Dmitri Kvartalnov and the Forgotten Controvery of ’93

Based on the title I came up with, I thought for a brief second of setting this up like Sophia from Golden Girls: “Picture it.  Boston.  1993.  A longtime GM may not know what a clearly-defined ‘pro player’ is, but that’s okay because the league doesn’t either.”

When writing on Martin St. Louis and the 2000 expansion draft, I went back to 1991 and 1992 to discuss Soviet and other European players.  One of them, which I didn’t get into, was a scoring forward named Dmitri Kvartalnov.  And this leads into one of the strangest episodes in NHL history, and makes a pretty good counter to the idea that the league used to be run perfectly well.  And in my typical fashion, I’m going to hit about eight different points before tying everything up.

In the aftermath of NHL president John Ziegler’s ouster, league counsel Gil Stein took over on an interim basis while the search for a permanent commissioner went on.  Stein’s year-long reign was controversial in its own right, and to be honest there’s no way that a simple historian can possibly do it justice.  There’s some good, like the invite-only expansion of the extremely well-heeled Anaheim (Disney Corp.) and Florida (H. Wayne Huizenga) groups.  There’s the bad, like orchestrating his own backdoor induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  And there’s the weird, like suggesting that players be suspended for practices rather than for actual games.  All in all, it was a strange time.

Anyway, the search committee recommended NBA general counsel Gary Bettman to be the NHL’s permanent commissioner in December 1992.  His term as commissioner would begin on February 1, 1993.  As for Stein, he would remain on as the last NHL president until July 1, 1993.

You read that right.  For four months, the NHL had both a commissioner and a league president.  To say that this was a bizarre arrangement is an understatement.  This would lead to some issues undoubtedly, some of which are unknown to this day and one of which is being addressed right here.  Eventually.  I’m getting to it.

Dmitri Kvartalnov began play in the Soviet League when he was 16 years old, back in the 1982-83 season.  He’d be shuffled among the various tiers of that league until 1986-87, when he became a full-time player with Khimik Voskresensk at age 20.  Over the ensuing five seasons, he would play for the USSR in two World Championships, and also lead the league in scoring in 1989-90.

By 1991, as the Cold War was coming to a close and more Eastern Europeans were pursuing new opportunities, Don Waddell called Kvartalnov.  Waddell, looking to bolster his San Diego Gulls for the 1991-92 season, offered the 25-year-old a contract.  It was accepted, and Kvartalnov was an immediate sensation.  In 77 games with the Gulls, he would put up 60 goals and 118 points while playing on a line with journeyman Len Hachborn and an 18-year-old Ray Whitney (himself the subject of a controversial acquisition that same year.  Somehow Waddell, in his pursuit of excellence, would manage to become a part of several controversies of which he always seemed to come out on top of.)  Kvartalnov was first in the IHL in both goals and points, then picked up the MVP award at the same time as the Rookie of the Year.

In the 1992 NHL Entry Draft, Boston selected the 26-year-old Kvartalnov in the first round (16th overall).  This wasn’t uncommon at the time, with older players going in the first round.  After all, why take a shot at an 18-year-old that you’re trying to project future years with instead of picking up a proven asset who could step right in?  And Boston GM Harry Sinden was vindicated pretty quickly.  As a rookie in the NHL, albeit one who wasn’t eligible for the Calder Trophy, Kvartalnov scored 30 goals and 72 points to finish fourth on the Bruins (behind only Adam Oates, fellow rookie Joe Juneau, and Ray Bourque).

Then things took a weird turn.  The 1991 and 1992 expansion drafts, which netted almost nothing of value for the league’s newest teams, convinced the NHL that a new format was needed for 1993.  The format was really pretty simple: an existing team can protect one goalie, five defensemen, and nine forwards.  First-year pro players were exempt, second-year pro players were not exempt.  For any second-year pro, a decision would have to be made whether to protect them or leave them exposed for claim by the new teams.

Just to recap quickly: A player on an existing team could fall into one of three categories: protected, not protected, or exempt (first-year pros only).  Kvartalnov played the 1991-92 season in the IHL, which was a major North American professional minor league.  He played the 1992-93 season in the NHL with the Boston Bruins, which is also the same.  His years in the various incarnations of the Russian SuperLeague and its predecessors may or may not be relevant.  Regardless, North American pro in 1991-92, North American pro in 1992-93.  That’s two years.

