NHL fans love draft weekend. It marks the unofficial start of the offseason, and it serves as a period of renewal as a new rookie class is welcomed while teams wheel and deal to begin the long process of remaking their rosters.
But while the results are inherently unpredictable, the draft itself features a certain sense of familiarity. The league has been holding these things for over half a century, and by now we all know what to expect. We get a bust here, a late-round sleeper there, a trade or two if we’re lucky, and everyone is on a flight home by Saturday night. There’s a rhythm to the whole production that’s become ingrained in its DNA.
It wasn’t always that way. The NHL draft used to be chaos.
Specifically, the draft was chaos for pretty much all of the 1970s. It was still vaguely similar to what we know today, just familiar enough to be recognizable, but none of it made any sense.
If you’re not old enough to remember what went on — or if, like most people, you figured it was just better to pretend the whole decade never happened — then it’s worth your while to take a look back at the madness. Let’s just say it was an odd time to be a hockey fan.
Draft oddity no. 1: It was still relatively new
The first NHL draft wasn’t held until 1963; up until then, amateur players had been allocated exclusively based on club sponsorships and the use of C forms to lock up prospects. Those earliest drafts were quick and relatively unimportant affairs, with as few as 11 players taken across the league and teams frequently passing on their picks.
By the 1970s, the draft had come to more closely resemble what we’re used to today. But it was still fairly new and teams were still figuring out how to approach it. Some franchises spent heavily on amateur scouting; others all but ignored it. Some drafted based on what they needed right then; others looked long term. And some teams viewed their draft picks as critical assets, while others were more than willing to use them as cheap trade bait for acquiring immediate help.
That last factor turned out to be especially important, because it gave a smart GM an opportunity to take advantage of a market inefficiency. More on that in a minute.
Draft oddity no. 2: There was another league out there
The rival World Hockey Association had appeared in 1972 and would last until 1979, creating the odd dynamic of two professional leagues drafting from the same pool of players. That meant that NHL and WHA teams could end up drafting the same players, and teams ran the risk of picking guys who’d report to the rival league instead.
That was especially rough on the WHA, which typically saw most of its first-round talent choose to head to the higher profile NHL. But it complicated things for NHL teams, too, and that uncertainty led to some of the unusual behavior we’ll see in the next few sections. It also created a bizarre situation in which the two leagues would occasionally try to keep their drafts secret, to prevent the other side from knowing who’d been taken where.
Maybe more importantly, the WHA also helped create a landscape where the NHL felt the need to continue adding teams to keep up. That left the league with an eclectic mix of long-established franchises and brand-new markets. There were more front-office jobs than ever before. And not everyone knew what they were doing.