How Jean Beliveau was almost a San Jose Shark- the 1991 Expansion Draft

The 1991 Dispersal and Expansion Drafts are an odd chapter in NHL and in sports history, one that undid a 13-year-old merger of two comically inept teams, created a new franchise that soon had all of the sports world abuzz, and also emerged from the ashes of one of the more embarrassing chapters in the history of a league full of them.

I won’t attempt to do a write-up on the background of the actual dispersal and expansion draft; the fine folks at Historical Hockey Stats & Trivia do an outstanding job in their write-up.  To make an extremely long story short, the Minnesota North Stars were sort of cleaved in two to create the San Jose Sharks, and an expansion draft was then held to re-stock the North Stars and to more fully stock the Sharks.  Some folks in the front office of the North Stars headed west, most notable GM Jack Ferreira.  The North Stars would hire Bobby Clarke, a Hall of Famer as a player with the Philadelphia Flyers, as their new GM.  North Stars head coach Bob Gainey would remain, so the Sharks hired George Kingston to head their first-year team.

The list of players that the Sharks took with them in the dispersal draft is a motley collection of popular Sharks, NHL depth, minor league legends, and a handful of names known only to the most astute hockey fans.  Arturs Irbe is the most notable, although I’ll mention that Kevin Evans went as well; Evans is best known for holding the single-season penalty minute record in professional hockey (648 in 1985-86 with the IHL’s Kalamazoo Wings).

The list of players available in the expansion draft itself was little better.  The 20 existing non-Minnesota teams were given a very generous set of conditions for who had to be exposed, and those teams then selected players who fit those parameters and submitted them to the league (which then sent them to Minnesota and San Jose).  Minnesota and San Jose would each select ten players, of whom only one could be a free agent.  This being pre-1992 strike free agency, the term was almost a misnomer.

Seems pretty basic, right?  As was par for the course in the pre-Bettman NHL, everything went straight to hell almost immediately.

1991 was the last time that the NHL did not publicly release protected lists, so to this very day 25 years later those are merely guesswork.  What we do know is that the NHL compiled the final lists and sent them out, and more than a few chuckles were had once the media got hold of it.

NHL spokesman Michael Berger explained. “If a computer had done this, we could have blamed it on a failure to feed it incomplete instructions. But we did it by hand. What happened is, we didn’t whittle down the list sufficiently.”

The league asked 20 teams (Minnesota excluded) to submit to its central registry lists of players for the expansion process. The registry then crossed out exempt players (those with one or two years of NHL experience) and those being protected by the teams. But the league failed to cross off voluntarily retired and inactive players…

“Expansion Draft Glitch.” St. Petersburg Times 30 May 1991: Sports 3C.  Print.

The list of “voluntarily retired and inactive players” was a long and distinguished one, full of Hall of Famers and other notable names.  Not players who would become future Hall of Famers, but players who were already Hall of Famers and had long since stepped away from the game.

Just when we seemed to run out of insulting material about the National Hockey League, it decided to hold an expansion draft.

High jinks ensued. The NHL computer spewed out a list of unprotected players that read like a Legends of Hockey team – Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, John Ferguson, Bobby Clarke, Ken Dryden, Bob Gainey, Bernie Federko, Brian Sutter . . .

What happened?

The NHL’s New York office called it a computer glitch, but the Montreal office said those players who never filed their retirement papers were actually eligible for the draft, even though many now are grandfathers.

Whatever the case, the list, circulated nationally by the wire services, gave hockey fans another hearty laugh at league expense.

This goofy development was simply more harmless fun provided by a league run by clowns.

Gordon, Jeff. “NHL Discovers Another Way To Get Laughs.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch: 30 May 1991. 1D. Print.

The excerpt there from Gordon’s commentary is only the beginning; he would go on to blast the NHL over the eligible goalie parameters and the fact that existing teams were allowed to go to ridiculous lengths to find someone who would fit.  It included the line, “And the league wonders why it’s a laughingstock.”

Gordon wasn’t the only one left shaking his head, nor was the hockey media.

Imagine an NHL dream team, with Ken Dryden in goal, and a starting line with Jean Beliveau centering Yvan Cournoyer and John Ferguson. Another line – call it the Big Boss Line – would have Bob Clarke centering Bob Gainey and Brian Sutter. Then add defensemen such as Denis Potvin.

It sounds like an old-timers gang being brought together for Hockey Hall of Fame festivities, but it’s not. Those names actually appear on the lists of unprotected players submitted by 20 of the NHL’s 21 teams for today’s expansion draft.

