Every NHL club employs a team of highly regarded, well respected scouts who know the game of hockey in and out and are trusted in their judgment of upcoming prospects. While they often get it right, they, like any other group of humans, can be sometimes prone to bias and tilted preferences towards one particular type of player. In hockey, this typically means an overt emphasis on fast, strong and large skaters at the expense of skilled but smaller ones. While this bias pays off sometimes, there is an army of players who have made scouts bearing this bias look bad by thriving in spite of their stature.
Granted, NHL underdogs don't come in any one shape or size. While some little guys have managed to come up big, even big guys have managed to shed their limiting and diminishing labels to become something more and lightly recruited players have overcome their scarce opportunities to shine in the world's best hockey league. And the rise of the underdog doesn't merely apply to individuals, either. A number of teams have made history by bucking the conventional wisdom and enjoying an unlikely run towards NHL greatness and one of the most coveted trophies in sports, the Stanley Cup.
If it weren't for the underdog and the seemingly impossible becoming possible, there would really be no reason to watch the games. So let's celebrate these unlikely heroes that have, for a moment in time, turned their sport upside down with the 15 most incredible underdog stories in NHL history.
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15 Joe Mullen
Joe Mullen wasn't born into hockey like most NHL stars are. In fact, it wasn't until the New York native was 10 years old that he even learned how to skate. After showing flashes of talent in limited exposure to youth hockey, Boston College was interested, but could only offer Mullen a partial scholarship. Once he made the team and displayed the talent that he would later showcase during a 502-goal NHL career, BC did not hesitate to pick up the rest of his tuition. He ended up going undrafted in the NHL, where he flourished, ending up three Stanley Cups and over 1,000 points.
14 Henrik Lundqvist
It's easy to forget now, but Henrik Lundqvist was neither the first nor second choice as the New York Rangers' heir apparent to Mike Richter in net. A relative unknown as an overseas prospect from Sweden selected in the seventh round, Lundqvist was stuck behind No. 10 overall pick Dan Blackburn and, later, No. 6 pick Al Montoya on the goaltending pecking order. However, Blackburn was forced into early retirement after suffering a freak injury in 2005 and Montoya never panned out, giving Lundqvist the opportunity he needed. Needless to say, the Rangers aren't regretting it.
13 Mel Hill
Some guys just know how to turn it on at the right moments. Mel Hill earned the nickname "Sudden Death" for his penchant for coming up big with the game on the line. Hill had scored just 12 career goals in 52 games as a Boston Bruin heading into the 1938 playoffs, when he exploded for six goals in 12 games, including three sudden death overtime goals. Hill would find more regular season success with the Brooklyn Americans and Toronto Maple Leafs, but he remains best remembered nearly 80 years later for his play in the clutch.
12 Cory Conacher
At 5'8", Cory Conacher is one of several under-sized players to have scraped and clawed their way to NHL employment. But Conacher, who is currently playing for SC Bern of the Swiss Elite League after five NHL seasons, has also faced the added obstacles of a battle with Type 1 diabetes since the age of eight and a birth defect in which he was born with his bladder outside of his body, a condition that prompted doctors to suggest he'd never walk properly. As a result, Conacher went undrafted and lightly recruited despite an impressive Canisius College career before catching on with the Tampa Bay Lightning and collecting 29 points in 47 games in his rookie season.
11 Peter Stastny
The Czechoslovakia-born Peter Stastny grew up facing challenges that were relatively unique to the average NHL player. While starring for HC Slovan Bratislava in the late 1970', Stastny became all to familiar with the country's struggles under the war-torn communist regime that came to be known as the Iron Curtain. Stastny defected to Canada in 1980, seeking an opportunity to play hockey despite limited personal assets. Upon signing with the Quebec Nordiques, he made an immediate impact, scoring 109 points in his first NHL season. He would later return to what became Slovakia to pursue a career in politics.
10 Andrew Hammond
Before becoming a cult hero in leading the Ottawa Senators to the 2015 NHL postseason and earning the nickname 'The Hamburglar', Andrew Hammond was a lightly recruited NCAA prospect at Bowling Green University. After failing to get drafted, Hammond inked a cheap entry level contract with the Sens and only got called up after starting goaltender Craig Anderson's wife went into labor. From there, Hammond blazed to a record-setting 20-1-2 mark to start his NHL career and propel his club into an unlikely playoff berth.
9 2002-03 Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Heading into the 2002-03 season, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks were hardly an NHL powerhouse. They had made two playoff appearances and won just one series in their existence, being better known for cartoonish uniforms and being named for a Disney kids movie. But with new head coach Mike Babcock behind the bench, the seventh-seeded Mighty Ducks shocked the hockey world by toppling the defending champion Detroit Red Wings en route to the Stanley Cup Final, where they fell to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. Since then, the now Ducks have reached the playoffs in nine of 11 seasons and won the Cup in 2006-07.
