Hockey Central

66 and 99

1979-80 to 1991-92

It would be one of hockey's most exciting eras. While the upstart World Hockey Association would draw its last breath, the National Hockey League would flourish on the ice in the 1980s and early 1990s, evolving into an international super-league employing great players from around the world. This period also would produce the games' last two dynasty teams—the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers—and would provide the setting for two of the game's greatest players to perform their magic – Mario Lemeiux and Wayne Gretzky.

Off-ice, the era would be defined by the relationship between three men: chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors and owner of the Chicago Blackhawks Bill Wirtz, league president John Ziegler and Player's Association executive director Alan Eagleson. Through the WHA years as salaries scoared, labor and management needed to work together creatively to ensure franchise stability and preserve players' jobs in the NHL. The triumvirate of Wirtz, Zieglar and Eagleson allowed this to happen but, by 1990 many players would become increasingly uncomfortable with this relationship. By October of 1992 Eagleson and Zieglar would be replaced and Wirtz's tenure as chairman of the Broad of Governors ended.

The WHA had started in 1972. For seven years it challenged the NHL in cities across North America, signing some of the game's biggest names, most notably Bobby Hull, while allowing future stars like Gretzky and Mark Messier to make their professional debuts as teenagers. But the league's shaky financial foundation eventually collapsed and, in 1979, the NHL expanded into four WHA markets—Edmonton, Quebec, Hartford and Winnipeg. Before Edmonton joined the NHL, and was still operating in the WHA, the team purchased Gretzky, who first had played with the Indianpolis Racers. Before Edmonton joined the NHL, it had to be assured it wouldn't lose the rights to Gretzky.

Meantime, another former expansion franchise, the New York Islanders, had quietly built an outstanding hockey team under the guidance of general manager Bill Torrey, coach Al Arbour and a gifted scouting staff.

The team revolved around its captain, All-Star defenseman Denis Potvin, forwards Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy and goaltender Billy Smith. Like any great hockey team, the Islanders also had a talented supporting cast that included players like Clark Gillies, Bob Nystrom and Butch Goring. The Islanders were never flashy, they played a tough, disciplined game and made few mistakes. Their coach, Al Arbour, was a man of few expressions who rarely got flustered in the heat of battle. Arbour's composure under fire rubbed off on his team. Before retiring, Arbour would compile one of the most impressive coaching records in hockey.

The team's undisputed leader was also one of the finest defensemen in the game. Denis Potvin would go on to have a distinguished NHL career, breaking Bobby Orr's all-time scoring record for defensemen and becoming the first blueliner in the league to top 300 goals.

In 1979-80, their eighth season, the Islanders became the second expansion team to win the Stanley Cup. Two players, Smith and Nystrom, had been with the team since its inception in 1972. The team would go on to win the Cup the next three years as well, becoming only the second NHL franchise in history to win four championships in a row. The Islanders would beat the Edmonton Oilers in four games to win their fourth Cup. The Oilers, however, would learn from their defeat.

Edmonton general manager Glen Sather, coach of the Oilers at the time, remembers walking by the Islander dressing room after the final game.

"They all had ice packs on," Sather recalled. "None of our guys were beat up like that. We just didn't know how hard we had to go to win. To be a Stanley Cup champion." They would learn.

Sather was building a different team from the conservative style of the Islanders. Sather had gone to Europe when he was coaching the Oilers in the WHA. He went to Finland and Sweden and he watched how midget hockey teams there practiced. He liked what he saw.

"They were teaching kids the fundamentals of the game," Sather recalled. "But they were also teaching them about switching lanes and creating open ice." He saw defensemen jumping up into the play. It was a style that demanded creativeness and Sather knew he had one of the most creative players in the game – a slender kid from Brantford, Ontario, named Wayne Gretzky.

"I knew he was probably the most creative player who had skated in the NHL. He had tremendous peripheral vision," said Sather.

To emulate what he had seen in Europe, Sather needed players who could skate. And that's who he went after. Soon, the Oilers would have the likes of Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey joining Gretzky and Mark Messier, a tough-as-nails forward with blazing speed. The team also found a great goaltender in Grant Fuhr. And they would need him. The Oilers had a high-octane offense. Defense was something they didn't pay as much attention to. The Oilers' European-style of play, which highlighted European players like Kurri, Esa Tikkanen, Jaroslav Pouzar, Reijo Ruotsalainen and others, opened up the eyes of other NHL teams to the talent pool that existed overseas.

While great players like Toronto's Borje Salming had earlier proved that Europeans could not only play but thrive in the NHL, it would be the success of the Oilers and, earlier, the WHA's Winnipeg Jets that would pick up the stock of European players.

