A Skate Down Memory Lane: Training Camp '79

This "rookie" card of an ineligible rookie is likely the most famous hockey card ever published. As a 24-year-old in my own "first NHL season" I collected the full O-Pee-Chee set of 396 cards which ranks high among my favourite memorabilia.

   I'm still trying to get my head around why the Oilers celebrated their "30th anniversary season" in 2008-09, which was the franchise's 36th season, including its 29th in the NHL. (The lockout season does NOT count in my books -- fridiculous!)

   From an NHL perspective a whole bunch of 30th anniversaries will take place in 2009-10. This week marks three decades since that first NHL training camp.

  What an exciting time it was to be a hockey fan! The past twelve months had already seen:

  • the acquisition and long-term signing of Wayne Gretzky; 
  • first place, the franchise's first-ever playoff series victory (a Game 7 home win over Gordie Howe's New England WHAlers), and a trip to the Avco Cup finals;
  • the drama of the merger in which acceptance was finally forced by Canadian hockey fans who, it turned out, also drink beer (who knew?). What they didn't drink was Molson's beer, at least not across the prairies and in francophone Quebec, until "Molson's Canadiens" reluctantly changed their swing vote to "yea";
  •  player movement galore, and
  •  the best Entry Draft in history.

   The Oilers were not a typical expansion team in any respect, with an existing team, arena and fan base, and established ownership, management, coaching and scouting. Most importantly of all, the Oilers had Gretzky, the guy Peter Pocklington had craftily signed to a "personal services contract" earlier in 1979 in yet another example of outside-the-box thinking that had helped the WHA surivive through those seven chaotic, fascinating years. Pocklington consistently referred to Gretzky as a "deal-buster" during merger negotiations and had managed to hold firm.

   That was one of the few concessions the incoming teams won. It wasn't so much expansion or merger as it was a hostile takeover. The newcomers got shafted in many different positions, including three different drafts:

  1.  a "Reclamation" Draft in which WHA teams were allowed to protect a paltry 2 skaters (and bizarrely, 2 goalies), exposing the rest to being reclaimed by those teams that held their NHL rights;
  2.  an Expansion Draft in which NHL teams could protect virtually everybody that mattered, while exposing a sorry collection of has-beens, never-weres, fat contracts and problem children for the WHA teams to restock their pillaged rosters;
  3. the Entry Draft where the WHA got end-of-round slots; the Oilers got the last pick in each round. No Gilbert Perreaults here.

   W.r.t. #1, sometimes those "NHL rights" were tenuous to put it mildly. Paul Shmyr was a great example of the screw-job the NHL put to the new clubs; he had bolted the hapless California Golden Seals in 1972, and played all 7 years in the Rebel League including the last two as Edmonton's "Kaptain". Meanwhile his NHL rights went from California to Cleveland and ultimately to Minnesota in the Barons dispersal draft. Even though he had zero history in Minny, the No-Stars grabbed him as a free player, an experienced defender who had led the first-place Oilers with +37. Other Oilers lost in this process included defencemen Dave Langevin, John Hughes and Risto Siltanen, and forwards Stan Weir, Dave Hunter, Dave Semenko, Dennis Sobchuk, Steve Carlson, and (controversially) Bengt Gustafsson.

    Oilers' management was already wheeling and dealing, giving up other assets and considerations to claw back four guys who had been claimed by their "NHL teams": Weir, Semenko, Siltanen, Hunter. The latter was part of some fancy dealing with Montreal, which involved among other things future considerations, namely a "hands off" agreement for certain Habs in the expansion draft. The Habs were so deep -- many thought their Voyageurs farm team could comfortably make the NHL playoffs -- they had to take extraordinary measures to protect a couple of extra guys. Sather emerged with several "B" prospects from the Habs, including Hunter, Cam Connor and Dave Lumley. By training camp Oilers had 13 returnees: goalies Dave Dryden and Ed Mio, just 2 defencemen in Siltanen and Al Hamilton; and forwards Gretzky, B.J.MacDonald, Brett Callighen, Peter Driscoll, Bill "Cowboy" Flett,  Weir, Hunter, Semenko, and captain Ron Chipperfield.

   The blueline severely weakened, Sather & Co. plucked a few somewhat-familiar blueliners from around the league in that expansion draft -- Lee Fogolin, Colin Campbell, Doug Hicks, Pat Price. They did considerably less well in choosing forwards.

    Oilers then hit gold in the Entry Draft, drafting defenceman Kevin Lowe in the first round, then picking Hall-of-Famers Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson with picks they had ironically traded down to acquire (in recovering Dave Semenko, Oilers traded #42 and #63 to Minnesota for #48 and #69. I guess that deal worked out OK.)

    The new-look squad took the ice of Varsity Arena (now Clare Drake) in late September, 1979. It so happened I had had knee surgery earlier that month, and had a couple weeks off work to recover (knee surgery involved scalpels, stitches, and crutches way back then). With nothing better to do, I made my way down to Varsity to watch the workouts and scrimmages each day. I had never seen a live NHL game in my life, but I had season tickets dating back to the last two WHA seasons, an unshakeable belief that Gretzky was for real, and a very high level of excitement and optimism about the prospects of NHL hockey in Edmonton.

