The Kidnapping of Bengt-Åke Gustafsson

Bengt-Åke Gustafsson via upload.wikimedia.org Photo by Egon Eagle, released to the public domain.

Oilers fans of the '80s had little reason to lament the proverbial "one that got away", because there were so few who did. The survivor of the World Hockey Association had entered the NHL with a single "protected" skater: the 18-year-old Wayne Gretzky. Not a bad asset to be building a team around, and soon enough the team was built through some Glen Sather wheeler-dealering, a remarkable run at the draft, the trade route, and the open market (Randy Gregg and Charlie Huddy were both UFAs, signed for "free" in the manner of Taylor Fedun yesterday, and both won five Stanley Cups in this city. But I digress ... and I'm not even out of the first paragraph yet!)

There's an odd story behind why the Oilers ultimately protected just one skater, while the other three WHA teams had the "luxury" of two before all underwent the painful process of having their drawers pulled down and being exposed for all manner of abuse by Old Weird Harold and his henchmen in the unseemly world of the NHL's ownership group. The league-sanctioned buggery that followed was the only Reverse expansion draft in history, in which the incoming "expansion" teams were stripped of many of their better players, "reclaimed" by NHL teams. WHA teams who had scouted, pursued, signed, and developed talent from relatively untapped goldmines such as the NCAA and Scandinavia, lost their rights to whatever NHL team might have drafted the guy, even years later. The newcomers were permitted four exceptions: two protected skaters, and two goalies. The convoluted rationale used to explain the bizarre 1:1 ratio between skaters and goalies can best be summed up thusly: "We don't want your damned goalies."

Turned out they wanted not only our skaters, but in the strange case of Bengt-Åke Gustafsson, our protected skaters.

I wish I better remembered the details of how it all went down. Legalese and fine print has never been my forte, my strength is what happens under the bright lights in between the boards. Goodness knows I saw little enough of Benny Gustafsson in that setting wearing Oiler colours, just two games that giddy spring of 1979 when the Gretzky-led Oilers had erupted into prominence, first place, and the Avco Cup Finals. Gustafsson was a late and somewhat-mysterious addition who played just two games for the Oilers. The just-turned 21-year-old had completed a successful second season with Farjestads in the Swedish League before leaping the pond. As I recall he was battling a shoulder issue at the time, but did get into those two playoff games, posting an impressive 1-2-3 in the process.

Who to protect was a thorny issue upon which rested the future of the various franchises. The Winnipeg Jets rolled the dice on Morris Lukowich and Scott "The Gunk" Campbell, losing sparkplug Terry Ruskowski and sniper Kent Nilsson in a decision process that set the team back years. Like their WHA brethren, the Oilers faced a dilemma as to who to spend those precious "priority" protections on. Gretzky was a no-brainer of course, but the Oil had some pretty decent guys to choose among for that second spot. Foremost among them was Dave Langevin, a guy Oiler fans had spent three at-times painful years watching develop into a solid defensive defenceman. His learning curve was about the same as that we've since seen with the likes of Matt Greene or Ladi Smid,or Jeff Beukeboom for that matter, but the quality was beginning to emerge. Big, reliable 25-year-old defencemen don't grow on trees, so he was the logical choice to protect.

The wild card was Bengt-Åke Gustafsson. The Oilers scouting group had been really high on this guy all along, and we fans of course added fuel to such fires, dreaming about the Gustafssons of yesteryear the same way we dream of the Landers and Hartikainens of today. That brief glimpse of the kid that spring told the Oilers that they had to keep this guy at all costs, even the heavy price that would be the sure loss of Dave Langevin to the Islanders.

The Washington Capitals demurred. Come Reverse Draft Day, they went ahead and put in a claim on Gustafsson anyway, despite Oilers' claim of priority. They argued to NHL Commissioner John Ziegler that the Oilers' signing of the young Swede had circumvented some technicality, perhaps a WHA regulation as suggested by this source:

Claimed by Edmonton as one of three players (plus Wayne Gretzky) it intended to protect from its WHA team upon entering the NHL in 1979. Washington fought the move by taking him back in the NHL Reclaim Draft on June 9, 1979. Gustafsson's NHL rights remained in dispute until NHL President John Ziegler sided with Washington, awarding Gustafsson to the Capitals in September 1979 because Oilers had broken WHA rules to sign him.

I recall there being some issue with a date, and that some of the evidence centred around some telegrams for goodness sake - this was a l-o-n-g time ago. The bottom line was that Ziegler sided with the Caps, awarding Gustafsson's rights to the U.S. capital and extending a long middle finger in the general direction of the Canadian newcomers. There were all sorts of conspiracy theories flowing, as you can well imagine - I may have fomented one or two my own self. For sure this incident sparked my first-ever published writing on hockey, a heartfelt rant that was featured as The Hockey News' Letter of the Week in which I blasted Ziegler for not resolving the matter when protected lists were declared, rather than after the draft was done and other alternatives like Langevin scattered to the four winds.

As a result there were Two That Got Away, and I followed both of their fine careers wistfully from afar. In the following four years Dave Langevin scored nine goals and won four Stanley Cups, the last an über-painful sweep of the Oilers in which Islanders' defensive prowess won the day.

Bengt Gustafsson meanwhile went on to become a very fine player for tonight's opponent, the Washington Capitals. It was a team that I grew to like despite that rather harsh introduction, in part because I enjoyed Benny Gustafsson the player. He became a splendid two-way man who scored a respectable (these were the '80s) 555 points in 629 NHL games. He was a prototypical Swedish forward who was adept at any of the three positions, a solid penalty-killer and accomplished checker who could really hurt you going the other way.

How would Gustafsson have done as an Oiler? I have no doubt he would have been an impact player, a good second-liner if not an excellent third-line option. He had the speed and skills to fit in with the core group on that squad, perhaps much in the manner that fellow Swede Willy Lindstrom did years later. Who knows, maybe he would have scored a key goal on April 30, 1986? On the other hand, maybe his presence would have prevented some other key historical development, such as the acquisition of Ken Linseman or Craig MacTavish, or Mark Messier's move to centre or even the Oilers' focus on Finland, not Sweden. Alternate history is a fun course, but it doesn't always have happy endings. Even without Gustafsson, we had a few of those here so maybe history is best left alone.

Besides, the Caps sorely needed him. Among the strangest of Benny's many accomplishments is the fact that in his rookie season he scored the first-ever game winning goal by a Capital against the Montreal Canadiens, this in the Caps' SIXTH SEASON of existence. Over the next decade, the Caps became one of the NHL's best teams, at least in the regular season where they were always battling for the top of the tough Patrick Division. Gustafsson wasn't the only reason why, but he was one of them.

Like many European stars of that era, Bengt Gustafsson returned to Sweden to stay at age 30, further cementing his legacy as one of that nation's greatest hockeyists. He was already a national hero, having led Sweden both in scoring and to a gold medal at the 1987 World Championships. Among his accomplishments as a player, he was MVP of the Swedish League in 1990 and won another gold medal for Tre Kronor at the Worlds in '91; as a coach he won the Swedish League championship with his old Farjestads club in 2002, and four years later became the first coach ever to win the Olympic Winter Games and World Championship gold in the same season. An IIHF Hall of Famer, he remains one of the most respected elder statesmen in the game. 

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