Hockey's Historic Highlights

Las Vegas — NHL's 31st Team — Knights or Knaves?

Hockey's Historic Highlights

Glen R. Goodhand

Las Vegas — NHL's 31st Team — Knights or Knaves?

Posted October 13, 2017

Viewed 3310 times

Vegas Knights Scoreboard (© kylejgraybeal / Instagram)
Vegas Knights Scoreboard (© kylejgraybeal / Instagram)

("Knaves" used in its original sense — "One in a humble position")

During the course of the NHL’s 100 seasons, if we include Las Vegas, 31 franchises have been added to the original four—Montreal Canadiens, Montreal Wanderers, Toronto Arenas, and Ottawa Senators—excluding teams which were transferred to other locations. Up until the 1967 expansion, new clubs were simply absorbed as existing entities.

   When the Detroit Cougars entered the mix, they were basically the transplanted Victoria Cougars of the old Western Hockey League. The Pittsburgh Pirates were simply elevated from their amateur status, where they were known as the Yellow Jackets. The core fibre of the Boston Bruins, the first U.S. member of the NHL, were gleaned from Charles Adam’s purchase of the entire Western Hockey League in 1924. The Montreal Maroons, who joined the established loop the same season, were made up of seasoned veterans who had made their mark with other sextets in the past.

    But in 1967, the “Original Six” establishment tightly held the reins, as six new franchises came, hat-in -hand, and grovelled at their feet, accepting tight-fisted policies regarding the stocking of these fledgling teams. Money, and the initiation right to be a part of this big boys club, was totally lacking in charity, resting solely upon “it’s all about business”!

    Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens, New York Rangers, and Toronto Maple Leafs, were allowed a “protected list” of one goalie and 11 skaters. Each time an “unprotected” competitor was chosen, another was allowed to be added to the “thou shalt not covet” list. One shinny scribe wrote: “It amounted to a rummage sale, with Original 6 teams losing only unnecessary or unwanted players!”

   It is quite a revelation to see a lineup of skaters and netminders who were originally NOT on the untouchable slate, but who later were inserted on the safe-keeping list. A cross-section of those finally retained included: Wayne Cashman, Floyd Smith, Dick Duff, Eric Nesterenko, Red Berenson, and George Armstrong.

   Mind you, there were some name players who were gleaned from this talent dispersal. Terry Sawchuk (first goalie chosen), Glenn Hall, Al MacNeil, Al Arbour, Billy Harris, Bill Hicke, Don McKenney, Bill Hay (who chose to retire), Gary Dornhoefer, Billy Dea, and Andy Bathgate represent a sampling of established stars, who were deemed expendable by their current owners. However, combining the fact that virtually all them were past their prime, with the more ordinary support staff on the teams chosen, the challenge to produce meaningful competition with the existing fraternity seemed like “mission impossible”.

    Take, for instance, the California Seals. With Bobby Baun, Gerry Ehman, Charlie Burns, Billy Harris, and  Bill Hicke, backed by Gary Smith in goal, it seemed like they represented a respectable foe. But a quick glance at the identities of the rest of the roster brings to mind the old television show, “What’s My Line?” They finished dead last with but 15 wins and 47 total points. They changed coaches as often as a new mother with triplets. After only a few months at the helm Bert Olmstead resigned “to maintain his sanity”. Managers came and went nearly as often. Nicknames were changed twice—first to Oakland Seals, then to California Golden Seals. But all that is gold does not glitter, and ownership was so uncertain that the league looked like they would be forced to answer the sinking ship’s S.O.S.

   The Seals are remembered for one of the biggest faux pas in league history. Desperate for help in 1970, they accepted the immediate move of Ernie Hicke from Montreal. The draft pick involved in that deal ended up being Guy LaFleur, the 1971 pick, which would have been the California’s much-needed talent injection. But instead he pulled on the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge of the Canadiens.

  They were finally shunted off to Cleveland; and eventually merged with Minnesota.

   Philadelphia fared the best in the “West Division”, with 73 points. (only the struggling Red Wings of the “East” had less). But it was the St. Louis Blues who persevered longest, making it to the Final before succumbing to the powerful Habs.

