that means playing some of the players we can logically expect to lose, then that’s what we’ll do. That message will be conveyed to our coach.

“If, at the end of the season, we lose two or three of those players, then we hope to recover our losses by sharing the players from the expansion draft. Competitively, I think I came out ahead.”

The Bay Area expansion team will also have the No. 2 pick in the ’91 entry draft – an admitted plan to keep teenager Eric Lindros, the league’s next predicted superstar, among the current teams – and then the first pick in every round afterward.

Olson, Gary. “GUNDS TURN OVER STARS TO BALDWIN.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 10 May 1990, Sports, 1C

That made it official, more than a year out from the 1991 Entry Draft.  The league’s worst team in 1990-91 would secure the first overall draft pick and undoubtedly take Lindros.  This figured to be Quebec, by far the worst team in 1988-89 and 1989-90.  Everyone knew that it would not be the Edmonton Oilers, who were about to win their fifth Stanley Cup in seven years and would never be in contention to have three consecutive 1st overall picks.  The expansion Sharks would pick second, but surely there would be a concession made in exchange for them missing out on the top overall pick entirely – let alone Lindros.

An odd story came down in October 1990, as a transfer of North Stars ownership from Howard Baldwin to Norm Green was producing an unusual controversy:

A feud is heating up between owners of the Minnesota North Stars and San Jose Sharks, an expansion team joining the National Hockey League next season.

Usually, scouts are admitted free to any pro arena, but North Stars owner Norm Green has decided Sharks scouts can buy tickets to Minnesota home games. The Sharks have a great interest in North Stars players because they’ll be taking some after the season as part of the expansion agreement.

The Sharks, owned by George and Gordon Gund, will take 14 forwards or defensemen and two goalies from the Minnesota roster. In return, the North Stars can participate in the draft.

Green, who wasn’t part of the ownership team when the deal was completed, wants to renegotiate to reduce the number of players the Sharks receive.

“Our position on that is simply that we have no comment,” San Jose general manager Jack Ferreira said.

With superstar prospect Eric Lindros eligible for this draft, league owners decided to give the Sharks the No. 2 pick. Some scouts have Seattle Thunderbirds defenseman Brent Bilodeau rated No. 2, but Ferreira says it’s too early to speculate.

Allen, Kevin. “North Stars give Sharks no free peeks at their talent.” USA TODAY, 19 Oct. 1990, SPORTS, p. 10C

Quebec, widely picked to finish last and be in position to take Lindros, started off the season with a decent mini-run, while Toronto stumbled early.

There’s a franchise player on the horizon and the NHL’s worst-run franchise might not even get a shot at him.

These are tough times for the Toronto Maple Leafs, so much so that they won’t even get a No. 1 pick in the draft if they finish with the NHL’s worst record. They’ve got a big jump on the rest of the league, too, with a 1-7-1 record.

The prize for finishing dead last in the 21-team NHL will be Eric Lindros, considered the next coming of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

”That would be a problem,” New York Rangers Coach Roger Neilson said. “They finish dead last and not even get Lindros.”

The Leafs traded their No. 1 pick to New Jersey for Tom Kurvers, a decent defenseman but hardly in the superstar category.

Associated Press. “MAPLE LEAFS WONDERING WHAT TO DO – LINDROS WON’T BE PRIZE FOR LAST-PLACE FINISH.” San Jose Mercury News, 24 Oct. 1990, Sports, 10G

By December, Quebec’s fall to the bottom of the standings looked to have them on track to finish last and take Lindros.  The discussion of this possibility led to a rebuke from an unlikely source:

The Quebec Nordiques seem to be making a concerted bid for the No. 1 overall draft pick and Eric Lindros. They went 0-15-2 before beating the Hartford Whalers on Wednesday. The recent trade of Michel Petit, Lucien DeBlois and Aaron Broten to Toronto for young Scott Pearson and a couple of second-round draft picks seemed to pretty well sum up management’s intent. But the Nords’ best player (at least until Lindros arrives) doesn’t seem to be with the program.

“We don’t want Eric Lindros here, not even for a visit,” Joe Sakic said recently. “If he winds up playing for us, that means everyone on this team has failed.”

Bowen, Les. “HIGH-SCORING LINE KEEPS PENGUINS’ OPTIONS ALIVE.” St. Paul Pioneer Press, 2 Dec. 1990, Sports, 14B

It’s funny; we’ll praise a particular move that Sam Pollock made that saw Montreal end up in a position to draft Guy Lafleur while they were finalizing the designs on yet another Stanley Cup ring, but Quebec did pretty much the same thing to ensure the ability to acquire a franchise player in the draft.  Of course, the difference is that Montreal held the first-round pick of the league’s second-worst team, and thus strengthened the worst team in a trade to shift the standings; Quebec was simply in danger of finishing somewhere above dead last and directly strengthened their fellow basement-dweller.

