With more than a century’s worth of storied history that’s persevered through two world wars, the Great Depression, the Cold War, disease, the ‘70s, mergers, numerous work stoppages and arguably one of the most polarizing commissioners in all of professional sports, the NHL is chock full of some crazy, mysterious and downright startling facts that have been hidden in time or simply forgotten altogether.
Funny, sad, incredible, unpredictable – the world’s best hockey league is like a million-mile odyssey with curious little Easter eggs uncovered along the way that add curious intrigue and layer upon layer that make it evermore interesting each time you re-read it.
There’s no possible way to document all the tales from the road, obscure rulebook footnotes and statistical anomalies that make the NHL the institution that it is today, so by no means should you consider this a comprehensive list. Instead, this article includes some of the more far-out things that make you go “huh” and might actually help you out in a future trivia night at your local pub.
So let’s dive right in. Here are 20 of the craziest facts you had no idea about the NHL.
20. THE SAN JOSE SHARKS WERE ALMOST NAMED THE “RUBBER PUCKIES”
When San Jose was awarded an expansion team to begin play in the 1991-92 season, the team owners, Gordon and George Gund, held a name-the-team contest that rendered more than 2,000 entries with suggestions that ranged from creative to ridiculous and everything in between. The finalists included “Screaming Squids,” “Salty Dogs,” “Blades” and yes, “Rubber Puckies.”
Technically “Blades” won the most votes, but the Gunds vetoed it for fear it might draw uninvited ties to violence and gang activity, so they ended up going with “Sharks,” since there were several of the species living off California’s Bay Area coast and since it would inspire a graphic logo while appealing to potential future fans of all ages. Now, if only the British government had learned this valuable lesson before “Boaty McBoatface” became a thing.
19. THE MAPLE LEAFS ONCE THREW THE STANLEY CUP INTO A FIRE
We’ve all been there. We’re happy, we’re celebrating, the booze is flowing, our inhibitions have been thrown to the wind, and our ability to make good, rational decisions is reduced down to basically nothing. Well, imagine you had just won the Stanley Cup and we’re in that exact situation.
Despite its sacred status within the NHL and the hockey community as a whole, the Toronto Maple Leafs, after winning the 1962 Stanley Cup championship by knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, let their revelry get the better of them, and somehow Lord Stanley’s precious chalice ended up in a bonfire. As you can imagine, it was damaged pretty badly, so the Leafs had to come up with the cash to make the repairs and then probably get a stern talking-to from the league.
18. PITTSBURGH USED TO HAVE A REAL-LIFE PENGUIN MASCOT
Whether you’re a Pittsburgh Penguins fan or not, you’ve got to admit that a penguin is a pretty cool mascot for a hockey team. After all, their natural habitat, for the most part, is the frigid climates of the southern hemisphere, and they spend the majority of their lives sliding around on snow and ice. You can’t say the same about, say, a panther or a shark.
The Pens first introduced the live bird, named Pete, in 1968, prior to a game in February against the Philadelphia Flyers. Pete was an Ecuadorian-born penguin on loan from the Pittsburgh Aquazoo and was a ninth birthday present to young Doug McGregor, son of Penguins then-president Jack McGregor. The bird made several live appearances throughout the season and even had his own pair of skates.
17. GARY BETTMAN IS THE FIRST COMMISSIONER OF THE NHL
Love the guy or hate him, but Gary Bettman is the polarizing head of the NHL, and is, believe it or not, the very first commissioner of the league. No, he hasn’t been around since 1917 when the league evolved into what it is today. He’s actually the first one because before him, the league designated its top executive as “president.”
When Bettman took over for his predecessor, Gil Stein, on Feb. 1, 1993, the owners stipulated his hiring on the mandate that he lead the way in selling the game in major U.S. markets, cure the ongoing labor disputes, grow the league through expansion and help the “old guard” within the ownership ranks come around to a more modern way of conducting business within the league.
16. THE FIRST OUTDOOR NHL GAME HAPPENED IN A DESERT
The NHL’s Winter Classic and Heritage Classic games are outdoor contests typically held in cold-weather locales that pay tribute to the early beginnings of the game and our fond memories of strapping on the pads and skating around on a frozen pond or lake.
So you’d think the NHL’s first-ever official outdoor game might have been held in Detroit, Buffalo, Edmonton or Calgary. You know, northern cities, where ice was a naturally occurring phenomenon and where hockey fans abounded everywhere you turned.
Well, surprise. In 1991, the Los Angeles Kings hosted the New York Rangers in a preseason contest outside Caesar’s Palace in sunny, hot Las Vegas, Nevada. As you can imagine, there were several issues with maintaining an outdoor rink in the 100-degree temperatures of the desert, but the game was eventually played in front of a sellout crowd.
15. MARK MESSIER HAS TAKEN THE CUP TO A STRIP CLUB… TWICE
Everyone knows that each member of a Stanley Cup-winning team gets to have his day with the Cup. There have been instances of kids getting baptized in the bowl, pool parties being thrown and even using the Cup as a dog food dish.