    When the next league expansion took place, in preparation for the 1970-71 campaign, the incoming sextets were given the opportunity to vie for the first overall draft pick. It was a foregone conclusion that Gilbert Perrault would be immediately snapped up as that pick. Because neither franchise had a place in the team standings from the previous season, the right to that player would be decided by the spinning of a “roulette”-type wheel. Vancouver were assigned numbers 1-6, and Buffalo 8-13. President Clarence Campbell must have had his bi-focals on upside down that day, because he thought that it had stopped on #1—the Canuck’s digit. But the Sabres’ “Punch” Imlach protested, asking Campbell to look again. Sure enough, it was #11, and he had to backtrack, awarding the choice to Buffalo. Dale Tallon was taken by the Pacific coast delegation.

   Not surprisingly, Perrault picked #11 as his sweater number—although, strangely enough, he had already sported that number in Junior hockey.

   The shifty pivot finished 15th in the scoring derby, and his team fared respectably for a fledgling contingent, finishing seven points up on the Canucks, and higher in the standings than four incumbent sextets. The Sabres were fortunate in snagging some other name players, like Eddie Shack, Phil Goyette, Don Marshall, Jean-Guy Talbot, with the acrobatic Roger Crozier between the pipes.

   The NHL, in an effort to beat the WHA to the punch, continued to establish new franchises in cities which were probable expansion sites for the rebel circuit. The WHA had already planted a club in New York—the Raiders. But the Nassau Coliseum turned the upstarts away, forcing them to rent Madison Square Garden. So, a Long Island contingent, with the appropriate handle of Islanders, became the 15th cog in the established loop’s wheel in 1972. They made the Nassau arena their home instead. Even though they were received by an enthusiastic fan base, typically, they finished in last place in their division with only 12 wins and 30 points. Number one draft choice, Billy Harris, was the only scoring threat, with Terry Crisp and Ed Westfall the main supporting cast up front. Billy Smith and Gerry Dejardins shared the goal crease. In less than a year and a half Phil Goyette, Earl Ingardfield, and Al Arbour had donned the coaching mantel.

   Their co-entrants to the loop’s exclusive brotherhood were the Atlanta Flames. Despite the unlikely location—Georgia is hardly known as a hotbed of hockey—the Red and Gold at least began on an enthusiastic note. They were a big hit with the fans, and were ranked second in expansion clubs for attendance, with 500,000 spinning the turnstiles that first year. “Boom Boom” Geoffrion provided the same spirit behind the bench. They more than doubled the points earned by their new running mates—65 to 30. This was quite surprising since only Pat Quinn, Ron Harris, Keith McCreary, with Phil Myre in goal, registered as household names in shinny circles.

    But excitement can last only so long. Talent lasts longer! In 1975, Alan Truax’s Hockey News headline read: “Flames death slow and peaceful!” In 1977, local businessmen bailed them out to the tune of $750,000, and the players purchased $25,000 worth of tickets. After nine years they moved to Calgary.

   When the 1974-75 new 80-game schedule got underway there were two more new kids on the block. But, the NHL’s anxiety to beat the WHA to the punch meant these “kids” turned out to the anemic waifs. As one journalist put it: “This was the thinnest crop ever for an expansion team to claim from. Previous expansion (plus the WHA) meant the cupboards were bare. Too many players had no business on an AHL team, let alone an NHL one!.......40% of the 50 players who wore the Kansas City togs were not good enough to ever play for an NHL team again.”

   Indeed the pickings were very thin for Kansas City and Washington. The former at least gained a prize with first draft pick, Wilf Paiment. Along with Simon Nolet’s scoring punch, his respectable 26 tallies allowed his Missouri sextet to better Washington in their NHL debut season. The D.C. contingent’s conviction that defenseman Greg Joly would be that fledgling club’s secret weapon was ill-advised. Not only did he suffer injuries, but his talent level was far below expectation. Within eight years he was in the minors where he stayed for the duration.

   The Capital’s Manager, Milt Schmidt, summed it up succinctly: “We paid $6 million to join, and look what little they left us!” K.C. ‘s season was futile enough; but Washington’s team that year has the distinction of being labeled the “worst ever team in NHL history”. They managed only 21 points in 80 games, and went 37 consecutive road games without a win. Kansas City moved to Colorado in two years’ time.

    The Capitals almost followed suit. But in 1982, when the handwriting was indelibly forged on the proverbial wall, a “Save the Caps” campaign by businesses and fans saved their bacon, enabling the franchise to catch its second wind and, at long last, be competitive!