The protected lists for the 1993 Expansion Draft were due at 8 PM on June 20, 1993.  Kvartalnov, a second-year pro, was not protected by the Bruins.  The following quotes came down.

“We didn’t want to do it,” B’s general manager Harry Sinden said of exposing his team’s top draft pick from a year ago, “but we felt it was in our best interest to keep everyone else.”

Guregian, Karen. “The Bruins Kvartalnov exposed to draft.” Boston Herald 21 June 1993: Sports 072. Print.

When they made him their top pick in last year’s draft, the Boston Bruins predicted Dmitri Kvartalnov would score 30 goals a season in the NHL for the next decade.

Well, he still may, but apparently it’s not going to happen while he wears a Boston jersey.

The Bruins announced yesterday that the 27-year-old winger will be available Thursday when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Florida Panthers make their selections in the NHL’s expansion draft.

“We didn’t want to do it,” Bruins general manager Harry Sinden said, “but we felt it was in our best interest to keep everyone else.”

“The feeling was, his defensive shortcomings outweighed his offensive skills,” said Bruins’ publicist Heidi Holland. “But it wasn’t an easy call. Harry agonized over the decision to leave him unprotected.”

Holland said the Bruins front office and coaching staff had agreed to make Kvartalnov expendable after several long evaluating sessions following Buffalo’s four-game sweep of Boston in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Journal-Bulletin staff and wire. “Frustrated Bruins won’t protect Kvartalnov.” Providence Journal 21 June 1993: Sports B-01. Print.

A lack of centers means a lack of scorers on the unprotected list released Monday by the NHL. Perhaps the only surprise on the list is Boston Bruins winger Dmitri Kvartalnov, who scored 30 goals last season. But his play tailed off at midseason, and he is weak defensively.

“You don’t expect to see a 30-goal scorer,” Florida GM Bob Clarke said. “But Boston is a very successful organization, so you (expect) they know what they are doing.”

Allen, Kevin. “No centers, no surprises listed as unprotected.” USA Today 22 June 1993: Sports 9C. Print.

In addition to Vanbiesbrouck and Sidorkiewicz, Detroit goalie Vince Riendeau is up for grabs as is Boston forward Dmitri Kvartalnov, a 30-goal scorer last season; Joe Sacco of the Maple Leafs, Sean Hill of the Montreal Canadiens, and Mike Stapleton of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Kvartalnov, 27, was the Bruins’ top entry draft pick last year.

From Wire Reports. “NHL Expansion Draft Has Players Confused.” Tulsa World 22 June 1993: Sports B2. Print.

While Clarke and Torrey were satisfied with the goaltenders available Thursday, they couldn’t have been pleased with the overall lack of offense. Kvartalnov, despite his scoring touch, was left unprotected so Boston could keep its 1991 first-round pick, Glen Murray, and Daniel Marois. Kvartalnov, who played in San Diego of the International League in 1991-92, is being looked at closely by Anaheim.

Joseph, Dave. “PANTHERS WON’T GET A GRETZKY – EXPANSION LIST FULL OF OLD OR UNKNOWN .” Sun-Sentinel 22 June 1993: Sports 1C. Print.

Most of us still hadn’t gotten the hang of pronouncing his name correctly.

Dmitri Kvartalnov’s name.

Kvar-TALL-nov. With a roll on the “r” part.

The only time we’ll pronounce it now is when he comes back to haunt the Bruins as either a Mighty Duck or a Panther.

Don’t worry. We’ll make sure to roll the “r” part then. Kvartalnov, who holds the distinction of being the first Russian player ever selected by the Bruins, soon will hold the distinction of being the first Russian regular to leave.

The Bruins left him unprotected for Thursday’s expansion draft, in which Anaheim and South Florida will be stocking their clubs from a long list of players left exposed by the 24 other NHL teams.

Guregian, Karen. “Dmitri not big enough for B’s.” Boston Herald 22 June 1993: Sports 076. Print.

The last article listed there is entirely about Kvartalnov and why he was left unprotected.