8 Tim Thomas
Michigan-born goaltender Tim Thomas wasn't exactly a hot prospect coming off four years at the University of Vermont. In the 1994 Entry Draft, it wasn't until the ninth round (217th overall) that Thomas heard his name called. His first NHL club, the Quebec Nordiques, didn't have immediate plans for him, leading to a long trek through the minor leagues and Europe. It wasn't until Thomas turned 28 that he made it to the NHL as a member of the Boston Bruins, where the late bloomer wouldn't only play but enjoy a celebrated career that included two Vezina trophies and a Stanley Cup championship.
7 Fernando Pisani
An unlikely playoff hero on an even more unlikely playoff titan, Fernando Pisani only cracked the NHL at age 27 after being drafted 195th overall and never scored more than 18 goals in a season. He did, however, score 14 goals during a remarkable 24-game playoff run as a member of the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers. With the hometown boy Pisani's help, the Oilers made the most of their No. 8 seed in the Western Conference and rolled through the No. 1 Detroit Red Wings, the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks for a Cinderella trek to the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the Carolina Hurricanes.
6 1981-82 Los Angeles Kings
Before "the Trade" brought the Great One to Los Angeles, the Kings served as David to the Goliath that was Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers. In just his third NHL season, Gretzky was obliterating league records while leading his Oilers to the league's second-best record, finishing 48 points ahead of LA. The clubs met in what was expected to be a one-sided first round playoff series, with Edmonton looking dominant in jumping out to 5-0 lead in Game 3 of the 1-1 series. However, Los Angeles shocked the hockey world by engineering a third period comeback to win the game along the way to winning the series.
5 Pavel Datsyuk
Fourteen seasons into a decorated career that has spawned over 300 goals, 900 points, four All-Star selections, three Selke awards and two Stanley Cups, it's easy to forget that Pavel Datsyuk almost didn't make it to the NHL in the first place. The diminutive Russian was passed over completely in two consecutive drafts before finally getting selected in the 1998 Entry Draft with the 171st overall pick. That's right, NHL teams opted to select 711 players over three drafts before Datsyuk, a Detroit Red Wings staple for more than a decade, began to build his Hall of Fame resume.
4 Theoren Fleury
Made popular for his fiery nature, scoring exploits and diminutive stature, the 5'6" Theoren Fleury unfortunately had more working against him than just his height. The victim of childhood sexual abuse from a former hockey coach. Fleury struggled with alcohol problems and a drug addiction during his playing days. In spite of the personal woes, the Saskatchewan native persevered and carved out a celebrated 15-year NHL career that included 455 goals, 1,088 points in 1,084 games, seven All-Star appearances, a Stanley Cup and a gold medal as part of the 2002 Canadian Olympic hockey team in Salt Lake City.
3 1994-95 New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils of the 1990s are best remembered for introducing the boring trap style to the NHL, not to mention a stingy defense anchored by Scott Stevens and goaltender Martin Brodeur. Few, however, remember the Devils' remarkable run in the 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs, going from an unassuming No. 5 seed to win three series on the road and set up a Cup Finals against the President's Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings. Against the heavy Cup favourites, New Jersey came on strong with a physical presence that surprised the star-laden Red Wings in what wound up being a one-sided 4-0 sweep.
2 John Scott
No, John Scott hasn't proven too many critics wrong since going undrafted, maintaining gainful pro hockey employment despite a meager five career NHL goals. But the 6'8" enforcer still made for a remarkable Cinderella after getting voted in via write-in vote to the 2016 NHL All-Star Game. League officials seemed to go out of their way to keep Scott away from the All-Star festivities in Arizona, supposedly going so far as to help engineer a trade that shipped him to the Eastern Conference and, later, the AHL. But after much public backlash, Scott not only got his All-Star moment but scored two goals and was named MVP to give the story a happy ending.
1 Martin St. Louis
All Martin St. Louis did during his hockey career was produce, putting up gaudy numbers in the CJHL, NCAA, AHL and IHL during a long toil in the minors. For years, NHL scouts struggled to see past his diminutive 5'8" frame, leaving him overlooked and devoid of a consistent place in the NHL until joining the Tampa Bay Lightning at age 25. From there, he didn't look back, earning a Hart trophy, Stanley Cup and two Art Ross awards while playing over 1,100 games and scoring 391 goals in a sure-fire Hall of Fame career.
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