The reason we love sports so much is because of the drama. It’s the idea that anything can happen at any time that ignites the passion inside a sports fan, making it impossible to turn away from the “big game.”
Looking back throughout the history of the NHL, there are many instances that, if they had gone the other way or not happened at all, would have greatly altered the history of the sport. Whether it’s a missed call, a big trade or an untimely injury, it’s fair to ask the question: what if it went the other way? What if it simply never happened?
Fans in Canada have long wondered what would have happened if Wayne Gretzky had never been traded to Los Angeles. Would Canadian teams have thrived more? Would the large expansion into the sunbelt have ever happened? Who's to say what would have happened if Paul Henderson didn't pot the series winning goal against the Soviets in 1972? Would Canadian hockey have taken a huge step down? Would a Russian super league have started in light of the Soviets showing superiority in the sport? How about if we never had to sit through the 2004-05 season without a champion being crowned?
Below are 15 scenarios in hockey history that, if they’d gone the other way, they’d have altered the history of the sport to a substantial degree. Different names could be on the Stanley Cup, and legacies would be changed.
This is an alternate universe where anything is entirely possible, hence we're writing our own narrative here of what we think would have happened. Each entry stands on its own, without any effect on the others.
This list will focus on events and injuries will only be covered if affecting the outcome of a series, or season. So Mario Lemieux or Bobby Orr's health aren't entries on this list, because we all know what would have happened had they stayed healthy.
If you feel differently about the fallout in this alternate universe, feel free to share what you think would have happened in the comments below.
15 What if Martin Gelinas' goal counted in 2004?
Reality: Late in the third period of Game 6 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, with the score tied and the Flames leading the series 3-2, Martin Gelinas took a shot on net that Lightning goalie Nikolai Khabibulin appeared to save. However, upon the only readily-available video replay at the time, it looks as though the puck had crossed the line before Khabibulin got his pad on it.
Fantasy: This is called a good goal, and the Calgary Flames are awarded their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. However, this sweet computer animation from 2004 shows that the call is not conclusive and there remains controversy. Luckily for the NHL Canada cares more, so the call would've been easier to sweep under the rug this way.
14 What if Dwayne Roloson didn’t get hurt in the 2006 Final?
Reality: In the 3rd period of Game 1 of the 2006 Stanley Cup Final with the score tied at four, Hurricanes forward Andrew Ladd was driving hard to the net down the left wing. Oilers defenseman Marc-Andre Bergeron drilled Ladd right into goaltender Dwayne Roloson, injuring his knee and knocking him out of the series.
Now, this entry could have also been called “what if Jussi Markkanen was backing up Roloson in Game 1 instead of Ty Conklin. I don’t know why head coach Craig MacTavish was rotating back-ups, but it doesn’t matter, really. Jussi Markkanen performed admirably well, but Oilers fans are still left to wonder, what if?
Fantasy: With Dwayne Roloson playing out-of-this-world hockey throughout the postseason, he goes on to prove to never bet against a hot goalie.
13 What if the Flames never traded Brett Hull?
Reality: Brett Hull was a Calgary Flames draft pick who scored just 27 of his 741 career NHL goals with Calgary. The relationship between Hull and Calgary got off to a rough start—Hull was frustrated that he wasn’t able to crack the roster sooner—and it ended by Calgary sending Hull to St. Louis for peanuts in 1988.
The Flames went on to win the Stanley Cup in 1989, but that would be the last Cup they’d win with that core. They iced some pretty decent teams in the early 1990s, but were never able to get over that hump.
Fantasy: The Flames keep Hull and wreck havoc on the league. They win the 1989 Cup, but also several more. Brett Hull's Flames continue the dominance of Alberta, albeit with a different city.
12 What if the NHL/WHA merger never happened?
Reality: When the WHA formed in 1971, it marked the beginning of a tumultuous relationship between it and the NHL. The WHA was super aggressive in its attempts to lure players to its league, and it even managed to convince one of the world’s best goal scorers, Bobby Hull, to join them with an unprecedented contract offer. The WHA’s seven year existence marks the only time that North America had dueling professional hockey leagues, and the NHL made it a priority to merge the two leagues. After years of negotiations, the merger went ahead in 1979.
11 What if the Blackhawks kept Phil Esposito?
Reality: The 1967 trade that sent Phil Esposito to Boston remains to be one of the most lopsided in NHL history. The ‘Hawks sent Esposito to Boston, along with Ken Hodge and Fred Stanfield in exchange for Gilles Marotte, Pit Martin, and goalie Jack Norris. The trio that went to Boston would end up scoring 1,156 goals for the Bruins, while the trio that went the other way managed 253 goals and a measly three wins (from Norris).
