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Our Forgotten First Overall

For all his flaws Steve Tambellini is unlikely to make the worst first overall pick in the history of the Oilers. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images for NHL)
For all his flaws Steve Tambellini is unlikely to make the worst first overall pick in the history of the Oilers. (Photo by Abelimages / Getty Images for NHL)
Getty Images for NHL

When Steve Tambellini and the Edmonton Oilers stride to the podium in a couple of weeks and make their choice between Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, they will (in all probability) be making their first ever selection at first overall in the team's NHL history. The Oilers have picked pretty high before, but this will be the first time that they have selected at the very apex of the National Hockey League's entry draft.

But the phrase "National Hockey League" is a very important one here. The 1975-76 Edmonton Oilers had finished fourth out of six teams in the World Hockey Association's Canadian division, surpassing the Toronto Toros and the Ottawa Civics (which was not such a great achievement as the former Denver Spurs/newly-christened Civics folded 41 games into the season). This was good enough to make the playoffs (where they were promptly waxed by the Winnipeg Jets), but Edmonton was a lousy team with a record was 27-49-5.

The WHA's divisional alignment in 1975-76 was utterly perverse. The Canadian Division, obviously, comprised the WHA's five and a half Canadian teams. The schedule was interdivisional, although teams played more frequently against division rivals. This didn't keep the amateurish WHA front office from their usual shenanigans, though. When the Denver Spurs moved to Ottawa, their record was simply swapped to the Canadian division with no muss or fuss. Team owner Ivan Mullenix had owned a Central Hockey League team in Denver and had in fact been given a conditional NHL expansion slot for the 1976-77 season. But that expansion was cancelled and Mullenix moved his operation to the WHA, where it promptly died a horrible death. Mullenix suffered from both of the major afflictions that plagued WHA ownership: he was a giant scumbag and he didn't actually have any money. He tried to salvage his losses by moving the team to Ottawa in January, and according to legend the Spurs players found out when they lined up for a January 2 road game in Cincinnati and suddenly heard "O Canada" being played.

The Civics were an attendance success in Ottawa but Mullenix was already spinning the franchise down, selling off its players and its assets and finally folding the team, having taken the money and run. In spite of this shambolic setup, the Spurs/Civics games remained valid in the WHA standings, which wound up giving the Oilers enough points to make the playoffs at Toronto's expense.

(The WHA was a weird league. You have to believe me.)

After this desultory campaign, the Toros moved to Birmingham, Alabama where they changed their name to the Bulls. The Oilers' reward for failure was more fruitful. They picked up the first overall pick in the 1976 WHA Entry Draft.

The 1976 draft class was not considered high on top-level talent, particularly when it was being shared between the two major leagues, but there were a few attractive players. Sly playmaking forward Bernie Federko out of the WCHL's Saskatoon Blades was a favourite of every scout and sportswriter. A tough winger named Don Murdoch but nicknamed "Murder" was drawing eyeballs in Medicine Hat, though there were whispers of personal problems. Probably the favourite was defenseman Rick Green, the most outstanding defenseman in the OHA in his draft year, a 6'3" fast-skating defensive dynamo who some whispered might be the next great shutdown defenseman.

But the WHA draft was a tricky beast to navigate. A general manager had to consider not only the caliber of the player he was drafting but the likelihood he would sign with the rebel league. For all the talent in the league, for all the Mark Howes, the WHA was still considered a somewhat unorthodox choice. Prospects in previous drafts such as Pat Price had been lured to the WHA by gigantic paycheques in both the "oversized novelty" sense and the "a large number of zeros on the end" sense, but not every WHA team could manage such profligate expenditure.

For that reason, players were drafted for far more than their skills. Green went first overall to Washington in the NHL but fell to tenth in the WHA and the Quebec Nordiques, not least because of skepticism that he'd ever suit up for the rebel league (and he never did). The Oilers skipped Green, and wound up taking another one of the players best regarded. Like Bernie Federko, he played in Saskatchewan - it was a good year for the Western Canadian Hockey League. As a nineteen-year-old with the Saskatoon Blades he had done the remarkable, picking up 157 points in 69 games with a further 43 points in 20 playoff appearances. Even by the standards of the mid-1970s, these were considerable totals. His name was Blair Douglas Chapman.

Everything about Chapman looked perfect for the Oilers. Born in Lloydminster, he would have been familiar with the Edmonton WHA franchise even before it sunk its claws into him. At 6'1" and 190 pounds, Chapman was no power forward even for his time but he was strong enough and had some sandpaper, getting into a few fights in what was then a pretty rough-and-tumble junior league. With offense and toughness, he was perfect for the scrappy style of the World Hockey Association. The Oilers were short on scoring and long on muscle, with their top scorer 40-year-old Norm Ullman and a second line of undersized and undertalented nobodies.

But Bill Hunter and company made an error when they picked Chapman. He didn't want to go to the WHA any more than Rick Green did, and Bill Hunter's vault wasn't large enough to change his mind. Nor did the Oilers snare their sixth overall pick, Bernie Federko, who went on to the St. Louis Blues and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Chapman wound up as the second overall selection to the Pittsburgh Penguins and elected to go the NHL route, coming straight out of junior onto a 1976-77 Pittsburgh team that boasted a who's who of average roleplayers of the era: Jean Pronovost, Syl Apps, Rick Kehoe, and others. Chapman's rookie season was a disappointment but by no means poor: he scored 14 goals, 37 points, and helped the Penguins reach the first round of the playoffs where he added two points in a three-game preliminary round loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. A letdown, certainly, but nothing ugly. The 1976 draft in general was treating the NHL badly. In Washington, Rick Green was less than a plug, and very few of the other first rounders were making any noise. The next year Chapman improved slightly but starting in 1978-79 his career was never the same.

Chapman picked up only 18 points in 1978-79 while dividing his shot total in half, and the fed-up Penguins traded him early the next season for Bob Chapman, a remarkable player who in 575 career NHL games somehow finished -260. But the problem was Pittsburgh as much as Chapman: he broke 50 points his first season as a Blue, and had 46 points in 55 games the next year while finishing above even in plus/minus for the first time.

But injuries were beginning to pile up. They marred his career in Pittsburgh and a bruised knee had ended his 1980-81 campaign. Then, on November 12, 1981 against the Los Angeles Kings, Chapman tripped over Kings goaltender Chico Resch as he drove to the net. He got a stick to the puck and scored a goal but went down in a heap, struggled to get up, and ultimately failed. He had ruptured a disc in his back, and in spite of early optimism he wound up requiring surgery that ruled him out until the 1982 playoffs. On his return, he played three ineffective games. Whatever magic had brought him back to prominence in St. Louis was gone.

The next year, Chapman was in and out of the St. Louis lineup. There were a few injuries and a lot more healthy scratches. He played 22 games with the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in the Central Hockey League and broke a point per game, but he was unable to impress enough to get back into the NHL. After the 1982-83 season Chapman left the game, finishing with 231 points in 402 career NHL games.

And not for a second did he take so much as a shift with the Edmonton Oilers. Whichever one of Hall or Seguin Steve Tambellini decides upon, he's hardly likely to do worse than that.