The San Jose Sharks are in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history, trailing their series with the Penguins 1-0 heading into Wednesday’s Game 2 in Pittsburgh. It’s been a long road for the Sharks to get here, one that’s seen plenty of regular season success but also a big helping of postseason heartbreak along the way.
It’s also a road that had one of the strangest starts in the history of the NHL. Most fans know that the Sharks entered the league as an expansion team in 1991. But what they may not remember is how it happened. Unlike every franchise that’s joined the league since, the Sharks weren’t born through a standard expansion draft process. Instead, they were part of weird combination expansion and dispersal draft with the North Stars, one that saw them stock their roster with Minnesota players before both teams took turns adding talent from the rest of the league.
It was a strange sight, one that we’ll almost certainly never see again. So today, with the Sharks four wins away from hockey’s ultimate prize, let’s remember where they came from with a look back at five weird facts about the day the San Jose Sharks were born.
1. It all starts with the Gunds
The original plan for bringing an NHL team to the Bay Area in the early 90s didn’t involve expansion at all. Instead, it would have seen the North Stars pick up and move to California. That was the proposal of the Stars’ owners, George and Gordon Gund, who claimed to be losing money in Minnesota. But the NHL refused to approve a move, and eventually the two sides agreed on a compromise. The Gunds would sell the North Stars, which they did in 1990, and the league would turn around and give them an expansion team in San Jose.
As part of the deal, the Gunds were granted the right to stock their new team with players from their old one. That agreement was a controversial one, and new North Stars owner Norm Green eventually insisted on reworking the original deal. The final version called for the North Stars to be allowed to protect 14 skaters and two goalies, at which point the Sharks could start plucking players away. Once that was done, the two teams immediately moved on to a more traditional expansion draft format, one that saw both teams picking players from the rest of the league, even though one of them wasn’t actually an expansion team at all.
To make things ever weirder, the North Stars were the defending conference champions at the time, thanks to a Cinderella run through the playoffs that had ended just days earlier. That run included upsets over the league two best regular season teams, Chicago and St. Louis, and the defending Stanley Cup champions, Edmonton. The run finally ended with a loss in the 1991 final to the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Feel free to confuse people by referring to this year’s final as a rematch.)
The 1991 Stanley Cup final ended on May 25, 1991. Five days later, one of the teams from that series was stocking its roster in an expansion draft. The early-90s NHL was a fascinating place.
2. There’s a California Golden Seals and Cleveland Barons connection here
Mention the Golden Seals to most hockey fans, and they’ll think of two things: White skates, and a comical level of ineptitude. The Seals entered the league (alongside the Penguins) as part of the 1967 expansion, but didn’t last long. They left California in 1976, after their minority owners made the case for moving the team to Cleveland to become the Barons. Those minority owners were George and Gordon Gund, and they quickly became the team’s majority owners. But the move only prolonged the inevitable, and by 1978 the Barons were on life support.
That offseason, the Barons essentially folded, with their roster being absorbed by the North Stars. The Gunds assumed ownership of the new franchise, and kept it until the 1991 move to San Jose.
So yes, Sharks fans – to this day, your team technically has some Cleveland sports DNA. That might help explain all the heartbreak.
3. Eric Lindros was somehow in the middle of things
If there was a mess in the NHL in the early 90s, you know that Lindros would eventually show up in the story somewhere. And he does, indirectly, even though he wasn’t even an NHL player yet.
Typically, NHL expansion teams had been awarded the first picks in that year’s draft (a process that didn’t always go smoothly). But 1991 was the year that Lindros was eligible, and he was considered the best prospect to enter the league since Mario Lemieux. So at the insistence of the existing franchises, the league worked a small detail into their agreement with the Gunds – the Sharks would get that year’s second overall pick, not the first.
In hindsight, the league might have wished they hadn’t bothered. The first pick ended up going to the Nordiques, who picked Lindros. That led to a holdout, which led to a trade, which led to another trade, which led to an arbitrator having to decide where Lindros would start his career. By the way, the North Stars’ GM while all this was going: future Lindros nemesis Bobby Clarke.
As for the Sharks, they missed out on drafting a future Hart Trophy winner and instead settled on Pat Falloon with the second pick. Almost as good, right?
4. The actual drafts weren’t very good
The Sharks only ended up taking four players from the North Stars roster, presumably as part of a pre-arranged deal. That included Brian Hayward, Shane Churla, Neil Wilkinson and Rob Zettler. They took ten more players from the Stars’ IHL team, the most notable of which was The Missing Link, tough guy Link Gaetz, who’d briefly become a fan favorite in the Sharks’ inaugural year. The only player taken in the dispersal portion of the draft who ended up having any sort of long-term impact with the Sharks was a diminutive Latvian goalie named Arturs Irbe, who the North Stars had taken in the 10th round of the draft two years earlier.
Once the expansion phase began, the Sharks and North Stars weren’t given much to choose from. The always excellent Historical Hockey blog has compiled a list of exposed players here. The Sharks used the first pick on Jeff Hackett, their starting goalie in that first season, and the North Stars took Rob Ramage, then the Maple Leafs’ captain. Other veterans who were snagged in the draft included Dave Babych, Tim Kerr and Charlie Huddy. All three were traded before they could play for their new teams, as were several other picks. That included Churla, who the Sharks sent back to Minnesota for Kelly Kisio, who’d represent them at the 1993 All-Star game.
Oh, and speaking of veteran names…
5. The whole thing ended with the selection of a guy who’d already been in the Hall of Fame for three years
With the last pick of the day, the North Stars made an interesting selection: Guy Lafleur.
The choice was an odd one for a few reasons, not least of which was that Lafleur had already announced his retirement. If anything, his selection was a bit of an embarrassment for his team, the lowly Nordiques. The rules dictated that every team had to lose one player, and this was the North Stars way of passing. That’s how bad the 1991 Nordiques were – even in an expansion draft, nobody wanted anyone off their roster.
But the Lafleur pick ended up creating a problem. He’d planned on retiring as a Nordique and taking a front office job with the team, but wasn’t allowed to once he technically became North Stars property. So the day after the draft, he was traded back to the Nordiques in exchange for Alan Haworth, who’d already decided to head to Europe and never play a game in Minnesota.
As an epilogue, all this maneuvering to keep the North Stars in Minnesota just ended up postponing the inevitable. Green moved the team to Dallas just two years later (a move that Minnesota hockey fans did not take well). The NHL didn’t return until 2000, when the Wild were born in a comparatively run-of-the-mill expansion draft.
As for the Sharks, they went on to a miserable first two seasons before breaking through in year three with a playoff win over the Red Wings. From there it was a slow build to respectability and eventually contender status, and it’s all led to this year’s Cup final breakthrough.
Just remember: They may look like potential champions now, but they had to overcome one of the strangest birth stories in NHL history to do it.
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.