Esposito was viewed as expendable, as they had Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull up front to provide the firepower. The Bruins went on to win two championships in 1970 and 1972 on the backs of Esposito and Bobby Orr. The Blackhawks? Well, that franchise wouldn’t get another Cup until 2010.
10 What if the Habs never called up Ken Dryden in '71?
Reality: In the 1970-71 season, Rogie Vachon played in net for 47 games, and Phil Myre saw action in 30 games. Late season call-up Ken Dryden played in just six games, but he posted a 1.65 GAA in those efforts, which was enough to steal the crease for the postseason.
Ken Dryden backstopped the Habs to the Stanley Cup, claiming the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP in the process. He won the Calder Trophy the next season as the league’s top rookie, and he remains the only player to ever win a Conn Smythe before winning a Calder. Dryden went on to win a total of six Cups with the Canadiens (1971, ’73, ’76-’79), and five Vezinas as the league’s best goalie.
Fantasy: GM Sam Pollock sticks with the duo of Vachon and Myre. The Canadiens wind up facing the powerhouse Bruins without their unknown stud in nets.
9 What if Brett Hull’s Cup winning goal was disallowed?
Reality: Before getting too far into this one, let me just say that the right call was made, even though by the book the wrong call was clearly made. The foot-in-the-crease rule was bogus, and any hockey fan knew it.
However, many a goal that looked just like the one Hull scored in overtime of Game 6 of the ’99 Final had been called back throughout the NHL season, prompting Sabres fans to call for blood. They’re not wrong, for the record.
Fantasy: One fact remains, even in this alternate universe; the Dallas Stars were simply a better team than the Buffalo Sabres that season.
8 What if there had been a 2004-05 season?
Reality: The NHL lockout in 2004-05 lasted for the whole season, marking the first time that the Stanley Cup wasn’t rewarded since 1919 (Spanish flu epidemic—better excuse).
If the NHL and the NHLPA were somehow able to reach a deal before cancelling the season on Feb. 16, 2005, there would have been another Stanley Cup Champion. But who would have won?
Fantasy: The Red Wings, are a good bet for the ’05 Cup, as they took home the President’s Trophy in both the pre-lockout and post-lockout seasons. Other great teams of that time period were the Sharks (yeah, right), the Avalanche, the Stars, the Bruins, the Senators, the Flyers, etc... One of those teams would have likely found their names on Lord Stanley if the 2004-05 season wasn’t cancelled.
What about the Sidney Crosby sweepstakes? How would that have been affected? Pittsburgh would probably still have had a good chance to win, based on their performance from the recent past, but the weighting of the lottery would have likely been dramatically different than it was.
7 What if Gretzky was called for the high-stick on Gilmour in ‘93?
Reality: Ask any diehard Toronto Maple Leafs fan what his or her most painful hockey memory is, and the answer is invariably the missed high sticking call in the 1993 Conference Final.
In Game 6, up 3-2 in the series, the Leafs were looking to close out Wayne Gretzky’s L.A. Kings for its first trip to the Final since winning the Cup in 1967. In overtime, with the score tied at four, Gretzky clipped Doug Gilmour with a high-stick. Referee Kerry Fraser missed the infraction, and just to rub salt in the wound Gretzky scored the winner later in overtime and his Game 7 hat trick knocked off the Leafs.
Fantasy: Fraser makes the call, and because we're in fantasy land, the Leafs capitalize on their power play, and go on to face the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final—a dream scenario for Canadian hockey fans.
6 What if Eric Lindros acted like an adult and put on the Nordiques jersey?
Reality: Eric Lindros was coined “The Next One.” He had Connor McDavid-like expectations on his shoulders. He was the player that was going to follow Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the best to player of his generation. When the Quebec Nordiques called out Lindros’ name first in the 1991 NHL Entry Draft, he refused to don the sweater.
At the next season’s draft, the Nordiques traded Lindros’ rights to the Philadelphia Flyers for Peter Forsberg, Steve Duchene, Ron Hextall, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, two first round picks, and $15 million.
The Nordiques, after moving to Colorado, went on to win two cups with Forsberg (and a few other pieces acquired in the trade) playing a major role on both championship teams; Lindros had a good start to his career before the concussions took over.
Fantasy: A disgruntled Lindros ends up under performing in Quebec before he picks it up in 1995 following the Nordiques' move to Colorado.