   About half way through the dubious history of the World Hockey Association, a daring columnist declared, “The WHA is on the rocks!” That was evidenced by the fact that as early as 1977, the rebel circuit was making overtures to the NHL to merge the two circuits. When the senior league finally gave in, and the NHL’s 1979-80 season was to have a new look—four WHA franchises joining the pack – it resembled the latter quartet’s being “stoned” by the incumbents.

   Seven years of “treason” would indeed reap bitter fruit. It was not so much an expansion as it was an unconditional surrender! The four former WHA squads—the New England (Hartford) Whalers, the Winnipeg Jets, the Edmonton Oilers, and the Quebec Nordiques—were allowed to retain only two goalies and two skaters. As well, all former NHL’ers who had jumped leagues, were allowed to be reclaimed without compensation. Further, the new teams were placed last in the June draft. All this retribution for being “traitors”, at the cost of $6 million admission fee.

 Over the course of the summer, the fledgling clubs struck deals of various kinds in order to retain some of their current rosters—sometimes as a very high cost. For instance, Quebec was able to keep Buddy Cloutier in exchange for Chicago’s first draft pick—which turned out to be Denis Savard.

   Surprisingly, the finished products in the case of this floundering foursome took on a more promising look than expected. Hartford, for instance, were able to retain the three Howes, Dave Keon, Bobby Hull, Al Smith, and Rick Ley. They finished ahead of seven other clubs including their former WHA partners in crime. Even more startling is the fact that within four seasons the Oilers began their league domination, coming within an ace of matching the Canadien’s run of five Stanley Cups in a row.

   For the league’s 75th Anniversary, the San Jose Sharks came on board. The stocking of the team took on a totally different look. The Gunds forked over $50 million to land a franchise in the California site. They were allowed to claim 16 players from the Minnesota North Stars which they had owned; then sold to interests who re-located the sextet in Dallas two years later, where they were simply the “Stars”.

  1992-93 saw the NHL barreling ahead with more expansion moves. Tampa Bay Lightning and Ottawa Senators came into the fold. The protected lists of the established clubs were basically the same—two goalies and 14 skaters. Tampa picked Roman Hamrlik from the number one spot in the draft, with Rob Ramage and Tim Hunter the only “name” players on the roster. Ottawa thought they had grabbed the brass ring with Alexi Yashin lassoed from the available talent. But the uppity Russian fell far short of expectations, and a watered-down line-up left the Bi-Town contingent struggling to compete. They tripped out the starting gate, and fell flat in their third campaign, winning only nine contests of the 48 in the season shortened by labour problems.

  One year later, with a name borrowed from a Disney movie, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, along with the Florida Panthers, brought the total NHL teams to 26. The favourite jibe about this team was that the team doctor just had to be a “quack”. Another well-worn joke was applied to their counterparts.

     Q. What do the Florida Panthers and the Titanic have in common?

     A. They both look good until they hit the ice.

     Q. What do the Florida Panthers and possums have in common?

     A. Both play dead at home and get killed on the road.

     Q. What is the difference between Frequent Flyer Miles and the Florida Panthers?

     A. Frequent Flyer Miles score points.

    Actually neither of these novice squads were that bad in their initial campaign. The Ducks finished better that six other teams; and the Panthers out-pointed ten others.

   For the 1998-99 season, the Nashville Predators added a single rung to the loop’s ladder. The powers-that-be put a new spin on the stocking of this line-up. The Music City contingent were granted a single pick from each of the 26 existing teams. Not surprisingly, this netted the fledgling club 26 “journeymen”, with which to establish a formidable roster. Tom Fitzgerald, Cliff Ronning, J.J. Daigneault, and Mike Dunham were the only ones who’s I.D.’s could be considered hockey household words. Predictably, they finished last in their division.

  The New Millennium brought further additions to the world’s premier shinny circuit. In 1999-2000 the NHL decided to give Atlanta a crack at making a go of major league hockey again. They nicknamed the new sextet the Thrashers, after the state bird. But declining to restore the “Flames” moniker did nothing to improve the fortunes of Georgia’s second kick at the can. Apparently they should have feathered the nest a little more carefully before giving the nod to this venture.