The Montreal group of Dryden, Beliveau, Cournoyer, Ferguson and Gainey is impressive. Ferguson was a general manager for the New York Rangers in the 1970s and Winnipeg for most of the ’80s. But he still is on the reserve list of the Canadiens. Clarke, of course, is the North Stars’ general manager after being the GM at Philadelphia, where he was a legendary player through the ’70s and much of the ’80s. And Sutter still is on the St. Louis list, although he has been coaching there several years. Larry Pleau, former general manager at Hartford, also remains on Hartford’s reserve list.

“I don’t know why they would still have me on that list, after I’ve signed all the retirement papers,” Gainey said Wednesday. “It all seems pretty silly to me.”

Gilbert, John. “All-stars `available’ – List includes Dryden, Clarke, Gainey, among others.” Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities: 30 May 1991. Page 01C. Print.

There are also a few oddities on the list, such as retired players Bernie Federko, Ken Dryden, Yvan Cournoyer, Jean Beliveau and Denis Potvin. Hall of Famer Beliveau hasn’t played since 1971 and Dryden and Cournoyer retired in 1979.

If the North Stars wish, they can pick up a pretty good forward and an excellent center in Bob Gainey from Montreal and Bobby Clark of Philadelphia. Both are retired. Gainey is now the North Stars’ coach, and Clark is their general manager.

There are 55 retired players, seven on the inactive list and 30 free agents listed, including St. Louis Blues Coach Brian Sutter, Detroit Red Wings Coach Rob Murray and Washington Capitals Coach Terry Murray.

Sebring, Blake. “CAPITALS LET SAN JOSE HAVE SHOT AT PICKING UP KOMETS PLAYER.” News Sentinel: 30 May 1991. Sports 3S. Print.

The new San Jose Sharks and Minnesota North Stars each will draft 10 players in Thursday’s NHL expansion draft. Their choices are almost limitless.

They can draft the legendary line of Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer and John Ferguson, all former greats with the Montreal Canadiens. Beliveau, 61, retired in 1971. Ferguson is 52, Cournoyer 47.

Or one of the greatest defensemen ever to play the game – Denis Potvin.

Perhaps they’ll choose a lawyer (Ken Dryden), a coach (Terry Murray, Bob Gainey) or a general manager (Bob Clarke).

They can even draft one of the league’s public relations staff members – Darcy Rota, who played for Chicago, Atlanta and Vancouver in an 11-year career.

Kupelian, Vartan. “The new San Jose Sharks and Minnesota North Stars each will draft 10 players in Thursday’s NHL expansion draft. Their choices are almost limitless.” USA Today: 29 May 1991. Print.

Now here’s tonight’s starting lineup. In goal, Ken Dryden. On defense, Denis Potvin and Paul Reinhart. Up front, Yvan Cournoyer, Jean Beliveau and Bill Barber.

No, hockey hasn’t added a senior league. These onetime greats are among the approximately 300 players available to the Minnesota North Stars and the San Jose Sharks in today’s NHL expansion draft because they are still on their former clubs’ voluntarily retired lists.

Minnesota general manager Bobby Clarke can draft himself because the Hall of Fame center is still on Philadelphia’s list. Clarke also can pick his coach, Bob Gainey, because the former Montreal star is on the Canadiens’ list. Coaches Brian Sutter (St. Louis) and Terry Murray (Washington) are also available for the taking.

Elfin, David. “SENIOR CIRCUIT? – Old names crop up in NHL expansion list.” The Washington Times: 30 May 1991. Sports D1. Print.

The Washington Capitals have made 15 players — and coach Terry Murray — available for today’s expansion draft.

The San Jose Sharks, who will start play in October, and the Minnesota North Stars each will select 10 players, one from each of the other 20 teams.

“We have zillions of lists around here, and I guess Terry was on one of them,” Capitals general manager David Poile said, tongue in cheek, of Murray who was on the Washington unprotected list with the notation ‘voluntarily retired’ after his name. “I think Terry’s a has-been, but if we could get any kind of draft choice for him, they could have him. Really, it’s all just a joke, a joke.”…

Poile wasn’t the only general manager having a joke or two at his counterparts’ expense. The Philadelphia Flyers made Hall of Famers Bob Clarke, North Stars general manager, and Bill Barber available; the Montreal Canadiens listed Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, John Ferguson and Bob Gainey, the coach of the North Stars; the Hartford Whalers listed former coach Larry Pleau; and the St. Louis Blues listed coach Brian Sutter.

Jackson, James H. “Liut, Sheehy among Caps available for the draft.” The (Baltimore) Sun: 30 May 1991. Sports 9D. Print.