5 What if the Bruins could count against MTL in ‘79?
Reality: It’s likely the biggest regret of Don Cherry’s life, and that’s not a light statement (have you seen those suits?). During Game 7 of the 1979 semi-final, Cherry’s Bruins were up by a goal with two minutes to play. The B’s took a too many men penalty; Guy Lafleur proceeded to tie the game on the power play, and then the Canadiens went on to win the game, the series, and later the Stanley Cup (their fourth straight).
Fantasy: The Bruins hang on to their lead and stun the Montreal Forum by ending one of the greatest dynasties in hockey history. The Bruins go on to top the upstart Rangers in the Final, as the Habs made short work of them in five games in reality.
4 What if Steve Smith didn’t score in his own net?
Reality: 1986 Smythe Division Final. Oilers versus Flames. Approaching the mid-way point of the 3rd period. Score tied 2-2. Oilers defenceman Steve Smith picks up the puck behind his own net, steps out, and attempts a pass. He banks it into his own net off of goaltender Grant Fuhr’s leg, and the Flames hang on to win 3-2.
Calgary advanced to the Stanley Cup Final, only to lose to the Montreal Canadiens in five games. The Oilers would go on to win the next two after that.
Fantasy: Smith makes a clean pass and the play goes on... The game eventually goes to overtime with Jari Kurri scoring the game winner on a sweet feed from Gretzky (the guy had 163 assists that season). While Patrick Roy was having a sensational playoff, the Flames were undoubtedly a better matchup for Montreal than Edmonton.
3 What if the Canadiens fire Tremblay and keep Roy?
Reality: When the Montreal Canadiens hired Mario Tremblay to replace Jacques Demers as head coach, the writing was already on the wall. Roy and Tremblay had roomed together back when the latter was still playing, and their relationship was always rocky, and even included a few public spats.
When Roy was pulled after being shelled for nine goals in the 11-1 home loss to the Red Wings on Dec. 2, 1995, Roy vowed to team president Ronald Corey that he was never to play another game as a Hab. Less than a week later, Roy (along with Mike Keane) was dealt to the Avalanche for Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko.
The rest is history. Roy went on to win two championships with the Colorado Avalanche, and Tremblay was relieved of his coaching duties after the following season with the Canadiens.
Fantasy: Ronald Corey fires Mario Tremblay instead, convincing Roy to stay in Montreal. The Canadiens avoid falling into the darkest period of the franchise's history. While they don't form a dynasty, Roy is able to keep the Habs in contention and finishes his storied career after bringing the Habs their 25th Stanley Cup.
His win totals don't match that of his career with Colorado, but having stayed a Montreal Canadien for life, he remains an icon and is held in even higher regard, having carried an average squad. Going up through the coaching ranks following retirement, he is now the Habs' coach in 2015.
2 What if Paul Henderson never scored in ’72?
Reality: It’s the most iconic goal in hockey history, but what if it never happened?
Things weren’t looking good for Canada throughout most of the 1972 Summit Series. After the first four games were played in Canada, the home team had won just a single game, lost two, and tied the other. They lost game five in the series (the first in Moscow), but went on to win games six and seven. Trailing in the goal differential department heading into the deciding eighth game (why the heck was it a best of eight, anyway?), the Canadian team had to win outright if it were to win the series. Henderson scored in the last minute of play for the win.
1 What if Wayne Gretzky was never traded?
Reality: On Aug. 9, 1988, Wayne Gretzky was
traded sold to the Los Angeles Kings, along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski, in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash, and three first round draft picks. “The Trade” shocked Edmonton and the rest of Canada. But what if disgraced owner Peter Pocklington hadn’t been forced to trade The Great One thanks to his other floundering business ventures?
The Oilers went on to win one more Cup sans-Gretzky (1990), but the trade in the summer of ’88 truly spelled the beginning of the end for the Oilers dynasty. Surely they would have still won the Cup in ‘90, but what about the ‘89 Cup that went to the rival Calgary Flames?
Fantasy: I think we can all agree that the Oilers win that series against L.A. in '89 if Gretzky and his 13 points were scored wearing an Oilers jersey, rather than on the Kings.
The Oilers go on to face Calgary in the Smythe Division Finals. The Oilers had the Flames’ number in the postseason at this time. In fact, the only time they lost to Calgary in the postseason was in 1986 (commemorated on this list at number 4).
With the Great One staying in Edmonton, the Oilers go on to defeat the Flames again and eventually go on to win the 1989 Stanley Cup.
The team inevitably starts to lose some pieces, but do what is necessary to keep Gretzky in town. He remains an Oiler for life. The Oilers add a couple more Stanley Cups and Edmonton's dynasty grows even further.
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