   Given the first overall pick in the June draft, Don Waddell and company chose Patrik Stefan as the foundation for building the novice contingent. (Daniel Sedin was taken second; Henrik was third). It was a rare case of pie-eyed prediction. Stefan is now remembered as the biggest draft choice bust in the league’s history. He managed but 5 tallies in year one, and the Thrashers finished on the bottom of the heap with 39 points. Little known Andrew Brunette was their leading scorer, and Damien Rhodes shared the netminding duties with various partners. After a banner campaign in 2006-07, when they finished first in their division, the downhill slide was on. After not quite a dozen seasons they were shuffled off to Winnipeg. The local Free Press couldn’t resist a tongue-in-cheek red-carpet treatment for the transients. A cartoon featured a sign reading: “You are now entering Winnipeg. We were born here. What’s your excuse?”

   In 2000-01, the loop was rounded out to an even 30 teams, an arrangement which prevailed until the current campaign. Columbus nicknamed their club the “Bluejackets” in tribute to the patriotism of Ohio citizenry, who supported the Blue-coat wearing Union army during the U.S. civil war.

   The much-travelled Geoff Sanderson, with 30 markers, was the only skater who excelled up front. Veterans Kevin Dineen and Ron Tugnutt also graced the initial lineup. It was 2003-04 before they managed to escape the divisional basement.

  Minnesota’s second try to support an NHL enterprise was tagged the “Wild”. The moniker triggered good-natured jibes from the press and the public. One blogger questioned: “What is a ‘Wild’?” (a duck is a bird, a coyote is an animal, a Senator is a government official—but what is a ‘Wild’?) As a takeoff on the outdoorsy nature of the State, a mock notice was published:

   “The Minnesota Wildlife Management is asking drivers to brake for turtles (a sneak punch at the team’s typical expansion roster’s slow start). After 9 years when they finish crossing the street, people can resume driving again.”

  Their draft pick, Marion Gaborik, was supported by a crowd of second stringers, the usual generous delegation arranged by the league’s stacked “protected list”

    The plot of each of these stories is virtually unchanged. Some franchises failed—either sooner or later. Others struggled to wade through the patience-trying process of building respectable line-ups with draft choices and discerning trades, before finally making their presence known. In the light of that, the question begs to be posed: “for Las Vegas, will they prove to be Knights or Knaves?” If Knights, how long will it take them to prevail? If Knaves, when will they be free of shackles of mediocrity before they can stand up and be counted on the pay-for-play stage?

  One journalist wrote after their pre-season debuts: “Their first two games were not pretty. They lost to the Ontario Reign of the OHL, and the Colorado Avalanche who tallied only 48 points last season!”

   He was very blunt in further comments: “We think this team will stink this year. They are going to struggle with chemistry, speed, skill, and size, and being the lesser talented team on the ice.”

    Sportsnet’s Sean McIndoe penned a mock letter from the NHL to the new fraternity:

   “Dear Vegas Golden Knights,

    Welcome to the NHL. We’ve known you were coming for quite a while now, and you still don’t have any actual players. But you have a name and a logo. It’s a big step for you… Now don’t screw up!…. Sorry if that sounds harsh, but this is the NHL. Our track record with expansion teams has been, shall we say, hit and miss…”

   In the Hockey News’ “Season Preview” edition, the Vegas section included this posed question:

   “Will visiting teams come into Vegas and think that an 80% effort is good enough against a collection of castoffs?”

    Was THAT too harsh? Taking a look at the starting line-up it would seem to be more realistic than pessimistic. Marc-Andre Fleury in goal, and James Neal at left-wing, would seem to be the only established members of this novice nucleus. David Perron, John Garrison, Luca Sbisa, and David Engelland have all skated in 400 plus NHL contests, but most hockey fans would be inclined to respond with “who?” when their names are mentioned. Seven from the Nevada contingent have participated in less than 50 matches. Fleury’s back-ups have a grand total of TWO major-league games to their credit.

   As this is penned, their pre-season exhibition game record is 3-3-1. Happily for them and for their fans, they were victorious in their initial two scheduled league matches, narrowly besting Dallas and Arizona. Time will tell if this is fluke success—or a preview of good things to come.

   Some expansion franchises have been pleasant surprises. St. Louis Blues were the toast of the “West” in their second year; San Jose was a pleasant surprise in their third season; and the Florida Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their third season. But the norm has been that cellar dwellers are what every new club is made of. Rather than encourage new entries to feel at home, the NHL has radiated a constant disdain: “You’re lucky to be here! The worst seat in the house is yours!”

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