Canucks and Beyond

Part 2: NHL Draft Flashback -- 1970s

07/28/2011 at 6:52pm EDT

Last week I ran down the 1960s history of #1 draft picks, Today, I’m following that up with a look at the top picks from 1970 to 1979. All in all, a very impressive and successful crew of NHLers. In fact, from 1968 all the way until 2005, every #1 draft pick went on to play a minimum of 299 games in the NHL.

In 1969, the league made a change to their Amateur Draft which resulted in more players than ever being included, “as every junior of qualifying age (20-years) was available for selection.” 84 players were selected that year, making it, by far, the largest draft ever.

Here are the #1 picks of the 1970s and a brief look at their career paths, both in hockey and after leaving the ice.

1970 Buffalo Sabres—Gilbert Perreault

Gilbert Perreault doesn’t need much introduction to hockey fans, having played his whole career for the team that drafted him (a first for a #1 pick in the NHL’s entry draft era) and ultimately landing in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990. Perreault was also the first draft pick ever of the Buffalo Sabres, both of them coming into the league in 1970. He set a Sabres record—which he holds to this day—for scoring seven points in a single game.

His number 11 was eventually retired in Buffalo—here’s the story of how he came by that number (or, since he also wore #11 in his junior hockey days, perhaps this is more like the story of how the Sabres were ‘destined’ to land Perreault):

Sabres general manager/coach Punch Imlach chose his favorite number, number 11, for the roulette wheel spin to determine which franchise would have the first choice in the 1970 Entry Draft. Ultimately, the Canucks were allocated numbers 1-10 on the wheel, while the Sabres had 11-20. When league president Clarence Campbell spun the wheel, he initially thought the pointer landed on 1. However, while Campbell was congratulating the Vancouver delegation, Imlach asked Campbell to check again. As it turned out, the pointer was on 11.

Perreault was also a member of the Canadian National team that played in the historic 1972 Summit Series vs the USSR.

“I had a lot of fun. Hockey has to be fun to be good. If the sport isn’t enjoyable then you can’t be successful.”

Gilbert Perreault

1971 Montreal Canadiens—Guy Lafleur

Lafleur had one of the more unique career paths, playing 17 years in the league, over the course of 20 years. After retiring in 1986 after 14 years with the Habs, Lafleur then returned several years later to play with the NY Rangers and the Quebec Nordiques. As a member of the Canadiens, he was the first player in league history to score 50+ goals, and 100 points, for six straight seasons.

His non-hockey life was also widely publicized given his wide fame, including a supposed plot to kidnap him in 1976, and a serious car accident five years later. And some thought he was a bit of an odd duck, too. Teammate Steve Shutt had this to say:

“He was strange. I mean, any guy who would be in his hockey uniform, skates tied tight, sweater on and a stick beside him at 4 o’clock for an 8 o’clock game has to be a little strange. But on the ice he played 100% on instinct and emotion.”

Lafleur eventually retired from the Nordiques at age 41. His advice upon leaving the ice for good: “Play every game as if it is your last one.”

Final Note: Lafleur has been in the public eye again in recent years, as he was initially found guilty of giving “contradictory evidence” in a trial involving his son, a troubled young man named Mark Lafleur. Guy Lafleur’s conviction was eventually overturned, while his son plead guilty in 2009 of uttering death threats and forcible confinement and assault.

1972 New York Islanders—Billy Harris

Aside from being the number 1 pick of 1972’s NHL Amateur Draft, Harris is distinguished for being the very first New York Islander, the Isles being an expansion team that season. Harris went on to play for the NYI for a decade before moving on to the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Maple Leafs. Unfortunately his later years were peppered with injuries and he ultimately retired (back with the Kings) in 1984.

After retirement, Harris went on to have a successful career in the real estate and restaurant businesses. Today, he owns the Muskoka Candle Co., manufacturing soy bean wax candles.

If you want to get in touch, Harris offers to personally autograph your candle or supply a signed hockey photo with your order.

Pretty cool.

1973 New York Islanders—Denis Potvin

Dennis Potvin joined the NY Islanders in just their second year in the league, and missed out being part of the team known for having “recorded the worst record in modern National Hockey League (NHL) history the previous season.” Potvin was considered a huge asset from the start (even generating an immediate offer from the Montreal Canadiens to trade for his services). But the NYI liked what they had and Potvin went on to play his entire career with the team, before retiring in 1988.

After his career, Potvin went on to a successful career in broadcasting, covering the Florida Panthers for some 16 years before being let go in 2009. He then went on to call Ottawa Senators games this past season

1974 Washington Capitals—Greg Joly

Top pick of the Capitals, their interest in defenseman Joly waned after two seasons and he was eventually traded to the Detroit Red Wings, where he played up and down between the NHL and the AHL till he retired in 1986. In all, Joly played 365 career games in the NHL.

Joly’s first seasons in Washington were considered disappointing by some, but he will always be distinguished as the first player to sign a contract with the expansion franchise. And honestly, a 14-year career between the NHL and AHL doesn’t sound all that “disappointing” to me… but such are the expectations on the shoulders of number one draft picks.