But all-time great Mark Messier is known to have brought the Holy Grail along as a special guest to strip clubs on at least two occasions. After the Oilers won the Cup in 1987, Messier allegedly brought the hardware to The Forum Inn, an Edmonton gentlemen’s entertainment joint, where it was placed on stage and used as a prop by the “performers.”
14. THE DISASTER DRAFT
In the unlikely and tragic event that an NHL team falls victim to a major accident or a disastrous event that kills or otherwise renders its players unable to finish the season, the league, once again, has put in place a plan to remedy the situation in order to keep the team in contention.
In the NHL rulebook, the league’s contingency plan “activates if five or more players on a team are killed or disabled.” Once the rule is triggered, “The team would select players from other NHL teams, paying with funds from a special insurance fund. Once its roster has one goaltender and 14 other players, a special draft involving the teams unaffected by the earlier selection could be held, with each team able to protect one goaltender and 10 other players.”
13. FRONT-OFFICE PERSONNEL ARE SUBJECT TO TRADE
You’ve seen it in baseball, football and even pro basketball, but it’s far rarer in professional hockey’s top level. Just like its players, a team’s front-office employees are subject to trade, and it can go all the way to the top. You wouldn’t think a general-manager-for-a-player swap would ever be on the table as a potential option, but lo and behold, it’s been done before.
In 1999, Canadian Olympic hero Rob Zamuner, a left winger who was captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time, was traded to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for centerman Andreas Johansson as well as the rights to negotiate with Senators GM Rick Dudley. Long story short, Dudley accepted the terms of negotiations and made the move to Tampa that season to become the next GM of the team.
12. THE SABRES ONCE DRAFTED A NONEXISTENT PERSON
When the Buffalo Sabres’ then-general manager, Punch Imlach, got so fed up with how slow the NHL’s draft process was in 1974 – by phone at the time – he decided to call out league president Clarence Campbell in a way, by amusingly drafting a completely made-up person by the name of Taro Tsujimoto, a supposedly Japanese superstar for the also-fake Tokyo Katana team.
Since draft picks were considered a secret as a way to get a one-up the rival World Hockey Association, no one questioned the legitimacy of Tsujimoto, and his name was subsequently published in several publications as the Sabre’s 11th-round pick.
It wasn’t until the Sabres’ training camp began that fall that it was revealed that Tsujimoto wasn’t real. Needless to say, Campbell was not very amused, and Tsujimoto’s name was replaced with the words “invalid claim,” though it still appears as Tsujimoto in the Sabres’ media guide.
11. SEATTLE HAS ALREADY BEEN AWARDED AN EXPANSION TEAM
With all this chatter about arena deals, potential relocations and considering the current state of the unbalanced conferences, it’s an exciting time not only for the league but for cities like Seattle and Quebec, who are pegged as the likeliest locations for a new NHL team.
But not many folks will recall that way back in 1974, a Seattle group headed by Vince Abbey, president of the minor-league Seattle Totems, was awarded an NHL expansion franchise to begin play during the 1976-77 season. Prior to the announcement, Seattle had been a very strong hockey town with several iterations of championship-caliber Totems squads within the minor-league ranks.
10. THE OILERS AND MAPLE LEAFS ALMOST TRADED ENTIRE CITIES
As unlikely as it seems for an entire organization to bail on its city and move across the country, it almost became a reality in 1980, when then-Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard was facing a mountain of financial challenges and made the outlandish proposal to former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington.
The idea was for the Leafs to move into Edmonton’s new arena, while the Oilers would set up shop in the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens. Can you even imagine Wayne Gretzky playing home games in Toronto?
According to Pocklington, Ballard also wanted $50 million in the deal, and surprisingly, Pocklington was on board. He was pretty excited about the deal and was already making plans, but in the end, Ballard backed out before the papers could be drawn up.
9. THERE ARE AT LEAST A DOZEN SPELLING ERRORS ON THE STANLEY CUP
You’d think Stanley Cup-winning teams would double and triple-check the spelling of its players and management personnel’s names before sending the list off to be literally set in stone and live on in perpetuity on professional sports’ most sought-after trophy.
Alas, there are more than a handful of oopsies on the hardware that make for interesting little trivia factoids. For example, the New York Islanders’ name is misspelled as “Ilanders” for their 1981 title, and the 1972 Bruins’ name inexplicably appears as “Bqstqn Bruins,” although I guess an “O” kind of looks close to a “Q,” right?
Other errors include Kris Versteeg’s, Adam Deadmarsh’s and Dickie Moore’s misspelled names. But the one that trumps them all is when Leafs assistant manager Frank Selke’s title was hilariously shortened downed to “ASS MAN” on the Cup for their 1945 title.
8. A TEAM FROM THE YUKON TERRITORY ONCE CHALLENGED FOR THE STANLEY CUP
Before the Stanley Cup was awarded annually to the NHL’s league champion, it was called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup and awarded to Canada’s top-ranking amateur hockey club who “challenged” for the opportunity to hoist it.