"The European players were highly skilled," said Sather. "And just as tough as we were." On May 19, 1984, in only their fifth NHL season, the Oilers captured the Stanley Cup for the first time. Edmonton defeated the defending champion Islanders 5-2 in game five to clinch the series. The torch had been passed from one dynasty to another. And the Oilers would dominate the rest of the decade.

"Our skill level was probably the biggest thing that made us so tough," Mark Messier remembered of those Oiler teams. "We forced all the teams to find better skilled players to be able to compete. Consequently, the ability and skill level of the entire league rose." Messier says the foundation of the Oilers was a special group of players that could play the game on anyone's terms.

"I think that was the biggest facet if that team," Messier said. "If you wanted to play it in the alley we could play in there. If you wanted to play it in the streets, we could play a fast, wide-open game. If you wanted tight-checking, we could beat you there. We could beat you at any game." Harry Neale, former NHL coach and general manager, had the unenviable task of facing the Oilers in the league's Smythe Division. He was coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

"They forced other teams, certainly in our division, into coping with their style," said Neale. "You weren't going to beat them if you were a slow-footed, checking team." Neale said the Oilers were especially deadly when teams were four on four. With Gretzky and Kurri on the ice and Paul Coffey on defense, Neale said, they could make the other team's four players look like minor-leaguers. Neale said when the league, in 1985, changed the rule concerning coincidental minors so teams would remain five aside and would no longer play with only four players, he referred to it as the Edmonton Oiler rule.

"I always said they changed the rule because the Oilers were scoring so many goals in four-on-four situations." Neale observed. The key to the Oilers, however, was the incomparable talents of its captain, Wayne Gretzky. "Gretzky terrified you," said Neale. Gretzky's coach agreed.

"Wayne was really the main piece of the whole puzzle," said Sather. "He was such a great player he made the players around him better and they all developed from his confidence and the way he could play the game." Sather said it all started from practice. "Wayne never had a bad practice in 11 years." Gretzky would make his mark in the NHL right from the start. On a February night in 1980, he would tie the NHL record for most assists in one game with seven. His legend would grow from there. Gretzky, would shatter and own endless NHL records.

As prolific a scorer as he was, Gretzky's greatest asset was his ability to set up others. He did things with the puck defenders never saw before. He would park himself behind an opponent's net and the moment a defender made a move, Gretzky seemed to find a teammate who was open. His position behind the net would become known as "Gretzky's office." He was a rare player who could take over a game himself. He was often double-shifted by his coach and would play half the game. He was never the fastest player but he never had to be, so shifty were his moves.

The Oilers would win a second Cup in 1985, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in five games. Gretzky would win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable playoff performer. The Oilers looked like they might own the Cup forever. But they would falter the following year, enabling the Montreal Canadiens to win their 23rd Stanley Cup title behind the brillant goaltending of a 20-year-old from Quebec named Patrick Roy. It would be the stunning debut of one of the game's great pressure goaltenders.

But the Oilers would reclaim hockey's greatest prize the next two seasons, beating the Flyers again in 1987 and the Boston Bruins the following year.

However, cracks were beginning to show in the great Oiler dynasty. The team's enormous success had driven up the value of its star players. Oiler owner Peter Pocklington was beginning to feel squeezed financially as the costs of doing business in the league began to soar. In November of 1987, the Oilers traded Paul Coffey to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-player deal. It would set the stage for the most shocking trade in NHL history the following year.

On August 9, 1988, a sobbing Wayne Gretzky announced he was being traded to the Los Angeles Kings. Two other Oilers, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley would join him. In return, the Oilers got Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas plus L.A.'s first round picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993. Plus $15 million.

The move shocked a nation. Gretzky was a national hero in Canada and the thought of losing such a treasure seemed like hearsay. Pocklington was vilified in his own city. Fans wanted to blame anybody, including Gretzky's new wife, actress Janet Jones, for luring him to the bright lights of Hollywood.

The trade would have profound ramifications on the NHL. First, Gretzky would become a glamorous spokesman for the game in the United States where someone of his statue was needed to sell the game. Almost overnight, Gretzky made hockey cool in sunny California. Some of Hollywood's biggest stars came to see him play.

There is little question that Gretzky's move precipitated the eventual expansion of the NHL game into several U.S. markets. In California, where Gretzky landed, franchises would later spring up in San Jose and Anahiem.

Beyond the impact Gretzky would have in the U.S., the trade would forever change the landscape of team-player relations. If Wayne Gretzky could be traded, then anyone could be traded.