To quickly tidy up a much longer story: Quebec finished last in 1990-91 and took Eric Lindros, San Jose took Pat Falloon second overall, and Toronto’s pick (traded to New Jersey two years prior) was used to take Scott Niedermayer third.

Tampa Bay and Ottawa were selected to expand the league from 22 to 24 teams for the 1992-93 season.  Buried in the middle of an article from January, one could find this line.

Tampa Bay and Ottawa will pick first and second overall in the draft, scheduled for June 20 at the Montreal Forum. Their position will be determined by a coin flip or a lottery, with the rights to the first pick in each round going to the winner.

Instead of keeping those positions throughout the draft, though, Lightning and Senators officials would like to alternate the picks in an effort to even out the selection process.

Under the plan devised by the two teams, the winner of the lottery would pick first in Rounds 1, 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 and second in Rounds 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12.

“We’ve talked about switching the picks, but we haven’t heard anything from the league on it yet,” Lightning President and General Manager Phil Esposito said. “We’ve asked, but so far they haven’t told us whether we can do it or not.”

Cummings, Roy. “Expansion teams consider change in draft format.” The Tampa Tribune, 23 Jan. 1992, Sports, 11.

So for the 1992 Entry Draft, the two incoming expansion teams would select first and second, while the rest of the draft spots would go in reverse order.  This meant that San Jose, suffering through a dismal first season, could pick no higher than third overall.

In 1992-93, Ottawa and San Jose both stumbled to horrendous starts while several other teams (including Tampa Bay) were simply floundering.  In December came a bombshell, as the league announced that it would be expanding again for the 1993-94 season.  This didn’t leave much time, and the entry draft machinations were even more strange.

They were calling it a “must-win situation” in Ottawa, and they weren’t talking, thank goodness, about anything on the ice, where the Senators seem born to lose.

The must-win for the expansion Senators was keeping the No. 1 overall draft pick for the team that finishes last this season.

And that’s the way it will be.

The NHL announced the new Anaheim and Miami expansion franchises will begin play next fall. But Ottawa, Tampa Bay and San Jose will draft in the top three spots if they finish with the worst three records this season.

And by the way, once Gary Bettman has moved into the commissioner’s office, he’s expected to institute an NBA-style lottery system to determine the top picks in the NHL draft.

“Worst May Be Best for Ottawa.” Chicago Sun-Times, 27 Dec. 1992, SPORTS SUNDAY, 8

Two days later:

IT LOOKS increasingly likely that new NHL teams in Anaheim and Miami will begin play next season, despite the logistical nightmare of putting together franchises in such a short time.

However, the matter will remain unsettled at least until league officials meet sometime during the first week of January to consider the topic. The Board of Governors approved the new franchises at a meeting in Florida earlier this month.

“It’s a tough schedule right now for everybody,” Jim Gregory, the league’s director of hockey operations, said yesterday.

The stickiest issue relating to the expansion is draft order. The league has said that Miami and Anaheim will draft no lower than fourth and fifth in the June draft, but that raises some questions.

The Sharks expect to draft in the top three if they finish in the bottom three of the league this year, as seems likely. If San Jose, a second-year franchise, and expansion teams Tampa Bay and Ottawa finish as the bottom three teams in the league, then those three teams would have the top three picks — followed by the Miami and Anaheim teams.

If it doesn’t work out that way, no one is quite sure what will happen.

The Sharks will wait anxiously to find out how it will all work. They were denied a first-round choice in their first draft on the capricious and unfair grounds that the league didn’t want to give them Eric Lindros. Last summer, the Sharks chose third behind the two new expansion teams.

Kettmann, Steve. “Little Prep Time for New Franchises.” THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, 29 Dec. 1992, SPORTS, B7

One more part of the 1993 expansion provisions was that, no matter where they finished in the standings in 1993-94, Anaheim and Florida would select first and second overall in that year’s draft.  They could not go higher or lower than fourth and fifth in 1993, but they would be first and second in 1994.

The Florida Panthers and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, as mandated by the expansion rules when they entered the league for this season, have been guaranteed the top two picks in the draft.

Weaver, Mike. “SHARKS SHOOT FOR CENTERS IN 1994 DRAFT.” San Jose Mercury News, 16 Jan. 1994, Sports, 8D

But more important draft-related news was on the horizon.

The lottery is coming, the lottery is coming.

The National Hockey League appears ready to enter the 21st century now that plans for a draft lottery starting in 1995 are being discussed.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a former NBA vice president, introduced his plan at the NHL general managers’ meeting earlier this month in Palm Beach, Fla.

The plan is fashioned after the NBA lottery, but has eliminated some of the rules that caused the NBA problems and embarrassment. Watching the Orlando Magic, one of the top non-playoff teams, wind up with the No. 1 pick for the second straight year in 1993 prompted the NBA to modify its lottery.

THE PLAN

Under the proposed NHL lottery:

One of the five worst non-playoff teams would be guaranteed the first pick overall. That would happen because no team would be allowed to move up more than four slots in the draft order.