In 1905, the Dawson City Nuggets, a team from Canada’s far-flung and frozen Yukon Territory in the height of the Klondike Gold Rush, challenged the reigning Ottawa Hockey Club, known widely as “The Silver Seven,” for the Cup.
The Nuggets were sponsored by gold-miner and entrepreneur Joseph W. Boyle and made an epic, month-long journey by dogsled, ferry and train to Ottawa, where they played two games and were promptly dispatched by the far-superior Ottawa squad. The second game of the best-of-three series, a 23-2 drubbing, is still the most lopsided defeat in Stanley Cup play.
7. THE INJURED GOALIES RULE
Say both goalies on a team fall victim to some mysterious goalie illness just before a game’s opening faceoff, or maybe a series of very freak accidents befalls each of the netminders and there’s no one left to man the crease. Well, the NHL’s got a contingency plan for that.
According to the league’s rule book, “if both listed goalkeepers are incapacitated, that team shall be entitled to dress and play any available goalkeeper,” meaning a coach, an assistant, or even – if the team in question so chose – a fan from out of the seats.
6. ONE TEAM USED BE OWNED BY A MOBSTER
Before the New York Rangers entered the league in 1926, the New York Americans became the NHL’s third expansion team and just the second to play in the U.S., when sports promoter Thomas Duggan and one of New York City’s biggest mobsters and celebrated prohibition bootleggers, Bill Dwyer, were awarded the franchise in 1923.
It was well-documented that Dwyer used his illegally gotten money to buy the club, and his infamous racketeering continued on over the course of his ownership. He bet on and fixed games through his insider dealings as owner of the club and was even known to pay off goal judges to make sure the Americans won games in which he had the highest stakes.
5. 10 GOALIES HAVE SCORED GOALS
You can imagine after all that time stopping opposing teams’ shots and being relegated to their own defensive zone, that NHL goaltenders would long to just once contribute offensively. Sure, they might pick up the occasional assist here and there by way of playing the puck to someone who then goes down and scores, but what they really hope for is to light the opposing team’s lamp themselves.
While it’s nearly impossible to find enough time with the puck, wind up a shot and beat an opposing goalkeeper from 200 feet away, it becomes much more likely for a goalie to score a goal when the other team’s net is left unattended.
And that’s exactly what has happened a dozen different times when goalies have scored (or been credited with) a goal. On 12 occasions, starting with Billy Smith in 1979, 10 different goalies have scored empty net goals.
4. ONLY ONE PLAYER HAS EVER WORN JERSEY NO. 0
You’d think Wayne Gretzky’s iconic No. 99 uniform number, which was retired league-wide immediately after he called it quits on his playing career following the 1998-99 season, might be the least-common number in the history of the NHL, but it’s actually not even the second-rarest.
As a matter of fact, only one single player has ever worn jersey No. 0. That man is named Neil Sheehy, and he wore it for less than one season with the Hartford Whalers after being traded there from the Calgary Flames during the last half of the 1987-88 season.
3. CANADIAN TEAMS PAY THEIR PLAYERS IN AMERICAN MONEY
Hockey is a Canadian sport; no one will dispute that. In the NHL, Canadian players make up the vast majority of teams’ rosters, and there are even seven NHL clubs in Canadian cities. It might make sense, especially for the teams based in Canada who employ Canadian players, that the NHL teams would pay their players in Canadian coinage.
Well, they don’t. With its higher stability and better index value, all teams – Canadian ones included – pay their players in standard USD currency. It’s actually easier that way. It’s a simple standard to use, and there’s no need to worry about daily exchange rates or mathematically challenging conversions.
2. 7 TEAMS HAVE NEVER HAD THE FIRST-OVERALL DRAFT PICK
There’s a somewhat complicated algorithm for which team gets the first overall pick in the annul NHL entry draft. Things like the draft lottery, the preceding year’s regular season standings and playoff results are all taken into consideration, so the law of averages might suggest that in the 53-year history of the draft, each of the league’s 30 teams would have gotten the top pick at least once.
But in fact, seven different teams have never had that privilege. Neither the Anaheim Ducks nor the Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers nor the Minnesota Wild nor the Nashville Predators nor the San Jose Sharks nor the Vancouver Canucks nor the Calgary Flames have every selected first overall.
1. IF OFFICIALS ARE UNABLE TO CALL A GAME, PLAYERS HAVE TO DO IT
For Stanley Cup Playoff games, the NHL assigns back-up officials in the event that on-ice ones are injured or don’t show up or are otherwise unable to call a game. But for regular-season games, no such plan is in place, leaving the rulebook to outline the contingency procedures if ever such a thing should happen.
Referring one last time to the NHL rulebook, here’s what it says in the event that both referees and both linesman are unable to discharge the duties of the stripes:
If attempts to find suitable replacements are unsuccessful and teams can’t agree on who should fill in, “they shall appoint a player from each side who shall act as Referee and Linesman; the player of the home Club acting as Referee and the player of the visiting Club as Linesman.”
The more you know.