   Some of the newcomers didn't show much. Training camp was training camp for seasoned pros, and "gamers" like Lee Fogolin and Colin Campbell needed real games to show their true colours. Others stood out right away. It was clear from the first practice that Dave Lumley was a player who likely would have a couple NHL seasons under his belt already if not for the log jam in Montreal; he was a good postional player with a little offensive imagination and solid puck skills (he was absolutely great at getting the puck over his own blueline), and an effective agitator besides. Doug Hicks was a mobile puck-moving blueliner who looked poised and confident from the get-go.

   Then there was the rookie Lowe, whose every move screamed Quality. A little green around the edges to be sure, but there was no way he wasn't going to make the team right out of camp. His professional career would ultimately consist of 1468 games in the NHL and 0 in the minors.

    The surprise was Messier, an 18-year-old colt who had scored all of one goal in the WHA the previous season. He hardly appeared cowed by that experience. The brash local kid was undisciplined and prone to dumb mistakes even in training camp, but he wasn't afraid to try stuff. Moreover, there was no denying the size, speed, and soft hands which were evident in (almost) every line rush.

    And of course there was Gretzky, whose unique game I was still learning. It was fascinating to watch some of the stuff he did in practice, always pushing himself, winning all the races in the stop-and-starts, using the down times for self-driven drills of puck control including a few tricks nobody had ever seen before, staying out late to practice deflections. Of course it was during scrimmages where he truly excelled, constantly springing surprised linemates through even-more-surprised defenders with his subtle but devastating puck distribution skills. I remember one play in particular where he executed his patented buttonhook-in-a-phone-booth, then used the space created to take a couple of steps and wire a perfect slapshot through traffic into the top corner. It was both unexpected and understated -- no red light, no celebration -- so it took a second for the semi-full house to take it in, then we erupted in applause. It didn't matter that the play had taken place against scrubs and rubbydubs; it was apparent that such magic would work against anybody. There was simply no way to defend Wayne Gretzky.

    There was also no way to deter optimism in Edmonton. Like Gretzky, like Messier, like Lowe, we couldn't wait to unleash our enthusiasm and our unseasoned squad against Big Brother. They wouldn't know what hit them. Right?

    Right! It actually did work out that way, and in short order too. There would be bumps along the road of course, but that team never failed to thrill with a team game that was simultaneously creative and porous. Fortunately, they had a smart GM/coach with the patience to allow them to be both.

    To review just the 1979-80 season that followed that glorious training camp: On the individual level, mid-career guys like MacDonald, Callighen and Weir at least matched their WHA productivity rates that 1979-80 season.  Lumley posted outstanding numbers as a 25-year-old rookie: 20-38-58, +15, as he joined Weir and Hunter on a productive, tough-minutes line dubbed the Gang Green (at least on nights the whole team wasn't being called The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, as they were often that first autumn). Hicks would lead the defence in scoring and the entire team in plus/minus (+18), while Fogolin showed his quality the moment a puck was dropped in anger.  Others like Chipperfield and Driscoll found their games did not translate well to the NHL, while former NHLers Hamilton, Flett and Dryden all were exposed for their eroding skills. Connor, who used to kill the Oilers when he was a Houston Aero, proved to be a bust and was one of many guys shipped out of town (for Don Murdoch, but that's another story entirely!).

   Sather and titular GM Larry Gordon were constantly tinkering and experimenting, as 40 different players including 6 goalies wore Oiler silks that season. Only a dozen or so of them were "real NHLers", so the '79-80 Oilers had neither the depth nor the goaltending to contend.  A deadline deal of Chipperfield for Ron Low brought an instant infusion of the latter, a 59-minute brawl in Pittsburgh after Kim Clackson highsticked Gretzky with Semenko in the immediate vicinity galvanized the group, and the Oil went on a closing 8-2-1 run to scrape into the last playoff spot. That earned them the privilege of playing the NHL's first overall team, Pat Quinn's Philadelphia Flyers. The Flyers ended the dream in the minimum three games, but not before two of them were extended into overtime. The Oilers would be carried off on their shields only after Ken "The Rat" Linseman beat Low 23:56 into overtime in the first-ever Stanley Cup playoff game in Northlands Colsieum. Despite the loss, the crowd roared as their temporarily-vanquished heroes shook hands with the Flyers.

   Historical footnote: Even in defeat there was foreshadowing. Four years later, the Oil would break those Flyers' record for fastest Stanley Cup by an "expansion team". Ken Linseman of all people would score the Cup-winning goal, and Glen Sather's choice of skaters at the game's denouement  -- Fogolin, Lowe, Messier, Gretzky, Lumley -- were all participants of that first NHL training camp back at Varsity Arena. What a thrill it was to have been in the seats for both!

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