I could keep going on with this ad nauseum, but I think the point is pretty clear: Kvartalnov was left unprotected by the Bruins, he was on the official unprotected/exposed list put out by the NHL (as quite literally hundreds of printed articles with the list will bear out), the Bruins were aware that he had to be either protected or not and left him unprotected, and one of the two new expansions teams was expected to take him.  Hell, the last cited article later on has a line that says “According to Milbury, the B’s did attempt to trade Kvartalnov, rather than lose him for nothing in the draft”.

That’s where we are at this point, just so there is absolutely no ambiguity or confusion.

There were more articles from June 23 (a Wednesday), and a couple from June 24 (Thursday, and also the day of the expansion draft) that bear out much the same.  Then the late editions of the papers came out….

“The defensive end is okay,” Anaheim general manager Jack Ferreira said. “But up front there are still no scorers. We’re getting the 10th forward from each team, and no team has 10 forwards who can score goals.”

The one exception appeared to be Boston’s 27-year-old rookie from Russia, Dmitri Kvartalnov, who had 30 goals and 72 points this season.

But on Wednesday, Kvartalnov was declared exempt as a one-year pro. He spent a season playing for the San Diego Gulls in the International Hockey League before going to Boston, but he was considered an amateur and not a pro.

Clark, Cammy. “It’s draft day for Panthers, Ducks.” St. Petersburg Times 24 June 1993: Sports 1C. Print.

“If I was picking first, there’s no way I couldn’t take Vanbiesbrouck,” said one general manager. “He’s 29, and he’s easily the best player available in this draft. But you never know what a team is going to do in one of these drafts.”

Nor a league. For instance, the Florida Panthers and Mighty Ducks of Anaheim thought one of them would get 30-goal scorer Dmitri Kvartalnov from Boston.

Wrong.

Wednesday, the NHL said Kvartalnov no longer is available because he can be exempted as a one-year professional. Kvartalnov has played two pro seasons, but only one under contract of an NHL team.

“We didn’t think we could get a 30-goal scorer in this draft,” Panthers General Manager Bobby Clarke said, “and I guess we were right.”

Dolch, Craig. “NOTHING IS CERTAIN ABOUT NHL’S DRAFT.” Palm Beach Post 24 June 1993: Sports 1C. Print.

Immediately following Phase 2 is a supplemental draft, involving Anaheim, Florida and the non-playoff teams. Those franchises may each select one North American college player who will be at least 21 by the end of 1993. Players previously claimed in an entry draft or with previous professional experience are ineligible for the supplemental draft. Eligible players not claimed can be signed as free agents.

Do you follow? Boston General Manager Harry Sinden couldn’t even follow the rules pertaining to Thursday’s expansion draft. On Sunday, the Bruins designated Dmitri Kvartalnov as unprotected with expectations they would lose the 27-year-old forward.

But Sinden misinterpreted the draft guidelines and Kvartalnov was ineligible to be selected by Anaheim or the Panthers because his one-year stint in the International Hockey League didn’t count against his pro experience.

“We have so many damn rules governing the different aspects of the game, things like the waiver draft, regular waivers and expansion,” Sinden said. “Everyone was just proceeding under the normal rules.”

But normality is hardly the rule as the NHL’s 76th season concludes. League President Gil Stein joined the crowd by setting a convoluted tone right from the start of Thursday’s expansion draft:

“We will now have an initial toss of the coin to determine which team will get to call the toss of the coin,” Stein announced gravely.

Kaufman, Ira. “NOTHING IS CERTAIN ABOUT NHL’S DRAFT.” The Tampa Tribune  25 June 1993: Sports 3. Print.

One player who won’t be taken is Boston Bruins left wing Dmitri Kvartalnov. Kvartalnov, the Bruins’ fourth-leading scorer with 72 points, wasn’t on the protected list. But Wednesday morning, he was ruled exempt by NHL president Gil Stein after being ruled a first-year player in 1992-93. They cannot be drafted.

Rappoport, Ken. “EXPANSION DRAFT TODAY IN THE NHL.” The Commercial Appeal 24 June 1993: Sports D3. Print.

“His (San Diego) contract wasn’t filed with the league, so he wasn’t considered a professional,” Ducks assistant general manager Pierre Gauthier said. “It’s their (the NHL’s) interpretation. We just heard about it this morning. I’m not sure Boston knew about it (when the draft list was filed Sunday).

