PHT Time Machine: 1991 dispersal draft and birth of the Sharks

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Throughout the summer we will be taking a look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look at the chaotic beginning of the San Jose Sharks.

The early 1990s were a chaotic time for the NHL with expansion and franchise relocation forever changing the landscape of the league.

Between 1991 and 1997 the league would grow from 21 teams to 26 (San Jose, Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Florida, and Anaheim all entered) while four others (Winnipeg, Quebec, Hartford, and Minnesota) would end up relocating. All of this transformation started during the 1991-92 season with the entrance of the San Jose Sharks, the league’s first expansion team since 1979 when the NHL added four from the collapsing World Hockey Association.

The Sharks’ entrance to the league would be unlike any other expansion team because it came, largely, at the expense of an already established NHL team that would then participate in an expansion draft along with the Sharks.

This is the story of the 1991 NHL dispersal draft.

The Background

The path to an NHL hockey team in San Jose is a long, convoluted one that begins with the struggling California Golden Seals in the 1970s where George Gund was a minority owner of the club. With the Golden Seals struggling on the ice (largely because they kept trading their draft picks to Montreal) and financially, Gund convinced majority owner Mel Swig to relocate the team to Cleveland where it be renamed the Barons and play two mostly forgettable seasons where it continued to bleed money and Swig eventually sold all of his interests in the team to George and Gordon Gund.

At the end of the 1978 season, and with the team still in financial disarray and the Gund’s unable to purchase the team’s arena (the Richfield Coliseum)  the team merged with another fledgling franchise — the Minnesota North Stars — with the Gunds assuming control of the new team.

For the better part of the next decade the North Stars would have some modest success, including two stunning runs to the Stanley Cup Final in 1981 and 1991. Despite that, the team remained a money pit with small crowds and a decrepit arena, and by the end of the decade was losing as much as $16 million per season.

At that point the Gunds petitioned the NHL to relocate the franchise to San Jose.

Then-NHL president John Ziegler was having none of that and instead came up with a different solution: The Gunds would be awarded a new franchise in San Jose for the start of the 1991-92 season (the Sharks), while they would sell the North Stars to a group that included Norm Green and Howard Baldwin.

The Sharks roster would then be stocked through a dispersal draft that would see them select from a group of unprotected players from the North Stars organization, as well as an expansion draft that the North Stars would also take part in to restock their roster.

From the May 13, 1990 Hartford Courant:

Fascinating stuff, right down to the NHL putting the Sharks in a position to not get prized prospect Eric Lindros in the 1991 draft, as well as the NHL’s acknowledgement that teams were probably tanking to position themselves to get him.

The Sharks ended up selecting Pat Falloon with the No. 2 pick, one spot ahead of Scott Niedermayer and three spots ahead of Peter Forsberg. In hindsight, that was all a big “whoops” and forever changed the course of the NHL. What if San Jose was given the first pick that year and ended up with Lindros? Does he play in San Jose? If not, does San Jose trade him to Philadelphia? Does the Colorado mini-dynasty ever happen without the Lindros trade? What if San Jose picked Niedermayer instead of Falloon?

Falloon ended up playing a few mostly disappointing seasons in San Jose before being traded to Philadelphia as part of a three-team trade with Buffalo that would see the Sabres end up with Vaclav Varada and a first-round pick that would later turn out to be Danny Briere, while the Sharks ended up getting Doug Bodger. Bodger spent a few years in San Jose before being traded to New Jersey for John MacLean and Dody Wood, both of whom would spend half a season in San Jose before leaving in free agency.

John Ziegler changed everything!

After all of this, the North Stars still had to play the 1990-91 season, and even though they won just 27 out of 82 games, they still qualified for the playoffs in the weak Norris Division and then somehow went on a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final where they would lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

During the series everyone knew what was going to be happening in the weeks after the series, while the team was being trolled by the organist in Pittsburgh during their Game 5 defeat…

The North Stars lost the Stanley Cup with an 8-0 Game 6 loss at home.

The Dispersal and Expansion Drafts

The drafts took place on May 30, 1991, beginning with the dispersal draft where the Sharks selected 24 players from the North Stars organization.

That group of selections included four players off the North Stars NHL roster (Shane Churla, Neil Wilkinson, Brian Hayward, and Rob Zettler), 10 players off the the North Stars’ top minor league affiliate (the International Hockey League’s Kalamazoo Blazers), and 10 more prospects from Europe, the NCAA, and the CHL.

Most of these players ended up being inconsequential to the development of the Sharks’ franchise, but there were some notable players for one reason or another.