"Once Wayne Gretzky got traded it changed everything," said Harry Neale. "Before you traded to make your team better. Now, teams were trading for economic reasons. And that's what the trade really highlighted; how the economics of hockey were changing." Once in L.A., Gretzky was told by the Kings' flamboyant owner Bruce McNall to write his own cheque. Gretzky would get close to $2 million a year, plus bonuses. It would set a new standard by which other players would want to be paid.

The Oilers would feel Gretzky's absence immediately. While still a young team, The Great One's departure would be too much to handle the following season. The Calgary Flames would capture the Cup in 1989 and one of hockey's most enduring personalities, Lanny McDonald, would sip from the silver chalice for the first time in a long and distinguished career.

The Oilers, however, would bounce back and grab glory one more time. It would be their most unlikely Cup victory and perhaps, in many ways, the most gratifying. In 1990, Mark Messier, now wearing the captain's "C" would lead his team to the Cup, beating the Boston Bruins in five games. It would be the final curtain call for one of the game's greatest dynasties. The economics of hockey would eventually force the Oilers to lose Messier, Anderson, Kurri and Fuhr. Only the team photos outside the Edmonton dressing would remain to remind future players of the past greatness that once occupied the room.

The Oilers, despite finishing below .500 in their first two seasons in the NHL, would accumulate the best overall record during the years 1979-80 to 1988-89. The Oilers racked up 996 points and a .623 winning percentage, just fractionally ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers.

While Gretzky would get most of the spotlight in the 1980s, he would eventually share center-stage with an emerging superstar in Pittsburgh.

Mario Lemieux became Pittsbrugh's first pick, the top choice overall, in the 1984 Entry Draft. The lanky and stylish centre from the Laval Voisins of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had been touted by everyone as a sure-fire franchise player. He didn't disappoint.

In his first season, Lemieux reached the 100-point plateau. In 1987-88, he would stop Gretzky's string of eight consecutive MVP awards by winning the Hart Trophy. Pittsburgh's number 66 would also top Gretzky in the race for the Art Ross Trophy, finishing with 168 points, 19 more than number 99.

Lemieux and Gretzky weren't always on opposite sides of the ice. In 1987, the two joined forces for their country in the Canada Cup tournament. As expected Canada and the Soviet Union met in the final. The teams had spilt the first two games of the three-game series by identical scores of 6-5. In game three, the score was tied 5-5 in the dying minutes of regulation time when Gretzky broke down the left side of the ice with Lemieux trailing. Number 99 would wait until the last possible instant, drawing the Russian defenders toward him, before dropping a pass to Lemieux who snapped a shot to the top corner of the net, allowing Canada to win by the now-familiar score of 6-5. It may have been the second-greatest moment in the history of Canada and Russia's hockey rivalry, falling only in the shadow of Paul Henderson's goal in 1972.

Many felt Lemieux's game winning ignited him, pushed him to reach greater heights in hockey. If there was one frustration with Lemieux, it was that he didn't seem to possess the same passion for the game as Gretzky. But his skills were undeniably magnificent, enabling him to lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup triumphs in 1991 and 1992.

Several tournaments and exhibition series with teams from the Soviet Union and other European hockey powers took place in the 1980s utilizing a variety of formats. The second edition of the six-nation Canada Cup was played in 1981, with the Soviets defeating Canada 8-1 in the championship game. Additional Canada Cup tournaments were played in 1984, 1987 (descrided above) and 1991 with Team Canada winning all three. Significantly, by 1991 Canada's final series opponent was not the Soviet Union but the United States.

Soviet teams and NHL clubs would stage a number of meetings throughout the 1980s. Central Red Army and Dynamo Moscow came over to play NHL teams in the 1979-80 season. The NHL teams won four of the nine games. In 1982-83, a Soviet all-star team played six NHL clubs, losing only to Edmonton and Calgary. The Central Red Army and Dynamo Moscow returned in 1985-86 and won eight out of 10 meetings with NHL teams.

Rendez-Vous 87 was played at Le Colisee in Quebec City, pitting the NHL All-Stars against the Soviet Nationals. The NHLers took the first game 4-3 but the Soviets won the second 5-3 with Valeri Kamensky starring for the Soviets. Additional Super Series were staged in 1988-89 and 1989-90 and 1990-91. Fifty-six games were played in all with NHL teams winning 21 and Soviet clubs 29. Six games were tied.

NHL clubs also paid preseason visits to the Soviet Union. The Calgary Flames and Washington Capitals each played four Soviet opponents in September of 1989. The Minnesota North Stars and Montreal Canadiens played a similar schedule of games one year later.