Bloom, Earl. “Expansion teams denied shot at taking Bruins’ Kvartalnov.” The Orange County Register 24 June 1993: Sports D08. Print.

NOTES — Penguins farmhand Paul Dyck, a defenseman, was one of nine players the NHL ruled yesterday were exempt from the draft because they had not played more than one pro season since signing an NHL contract. Boston’s Dmitri Kvartalnov, a 30-goal scorer last season, was the most prominent of the other eight.

Molinari, Dave. “PENGUINS LOSE LONEY TO MIGHTY DUCKS, FARMHAND LAUS TAKEN BY PANTHERS IN EXPANSION DRAFT.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 25 June 1993: Sports C-1. Print.

One whom Anaheim and Florida will not be able to draft is Bruins forward Dmitri Kvartalnov. The only 30-goal scorer left unprotected in the draft, Kvartalnov was ruled ineligible Wednesday because he had completed just his first season. Players with only one year’s NHL experience are exempt from the draft.

Others who were deleted from the unprotected list were: David Hakstol (Blackhawks); Jim Maher (Kings); Paul Dyck (Penguins); Wade Flaherty, Michael Coleman and Troy Frederick (Sharks); and Sean Gauthier (Jets).

Clarke read the names of the newly ineligible. Then he looked at a sheet listing those he could select.

Joseph, Dave. “PANTHERS’ WISH LIST: GRIT, EXPERIENCE, CHARACTER.” Sun-Sentinel 24 June 1993: Sports 1C. Print.

To recap the timeline: protected/unprotected lists were due to the NHL offices on June 20, a Sunday.  Phase I of the 1993 Expansion Draft, which would stock Anaheim and Florida, was to be held June 24, a Thursday.  Phase II, a two-round supplemental draft in which unprotected players from Anaheim and Florida could be selected by Tampa Bay, Ottawa, and San Jose, was to be held June 25, a Friday.  The Entry Draft would be June 26, a Saturday,

To pare down the important parts: protected/unprotected lists were in on Sunday for Phase I on Thursday.  Sometime late Wednesday night or early Thursday morning, the NHL suddenly declared nine unprotected players (including the only 30-goal scorer on the board, that being Dmitri Kvartalnov) to be exempt completely and thus ineligible to be drafted.  With less than 24 hours to go, one of the top available forwards was gone, and a couple of decent prospects who may or may not have been taken were as well.

Why?

It is, in fact, very possible that the NHL’s guidelines were vague about who is considered a professional player for the expansion draft.  It’s possible that six teams, none of whom were run by a horde of fools, all misinterpreted these guidelines as a result.  It’s also possible that something took place behind the scenes that caused this sudden reversal, and it’s possible that it involved the outgoing league president (Stein) unilaterally making another one of his bizarre decisions.

Let’s look at the six teams who apparently all misinterpreted said guidelines.  Chicago was a perennial contender; they’d been in the Stanley Cup Final just a year prior and looked to be ready to contend again in 1993-94.  Los Angeles had just appeared in the Cup Final, going down in five games to Montreal.  Pittsburgh had just completed the best season in franchise history, but could not win their third consecutive Stanley Cup.  Boston was a perennial contender as well.  Winnipeg was floundering, but looked to be a team on the rise with an outstanding young core of rookies Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk, and Alexei Zhamnov.  San Jose had very quickly accumulated a lot of prospects of all types from around the globe, and undoubtedly knew better than anyone what the hell a first-year pro looked like.

I certainly have a theory as to what exactly happened, but it really doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that this entire fiasco was grossly unfair to the Panthers and the Ducks, who lost a shot at getting a proven high-level NHL scorer in the expansion draft and then had it simply swept away less than 24 hours before the draft itself.  Not by a sudden injury, or an unexpected retirement, but by a league decree from the outgoing president.

When people pine for “the good old days”, I think it’s impossible to forget about episodes like this.  This sudden interpretation and clarification of expansion draft rules didn’t take place before the roster deadline to be disseminated among the teams, so that everyone was on the same page on Sunday.  It didn’t take place on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday during the day.  It took place at an unspecified time with barely any time to go until the actual draft.  And as for why, no one knows what actually happened.

With expansion coming in 2017, I fully expect there to be some question about what a first- or second-year pro actually is.  I don’t know what it will be, but it damn sure won’t involve an embarrassing episode like this repeating itself.

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