Bernie Wolfe had a brief, and interesting, return to the NHL. Image by: Getty Images
Many savvy execs have exploited expansion's odd rules with trickery over the years.
Every time the NHL expands, the established teams gladly accept their cut of the fees forked over by the expansion clubs. In turn, the new teams try to get their money’s worth by building their rosters with players selected from existing clubs during the expansion draft.
Although the old teams don’t mind taking their money, they don’t like the new teams taking their players, and some GMs have gone to great lengths to try and lose as little as possible. Here’s a look at five notable examples.
PUNCH SLUGS THE KINGS
The first expansion draft, held in 1967 when the NHL doubled in size, allowed the Original Six clubs to protect 11 skaters and one goalie. After losing a player, they could add another to their protected list. Prior to the draft, Maple Leafs center Red Kelly retired, and GM Punch Imlach agreed to release him from his contract so that he could coach the newly formed Los Angeles Kings, who ended up landing the first pick. On the day of the draft, Imlach tried to protect both of his goaltenders, listing Johnny Bower as the Leafs’ protected goalie and Terry Sawchuk among their 11 protected skaters.
“Well, he can skate, can’t he?” Imlach reasoned, unsuccessfully, to the other GMs in the room.
The Kings used the No. 1 pick to select Sawchuk, much to Imlach’s annoyance, and after nine more rounds of losing players, the Leafs’ GM had had enough. He added Red Kelly to his protected list, a move that didn’t make sense since Kelly was retired. But Imlach wouldn’t budge, claiming he should get something in return for Kelly’s services because he was better than any of the players L.A. had drafted. Two days later, the Kings relented and traded minor league D-man Ken Block to the Leafs for the right to hire Kelly as their coach.
BENGT-ING THE RULES
Bengt Gustafsson was the proverbial rope in a tug-o-war between the Capitals and the Edmonton Oilers. Gustafsson was drafted by the Caps in 1978 but instead signed with the World Hockey Association’s Oilers in the spring of 1979, appearing in two playoff games. When four WHA teams joined the NHL prior to the 1979-80 season, all WHA players whose rights were held by NHL teams would again be property of those clubs, while the WHA teams could protect two skaters and two goalies, regardless of NHL rights. Naturally, the Oilers protected Wayne Gretzky, along with Gustafsson and goaltenders Dave Dryden and Eddie Mio.
The Capitals had no problem with this – until three months later. In September, the Capitals raised a stink over Gustafsson to NHL president John Ziegler because the Oilers had signed him in early 1979. During the ongoing negotiations that took place between the NHL and WHA throughout the 1978-79 season, the NHL mandated that WHA teams couldn’t sign any players after Dec. 31, 1978. This was to keep WHA teams from stockpiling players. The WHA didn’t inform its clubs of this directive, but it didn’t matter. Ziegler ruled Edmonton had illegally signed Gustafsson in the first place and awarded his rights to Washington.
Had the Capitals raised the issue during the expansion draft in June, and not three months later, the Oilers could have protected a different player.
Gustafsson was a part of another expansion draft 12 years later when the San Jose Sharks joined the league. He left the NHL in 1989 and returned to Sweden, and his rights ended up with the Red Wings, who left him unprotected in the 1991 draft. Gustafsson was selected by San Jose but never played another NHL game.
That 1991 draft was a bit convoluted, as was the formation of the Sharks franchise itself. George and Gordon Gund, owners of the North Stars, wanted to move their team to San Jose, but the NHL wanted keep a presence in Minnesota, so a compromise was met. The Gunds would sell the North Stars and get their expansion team in the Bay area.
To stock their roster, the Sharks received 24 players from the North Stars in a dispersal draft. Then both teams took turns drafting exposed players from the remaining 20 teams. Among the B- and C-list talent available were numerous retired players, including some legends. For example, the Canadiens listed Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer and Ken Dryden for the draft, while the Islanders offered Denis Potvin and the Flyers made Bill Barber and Bobby Clarke available. Just think, Clarke, GM of the North Stars at the time, could have drafted his playing rights from his former team.
As it turned out, he ended up drafting Guy Lafleur from the Nordiques, who had made his intentions to retire known but hadn’t filed the paperwork yet. Clarke did this so he wouldn’t be on the hook for a contract he didn’t want and traded Lafleur back to Quebec the next day for Alan Haworth, who was playing in Europe and wouldn’t factor into Minnesota’s payroll.
For the 1992 expansion draft, each team, save for the Sharks, had to make a goaltender available with at least one game of NHL experience. And that’s exactly what some teams did. The Blackhawks recalled career minor-leaguer Ray LeBlanc, who had shined at the 1992 Olympics as Team USA’s backstop, and played him in one game before demoting him. The Calgary Flames brought up goalie Warren Sharples, played him in a single contest then shipped him back to the minors. Guess which goalies these two teams left unprotected for the draft?
But the real showstoppers were the Capitals, who signed long-retired goaltender Bernie Wolfe solely for the purpose of making him available in the expansion draft. Wolfe played four seasons for the Caps in the 1970s, retired in 1979 and started a financial services company in Washington that’s still in business today.
“(Capitals’ GM) David Poile, who’s a friend and a client of mine, called me and said it would be great publicity,” said Wolfe almost 25 years later. “I said, ‘Jeez, I’m 40 years old. What if someone drafts me?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, no one’s going to draft you.’ ”
Of course, the NHL voided the contract, but Wolfe never had any intentions of strapping the pads back on anyway.
“I loved the publicity,” he said. “For a guy who was just starting a financial company, I’m sure I got the biggest benefit of everybody.”
Frederic Chabot could count on one thing during his career: if there was an expansion draft, there was a good chance he’d be available. Chabot was exposed in a record five drafts – 1991, ’92, ’93, ’98 and 2000 – and was selected in three, also a record. The Canadiens frequently reacquired Chabot throughout his career, seemingly for the purpose of exposing him in the next draft.
The Habs left him unprotected in the 1991 draft, and again in ’92, when the Tampa Bay Lightning selected him, though Chabot wasquickly traded back.
“Getting reacquired by Montreal was a good thing,” said Chabot, now a goaltending development coach with the AHL’s Iowa Wild. “I was getting good coaching with Francois Allaire, and Montreal is a great organization, so in the long run that ended up being a really good thing that I stayed there.”
Montreal left Chabot exposed a third time in the ’93 draft, though he wasn’t picked. Five years later, now with Los Angeles, Chabot was selected by the Nashville Predators in the ’98 draft, which allowed the Kings to keep their tandem of Stephane Fiset and Jamie Storr intact. Plus, by losing Chabot, they wouldn’t have to expose a goalie in the 1999 expansion draft. As a thank you, L.A. traded Kimmo Timonen and Jan Vopat to the Predators for future considerations.
Later that summer, Chabot was put on waivers and reacquired by the Kings. Three months after that, he was left unprotected in the waiver draft and selected by (you guessed it) the Canadiens, who played him in enough games to make him eligible for the 2000 expansion draft. The Columbus Blue Jackets picked Chabot, which meant Montreal couldn’t lose another goalie or a defenseman in the draft. A year later, the Habs sent a second-round pick to the Jackets for future considerations, a thank you for drafting Chabot.
“I would have loved to have played for an expansion team, but it never happened” Chabot said. “It looked like I was a good piece to trade, and NHL GMs just found ways to play with the draft so they could protect more players. I was the guy who was always available.”