Today, Joly works in the sports insurance business for the firm Loomis & Lapann in Glens Falls, New York.

1975 Philadelphia Flyers— Mel Bridgman

Bridgman has had an expansive career, both on and off the ice. After being drafted by the Flyers, he played in Philly for just over six seasons, then played another seven years in the league for Calgary, New Jersey, Detroit and Vancouver. He retired in 1989 with 701 points scored in 977 games.

imageAfter hanging up his skates, Bridgman then went on earn a Master’s Degree at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, something he had delayed for a year after his acceptance in order to give him one more year on the ice, with hopes of another season with the Vancouver Canucks; raised in B.C., Bridgman had long wanted to join the team.

(Once, years before when playing for the Flyers, he’d heard a rumour he was about to be traded to the Canucks for Dennis Ververgaert. When it didn’t happen, Bridgman was crushed. “I heard later that someone squashed it at the last minute. When the trade didn’t happen I remember I was so upset that I didn’t talk to anyone for a long time,” he said. [Vancouver Sun, April 13, 1989].)

After retirement, Bridgeman became the first General Manager of the Ottawa Senators. You can read about that expansion Senators team in this recent National Post article. With a 10-70-4 record that year, it was a comically-tragic inaugural season for the Sens.

*Bridgman’s O-Pee-Chee hockey card featured here is from Houses of Hockey’s collection of Worst Hockey Cards of All Time. I doubt any of us would argue the point. Says HoH: “O-Pee-Chee’s airbrushing efforts to move Bridgman from Calgary to New Jersey resulted in some kind of bastardized Tron-meets-Geico Caveman look…”

1976 Washington Capitals—Rick Green

A defenseman, Rick Green went on to play 16 seasons in the NHL, playing 845 games for: Washington, Montreal, Detroit and the New York Islanders. From the Legends of Hockey:

After leaving the game as a player, Green looked to the realm of coaching as the next challenge. He served as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders for three years beginning in 1992-93. He then joined former Habs mate Larry Robinson with the LA Kings as an assistant from 1995 to 1999 before returning to Montreal.

Green remained with the coaching staff of the Canadiens till 2006.

1977 Detroit Red Wings—Dale McCourt

McCourt played in the NHL from 1977 to 1984, first with the Red Wings, then the Buffalo Sabres and a final season with the Toronto Maple Leafs. But he never played a day with the Los Angeles Kings, despite a U.S. Federal Appeals Court judge ruling in 1979 that he was to report to that team.

This strange piece of NHL history is best explained by Detroit Red Wings Legends’ Joe Pelletier:

McCourt’s sophomore year was marred by a weird court battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. McCourt became property of the Los Angeles Kings as it was ruled he would be the compensation for Detroit’s signing of former Kings goalie Rogie Vachon. McCourt refused to report to Los Angeles, and after a lengthy legal debate that was resolved with McCourt remaining in Detroit. However the affair seemed to effect his play as he got off to a slow start. He finished strongly, with 28 goals and 71 points. McCourt would later say that the lengthy court battle and the subsequent blackballing by the NHL and many NHL players cost him his love of the NHL.

After leaving the NHL in 1984, McCourt went on to have a solid hockey career in the NLA of Switzerland, finally retiring altogether in the 1991-92 season. Bill Dow at the Detroit Athletic Co. notes that when he last interviewed McCourt a couple years ago, he was working as a truck driver, “who enjoyed driving his 75 foot long “Supertruck” rig on the Trans-Canada highway between Sudbury and Vancouver.”

Some random Wikipedia trivia: “McCourt’s brother Dan was an NHL linesman during the 1980s and early 1990s, and his uncle is Hockey Hall of Fame member, George Armstrong.”

1978 Minnesota North Stars—Bobby Smith

From 1978 to 1993, Smith played 1077 NHL games, alternating between the Minnesota North Stars and the Montreal Canadians. After retiring, he served as the inaugural GM to the Phoenix Coyotes, when the team first moved from Winnipeg in 1996, where he stayed till 2000.

Currently, Smith is the Majority Owner and President of the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL, and even turned his talents to coaching the team last season.

1979 Colorado Rockies—Rob Ramage

The defenseman had a long and geographically exhaustive career, playing 15 years with: Colorado Rockies, St. Louis, Calgary, Toronto, Minnesota (North Stars), Tampa Bay, Montreal and Philadelphia. And to top that off, he started his professional career in the WHA, where he played in Birmingham, Alabama. In all, he played 1044 NHL games.

Ramage eventually became a securities broker, an industry where he worked until 2009, though in 2003, his life took a terrible turn when, in a drinking and driving incident which he was ultimately convicted of, his friend and former teammate Keith Magnusen died, with Ramage behind the wheel. His full prison sentence extends to 2014, though Ramage currently has day parole and resides at a halfway house facility.

Random trivia: His son, John Ramage, is currently a prospect in the Calgary Flames system, though the 20 year old intends to spend another year at the NCAA level.

For links:

Part 1: NHL Draft Flashback—1960s
Part 2: NHL Draft Flashback—1970s
Part 3 coming next week.

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