The worst team would be assured of picking no worse than second. Only one choice would be up for grabs, not three as in the NBA, so no team would be able to move back more than one slot in the draft order.

The plan, which needs the approval of the league’s board of governors, cannot go into effect until after next season. The 1994 draft is already set with the first-year expansion teams – the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – drafting first and second.

Burgin, Sandy. “BETTMAN WANTS LOTTERY IN NHL.” Worcester Telegram & Gazette (MA), 27 Feb. 1994, Sports, D5

The lottery did in fact go into effect for the 1995 draft, meaning that the expansions of the late 1990s would be impacted by it.

The Nashville Predators, who will open up shop as an expansion team in the 1998-99 season, are in the lottery and hold the second position. The Sharks are third and can drop no farther down than fourth, as no team can fall more than one slot.

Cooper, Tony. “Sharks Get Good Odds In Lottery – San Jose is assured of 4th pick or better.” THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE, 9 May 1998, Sports, B3

 

The NHL will conduct its draft drawing on Sunday to determine the order of selection for the first 12 picks in the Entry Draft.

The 11 teams who missed the Stanley Cup playoffs – or the clubs that acquired first-round picks from those teams – will participate in the drawing along with the expansion Atlanta Thrashers.

The drawing is a weighted lottery system that limits teams from moving up more than four positions in the draft order. That would restrict the top pick to the four clubs with the fewest regular-season points – the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay, Vancouver and Nashville – or Atlanta.

Under the weighted lottery system, Tampa Bay, whose 47 points was the lowest total in the league this season, has the greatest chance at the top pick with 26 percent. Atlanta and Vancouver both have a 16.9 percent chance, the Islanders a 10.8 percent chance and Nashville an 8.3 percent chance.

Wire Services. “DRAFT ORDER WILL BE SET ON SUNDAY.” Miami Herald, 7 May 1999, Sports, 3D

 

Out of the rubble crawled Doug MacLean, president/general manager of the Blue Jackets.

In the morning, in a room in a North Jersey Hilton, MacLean looked on as the New York Islanders were declared winners of the amateur draft lottery. The Islanders converted on an 8 percent chance.

The Atlanta Thrashers had a 25 percent chance to win the lottery and gain the No. 1 overall pick. The Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild and Tampa Bay Lightning each had a 14.6 percent chance.

The Islanders leapfrogged them all. It was the first time since the inception of the draft lottery in 1995 that a team had jumped from fifth to first.

In the afternoon, MacLean participated in a coin flip with his fellow expansionist, Doug Risebrough, GM of the Wild. A special silver coin was used with the Jackets logo on one side and the Wild logo on the other.

The flip was made and the Wild came out on top. Risebrough had a choice to make: Take the third overall pick in the amateur draft or opt for the fourth overall pick and some flexibility in the expansion draft. Risebrough wasted no time. He made the decision that MacLean would’ve made had the flip gone the Blue Jackets’ way.

“We’ll take the third selection in the (amateur) entry draft,” Risebrough said.

For MacLean, this was the worst-case scenario for the day. The Jackets improbably were taken out of the top three picks in the amateur draft and then they were relegated to fourth overall after the coin flip.

Arace, Michael. “WORST-CASE SCENARIO NOT ALL BAD FOR JACKETS – MACLEAN WILL STILL HAVE OPTIONS IN EXPANSION DRAFT.” Columbus Dispatch, 2 Jun. 2000, Sports, 03D

All told, the NHL added fifteen teams via expansion (not including the WHA teams in 1979, which is hardly a traditional expansion) from 1970-2000.

Of these:

  • Buffalo and Vancouver had the 1st and 2nd overall picks in their first draft
  • New York and Atlanta had the 1st and 2nd overall picks in their first draft
  • Washington and Kansas City had the 1st and 2nd overall picks in their first draft
  • Tampa Bay and Ottawa had the 1st and 2nd overall picks in their first draft
  • Florida and Anaheim had the 4th and 5th picks in their first draft, but were guaranteed 1st and 2nd in their second draft no matter where they finished in the standings
  • Nashville had the second-best lottery odds in their first draft
  • Atlanta had the second-best lottery odds in their first draft
  • Columbus and Minnesota were among three teams with the second-best lottery odds in their first draft

That’s only fourteen teams.  Missing from this list is San Jose, who was:

  • Shuffled into the second overall spot in their expansion year (1991)
  • Slotted behind the incoming expansion teams the very next year (1992), picking 3rd while the new teams picked 1st and 2nd
  • Allowed to pick ahead of the 1993 expansion teams that year, but said expansion teams were already guaranteed to pick 1st and 2nd overall the next year no matter what.  That’s even if they made the playoffs, even if they went on a run, even if the played each other for the Stanley Cup.

Every other actual expansion team was either getting a first overall pick or a chance at a first overall pick before they ever put a team on the ice.  Not San Jose, for whom 20+ years of established precedent was set aside and after which that precedent would go right back into place.