[Sharks day at PHT: ’17-18 review | Under Pressure| Breakthrough | 3 Questions]

The best player the Sharks selected was almost certainly goaltender Arturs Irbe who had been playing for Dynamo Riga at the time of the draft. Irbe would go on to play five years with the Sharks, with his best season coming in 1993-94 when he would finish fifth in the Vezina Trophy voting and help lead the third-year Sharks franchise to a stunning first-round playoff upset over the heavily favored Detroit Red Wings.

Other notable selections and transactions as a result of the dispersal draft…

  • Churla, the first player selected off the North Stars roster, was traded back to Minnesota less than a week after the dispersal draft in exchange for forward Kelly Kisio … Kisio was selected by the North Stars off of the New York Rangers in the expansion draft that followed. Kisio would record 37 points in 48 games during the Sharks’ expansion season, and then finished as the team’s leading scorer in year two with 78 points in 78 games.
  • Hayward, the second player selected by San Jose, would only end up playing 25 games for the Sharks over their first two years of existence due to injuries that would ultimately end his career.
  • The last prospect selected by San Jose was Doug Zmolek, a defenseman at the University of Minnesota. Zmolek would be important because he would go on to play for the Sharks for two years before being traded in 1994 for Ulf Dahlen. Three years later, Dahlen would be a part of the package that San Jose sent to Chicago for Ed Belfour, even though the Sharks were a last-place team. Belfour only played 13 games with the Sharks before signing with the Dallas Stars in free agency.

Following San Jose’s picks in the dispersal draft, the Sharks and North Stars then took turns selecting in the expansion draft. The results of that draft, via the May 31, 1991 Daily Journal.

Probably the most significant players here are the trades, including the Sharks trading Tim Kerr (their selection from Philadelphia) to the New York Rangers for Brian Mullen, who would only play one year with the expansion team.

And then there’s Guy LaFleur getting involved in all of this. The funny thing about all of this is it brought LaFleur’s career full circle as the Golden Seals (before they moved to Cleveland, and then Minnesota) had traded the first-round draft pick many years before that would eventually be used to select LaFleur.

LaFleur was the last player selected in the expansion draft, going to Minnesota from Quebec.

At age 39, LaFleur had decided to retire from the league and was going to take a job with the Nordiques. Because he had not officially filed his retirement papers yet he could not actually accept the job with the Nordiques because his rights were at that time owned by the North Stars.

The North Stars traded LaFleur back to Quebec for the rights to Alan Haworth who had already been out of the NHL for two years.

The Aftermath

For two years the Sharks would be one of the worst teams in NHL history, winning just 28 games over their first two years. Amazingly, year two was even worse than year one as they won just 11 out of 84 games during the 1992-93 season. That is what made their playoff appearance — and first-round win over the Detroit Red Wings — so stunning in year three.

The Sharks would eventually go on to be one of the most successful of the league’s expansion franchises and have been a consistent contender in the league, making the playoffs in 20 of their first 26 seasons. That includes four trips to the Western Conference Final and one trip to the Stanley Cup Final.

Things would end up going much worse for Minnesota.

The Norm Green era of the team ended up being a disaster, including accusations of sexual harassment accusations against him. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 1992, Green had developed a “penchant for kissing female employees on the cheek and commenting on their clothes and makeup despite efforts by his staff to educate him on the issue.”

Meanwhile, the team on the ice had rebranded its logo to emphasize the “Stars” portion of it and was never able to recapture the magic of the 1991 playoff run, losing in the first-round the following year and missing the playoffs entirely in 1992-93, the team’s final year in Minnesota.

While the team’s arena, the Met Center, was falling apart, there was always the possibility the team could have moved into the newly constructed Target Center that would become the new home of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves. The issue there for Green was that he wanted the North Stars to be the lead tenant and be in charge of all advertising and the luxury suites.

This would be no small disagreement.

One of the supposed issues: The North Stars’ sponsorship agreement with Pepsi, compared to the Timberwolves’ deal with Coca-Cola.

Seriously.

In 1992 Green had been attempting to move the North Stars to Anaheim, but as the league was prepared to put an expansion team there (the Mighty Ducks) the NHL gave him the go-ahead to seek relocation to another city, resulting in him ultimately choosing Dallas.

The North Stars relocated to Dallas for the start of the 1993-94 season and within eight years had played in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, winning one.

By 1996 Green was no longer owner of the team, having sold it to Tom Hicks due to mounting financial struggles.

The Twin Cities area remained without an NHL team until the 2000-01 season when the Minnesota Wild entered the league as an expansion team along with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

More PHT Time Machine:
• Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft

Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.