The NHL would undergo a noticable change in the demographic makeup of its players in the 1980s. The percentage of Canadian-born players, 82.1 percent in 1979-80, slipped to 75.6 percent by decade's end. The difference was made up in almost equal numbers by U.S.-born and European players. The decade also saw a dramatic increase in U.S. college and U.S. high school players selected in the annual NHL Entry Draft. Interest in U.S. hockey increased, particularly, after that country's upset gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Several players on the team would have distinguished NHL careers. More importantly, the high-profile victory had a huge impact on the number of American children playing the game.

Soviet journeyman Sergei Priakhin became the first product of the Soviet hockey system permitted to join an NHL club when he signed a contract with the Calgary Flames in 1988-89. Beginning in 1989-90, top Soviet players like Sergei Makarov, Alexander Mogilny and Viacheslav Fetisov appeared in the NHL with many others to follow.

Several rule changes were introduced throughout the 1980s. By decade's end the league responded to growing concern about players being checked into the boards in an unsafe manner. The league ruled that any player who received a major penalty for boarding that resulted in an injury to the head or face of an opponent, also received an automatic game misconduct. Any player who incurred a total of two game misconduct penalties for boarding would be suspended for one game.

In 1982, rosters were expanded to 18 skaters plus two goaltenders from 17 skaters and two goaltenders. In 1983, a five-minute sudden-death overtime period was instituted.

Overall and average attendance at National Hockey League games rose to record levels throughout the 1980s. In 1979-80, the average league attendance was 12,747. By the end of the decade, average attendance had climbed to 14,908.

The 1980s would be a period of consolidation for the NHL – Atlanta's move to Calgary was the only franchise shift of the decade – but by the beginning of the 1990s, the league was poised for change. An additional team was added in 1991-92 when San Jose entered the league. Ottawa and Tampa Bay joined as expansion franchises in 1992-93 with Florida and Anaheim making the NHL into a 26-team circuit the following season.

Off the ice, criticism of NHL president John Ziegler's management style mounted. During the 1988 playoffs New Jersey Devils coach Jim Schoenfield was suspended for clashing with referee Don Koharski after a game. When the Devils obtained a temporary restraining order to overturn Schoenfeld's suspension, the referee and linesmen scheduled to work the next game refused to take to the ice. The league found substitute officials and, after a lengthy delay the game was played that same Sunday evening.

The substitute referee had his own striped shirt but the linesmen were forced to work the first period in oversize yellow practice jerseys. The officials did a good job, but after this "mini-crisis" media coverage came to revolve around the fact that Ziegler was not available to help resolve the issue. When added to an existing perception that he was aloof, this unfortunate incident – known as "Yellow Sunday" – strengthened growing opposition to Ziegler's regime among some members of the league's Board of Governors.

Fundamental changes also were under way at the NHL Players' Association which, since its inception, had been dominated by the personality and actions of its executive director Alan Eagleson. By the end if the 1980s many players had come to believe that Eagleson was too close to NHL club owners and accordingly was not acting in the players' best interests.

His involvements as an individual player agent and as the organizer of the Canada Cup international tournament placed him in what many felt were unacceptable conflicts of interest. These fears would later be realized when Eagleson was convicted on fraud charges in Boston and Toronto courtrooms in January 0f 1998.

In September 1990, a Michigan lawyer and player agent by the name of Bob Goodenow was brought aboard the NHLPA and after a two-year transition period, took over as Executive Director on January 1, 1992. His mandate was to revamp the operation.

"There was an association in name but not in operation," Goodenow said recently. It wouldn't take long for NHL owners to realize they were now dealing with a new NHL PLayer's Association that was run along completely different lines than the one Eagleson had been operating.

In April of 1992, just four months after assuming control, Goodenow led the first league-wide players' strike in NHL history. As what would have been the final days of the regular season ticked by, the strike threatened the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The labor dispute lasted 10 days before a settlement was reached. The players acquired some improved free agency provisions and greater control over licensing of their likenesses. The players had served notice they were to be taken seriously by the owners.

"That was a major moment," said Goodenow. "The players were committed to getting the respect of the owners which they didn't feel they had before. I don't think the owners took the players seriously and it wasn't until the strike that they understood the players were serious." Goodenow would lead the players in other battles. It was clear that the NHL was much different than it was in 1979-80.

John Ziegler was replaced as league president by Gil Stein in 1992. A new office of the commissioner would soon be created with Gary Bettman elected to lead the NHL into a new era.