I recall reading an article as well where Jean Beliveau was asked about what it was like to be on the unprotected list for San Jose to choose.  He said something about being happy to come out of retirement to play, but only if the Sharks could find a way to get Rocket Richard and Bernie Geoffrion as well.  (I cannot find the original article, but if someone can, please pass it my way.)

To recap the sequence of events:

  1. 20 of 21 existing teams submitted their protected lists to the NHL
  2. The NHL league office, which had compiled lists of every player whose rights were in any way held by a given team, crossed the protected players off the lists by hand
  3. The league (or, more accurately, league employees) also crossed off exempt players, defined as first- and second-year pros
  4. The remaining players were listed as “unprotected”, with the league then sending out the complete unprotected list
  5. This complete list contained over 50 retired or otherwise inactive players
  6. Hearty laughs were probably had in team front offices, while the hockey media simply shook their collective heads and wondered how something this basic could get screwed up so badly

As far as I know, no one has ever compiled the entire list of retired or otherwise inactive players into one place outside of the original reports.  Well, here it is: the retired “available” players of 1991.

Boston – Gord Kluzak, Willi Plett, Frank Simonetti, Louis Sleigher, Michael Thelven

Buffalo – Lee Fogolin, Jan Ludvig

Calgary – Brian Engblom, Jim Peplinski

Chicago – Dave Feamster, Cliff Koroll

Detroit– Murray Eaves, Bernie Federko, Dave Lewis, Mike O’Connell

Edmonton – Glen Cochrane, Dave Hunter, Craig Redmond

Hartford – Andre Lacroix, Larry Pleau

Los Angeles – none

Montreal – Bruce Baker, Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden, John Ferguson, Bob Gainey, Jean Hamel, Pierre Mondou, Mario Tremblay

New Jersey – Michel Bolduc, Murray Brumwell, Mark Gordon, Bob Lorimer, Bob Sauve

New York (Islanders) – Mark Hamway, Kevin Herom, Jim Koudys, Garry Lacey, Kurt Lackton, Don Maloney, Stefan Persson, Denis Potvin

New York (Rangers) – Dave Archibald, Pierre Larouche, Andre Villeneuve

Philadelphia – Bill Barber, Bobby Clarke

Pittsburgh – Bob Gladney

Quebec – Alain Cote

St. Louis – Ed Beers, Ed Kea, Paul MacLean, Scott Paluch, Brian Sutter

Toronto – Bill Kitchen, Dan Maloney, Brad Smith, Greg Terrion

Vancouver – Marc Crawford, Randy Gregg, Larry Melnyk, Paul Reinhart, Darcy Rota, Ian Tennant

Washington – Terry Murray

Winnipeg – Bob Brooke, Daryl Stanley

The name Dave Archibald may jump out immediately, because we’ll see him in Ottawa in 1992-93, although he was actually traded there instead of being an expansion draft pick.  Archibald was listed by the NHL as “voluntarily retired” as a result of his decision to play with the Canadian National Team, which would eventually culminate in him playing in the 1992 Olympics.

Looking at the list of names, there is no real pattern to find here to explain how they ended up on the unprotected list.  Most of these players were simply minor leaguers who either never made the NHL or only had a handful of games.  It’s certainly possible that they never filed paperwork with the league, or that they did and it was never given any real priority.  It’s possible that the duties were split among multiple league employees, with a newcomer crossing names off using only the narrowest definition while others were more diligent.

On the other hand, that doesn’t explain Montreal or Philadelphia.  Both teams had a lot of guys retire over the years, and for the only ones to have been missed to have been those of some prominence (including multiple HOFers) is quite odd.  They don’t cluster into any specific years either; they’re all over the place.  Clarke and Barber both retired from the Flyers in 1984, but so too did Randy Holt and Frank Bathe.  What are the chances that the Flyers passed along retirement paperwork on Holt and Bathe, but not Clarke and Barber?  How would a league employee cross off two names of 1984 retirees, but not the other two?

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever know the true story of how over 50 retired players ended up on the NHL’s official unprotected list for the 1991 Expansion Draft.  Was it a simple paperwork error involving a small percentage of the quite literally thousands of players who were registered with the league office and whose retirement papers were misplaced?  Was it a handful of team errors that caused various players to simply fall through the cracks?  Was it possibly an ill-conceived publicity stunt to draw the attention of non-hockey fans to what’s generally a mundane event in the form of an expansion draft, and when it fell flat it was brushed aside as a simple handful of clerical errors?

We may never know what really happened.  All we know is that it happened.