Sunday, November 18, 2012

1978 NHL Dispersal Draft

If you were forced to sum up the business of hockey in the 1970s with only one word I think a very strong argument could be made for the word 'expansion'. In 1966 there were six 'major' professional hockey teams in North America. By 1974 there were 32; 18 in the NHL and 14 in the WHA. In retrospect this number of teams was far more than the market could support and the WHA, on relatively shaky financial ground, dwindled down from 14 teams in '74-'75 to only six in their last season of play, '78-'79. While the NHL was substantially stronger it was not immune to the effects of "over-expansion" and in 1978 the Cleveland Barons, the franchise formerly known as the California Golden Seals and one of the first NHL franchises to have moved its operations since the Ottawa Senators moved to St. Louis in 1934, were on the verge of insolvency.

The Barons had seemingly been on the cusp of folding ever since they had moved to Cleveland in 1976. They narrowly escaped death in February of 1977 when the owners couldn't make payroll. Majority owner Mel Swig, a San Francisco real estate developer and former owner of the Seals when they played in the WHL in the '60s, sold his share at the end of the '76-'77 season to minority owners George and Gordon Gund, venture capitalists from Cleveland who orchestrated the move from Oakland to the Coliseum at Richfield. The Gund brothers operated the Barons for another year, lost a reported $3,500,000 doing so, and were looking to fold the team outright.

The NHL faced other problems too, namely the New York Islanders and the Minnesota North Stars. The Islanders were in heavy debt, no doubt in part a result of the arduous expansion fees paid in 1972. They still owed millions to the league. Operating partner Roy Boe sold his stake in the Islanders that summer to minority partner John Pickett, who came to agreements to pay off the team's debts.

The North Stars weren't in immediate danger of folding, not like the Barons were, but the owners were fed up with losing money and looking to sell. The nine-man group composed of Walter Bush Jr., John Driscoll, Harry McNeely, Robert McNulty, John Ordway, F. T. Weyerhauser, Bob Ridder, Gordon Ritz and Wheelock Whitney Jr. found buyers in George and Gordon Gund. Rather than fold the Barons outright the Gunds negotiated with the North Stars ownership group and the league (in particular board chairman John Ziegler, who helped save the team in '77) to come to a compromise: the Barons and North Stars would merge.

This agreement was reached on June 14, the day before the Amateur Draft took place. The Gund brothers would assume ownership of the combined team, to remain in Minnesota and retain the North Stars name and colours, and take the Barons' place in the Adams Division. The 'new' North Stars would forfeit all of the Barons' amateur draft picks and allow the five other worst teams in the league to have their pick of North Stars and Barons players in a brief dispersal draft. The draft would only last one round, the only participants would be the Capitals, Blues, Canucks, Penguins and Rockies (in that order), and the teams would pay the North Stars $30,000 for each selection.

The Dispersal Draft was held immediately preceding the Amateur Draft at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal. The North Stars would be allowed to protect 10 skaters and a pair of goalies from the combined pool of North Stars and Barons players. After the Capitals and Blues had made their selections the North Stars would be able to add another player to their protected list, and again after the Canucks and Penguins had made their choices.

All of the Barons' amateur draft picks were cancelled (including the fourth round pick held by the Islanders) except for the second round pick held by the Capitals and, depending on the Capitals' course of action, the first round pick. The Capitals were given a choice between exercising the first pick in the dispersal draft or using the Barons' first round amateur draft pick (which would also be moved to last in the round, 18th overall, instead of the original 5th overall). The Islanders' fourth round pick, held by the Barons, was forfeited; the Islanders would not be able to use the Barons' pick or their own in the fourth round.

Barons GM Harry Howell and North Stars GM Lou Nanne worked together to pick the protected players. They protected an equal number of players from each team. From the North Stars they chose to retain Per-Olov Brasar, Brad Maxwell, Bryan Maxwell, Glen Sharpley, Tim Young and goalie Pete LoPresti. From the Barons they protected Mike Fidler, Rick Hampton, Al MacAdam, Dennis Maruk, Greg Smith and goalie Gilles Meloche.

Player ChosenBy
forfeitedWashington Capitals
Mike CrombeenSt. Louis Blues
Ron ZanussiMinnesota North Stars (fill-in)
Randy HoltVancouver Canucks
passedPittsburgh Penguins
Bob StewartMinnesota North Stars (fill-in)
passedColorado Rockies

The Capitals chose to forfeit the first pick in the dispersal draft in exchange for the last pick in the first round of the amateur draft (they chose Tim Coulis). The Penguins and Rockies didn't bother picking players and waived their picks altogether (I suspect they didn't want to pay the $30,000 asking price).

This brief affair, carried out the morning of June 15, was the final footnote in the tumultuous existence of the Barons/Seals franchise.

Trivia for you: the Gunds didn't make much money in Minnesota either. By 1989 they wanted to move the team to the San Francisco Bay Area, where there were rumours of a new arena to be built in the early '90s. The NHL, wanting to keep a team in The State of Hockey, wouldn't approve the move. The Gunds threatened to move the team anyway and take the NHL to court if they tried to stop them, as Al Davis did when he moved the NFL's Raiders to Los Angeles. As a compromise the league allowed the Gunds to sell the team to Howard Baldwin and Morris Belzberg, who would ostensibly keep the North Stars in Minnesota, while the Gunds would get an expansion franchise to play in the Bay Area beginning in 1991, a year before the NHL had intended on expanding. The Gunds' new team would get to take some of the North Stars' players with them and the North Stars would participate in the 1991 Expansion Draft alongside the new team. That team became the San Jose Sharks, of course. Isn't it a strange coincidence that the men who moved pro hockey out of the Bay Area in 1976 and merged that failed enterprise into the North Stars in 1978 would split the North Stars apart in 1991 to put pro hockey back in the Bay Area?


  1. Great stuff again Mark!

    Will you cover the NHL's "un-merger" draft in 1991 to bring hockey back to northern California (full circle of 24 years from start of Seals to start of Sharks)?

  2. I might at some point but most of what I have already researched is pre-1980.

    Lately I was thinking about a comment you'd made a while ago about how players like Dave Hrechkosy came into the league in that awkward period between the end of 'sponsorship' and the first 'universal' draft in 1969. I'm thinking my next post might be something about what exactly 'A', 'B' and 'C' forms were, and how the whole sponsorship system worked.

  3. All this relocating and teams folding is a bunch of crap, would never be allowed to happen in European football. Fans are the majority owners of clubs there, owning a significant stake in the teams. Fans would riot and tear the city apart if a Liverpool, Barcelona or Real Madrid relocated. I know that the Green Bay Packers are set up like that and frankly I don't understand why there's not more teams like that. It would be hard to see the Canadiens or Maple Leafs relocating, it's almost unthinkable but not impossible based on all the old NHL and even MLB teams folding and moving away

  4. I'm surprised the Islanders didn't fight the decision to disallow their 4th round pick.

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