There are great rookie seasons and then there are monster freshman campaigns. Here are six of them for the ages. Some can’t be topped unless the young whippersnapper wins the Hart Trophy.
The Calder Trophy is surely the most prized and special of NHL awards. If you plan on winning the trophy, you have to be spectacular at a young age and pretty lights-out right off the hop. And no matter how dominant you were in capturing the Calder, young man, you’ll never be able to win it again. There have been a lot of exceptional freshman seasons over the years. Three first-year NHLers were so good, they won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP.
Wayne Gretzky, Nels Stewart and Herb Gardiner are the centerpieces of our all-time all-rookie team, because, quite frankly, you can’t do any better as a rookie than also being named best player in the league.
WAYNE GRETZKY, FORWARD First things first. Wayne Gretzky did not win the Calder Trophy his first year in the NHL in 1979-80. We know that. Please don’t send us a letter. What cannot be debated, however, is he had an exceptional rookie season. Before they started calling him The Great One, Gretzky was ‘The Kid’ and ‘The Kid’ had game as an 18-year-old Edmonton Oiler. He scored 51 goals and 137 points in 79 games and had the best-ever rookie season at that point in time by a 32-point margin. The 137 points still haven’t been bested.
Gretzky didn’t win the Calder because he spent the previous year in the World Hockey Association as a 17-year-old. And because the defunct WHA was a pro league, the NHL ruled Gretzky and other rival league transients like him not eligible for the Calder. Nevermind that Sergei Makarov was 31 and a veteran of 11 pro seasons in Russia when he won the Calder in 1990. Focus on the fact Gretzky had one heckuva rookie season.
The Calder wasn’t the only award Gretzky got scuppered on because of bylaws that year. He should have been given a share of the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champ because his 137 points were the same as Marcel Dionne’s of Los Angeles. But because Dionne outscored Gretzky 53-51, the award went to Dionne. Forget the fact Gretzky played one fewer game than Dionne, thereby having a better points-per-game average. Gretzky’s rookie season was special enough to win him the Hart Trophy, though. He received 38.4 percent of the vote from the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association compared to 30.2 percent for Dionne. It was the first of eight consecutive Harts for The Great One. He also edged out Dionne for the Lady Byng. If you’re curious, the Calder that year went to defenseman
Ray Bourque. Perusing through the 1979-80 issues of The Hockey News, I was surprised to see there wasn’t at least a minor uproar in Edmonton that Gretzky was ineligible for the Calder. That’s because the city was just thrilled to have an NHL team, not to mention an 18-year-old superstar playing for them. And the rules on the Calder were laid out from Day 1 after the NHL absorbed the four teams from the WHA. “It doesn’t make that much of a difference,” wrote Oilers owner Peter Pocklington in an opinion piece April 18, 1980. “It doesn’t matter one way or the other, because the kid is great. I sure as hell don’t want to get a squabble going over something that doesn’t mean that much.” Prior to the start of his rookie season, Gretzky told THN expectations should be tempered because of what hockey people were telling him. “I’ve heard more talk about how it’s going to be a different story this year. That I won’t get 110 points like I got in the WHA in my first year of pro. Every year people have told me how I’m going to be in trouble at a higher level. I heard more of that talk this summer than I heard all my life.” Gretzky had points in each of his first six games but didn’t hit a groove until his second month. At one point in the scoring race, he even trailed Dionne in points 33-14.
TEEMU SELANNE, FORWARD The footage of Teemu Selanne throwing his right glove up in the air and mock-shooting it with his stick is iconic. What’s surprising is real bullets didn’t come out of that weapon and ventilate the glove. His stick was that deadly in 1992-93.
Selanne’s memorable celebration came in Game 64 after breaking Mike Bossy’s rookie record with 54 goals in a season. He finished with 76, which stands as a tie for the fifth most goals in a season by any NHL player. He was a 22-year-old rookie. He easily won the Calder Trophy, getting first-place ballots from all 50 voters, but what’s remarkable is Selanne finished just sixth in Hart Trophy balloting, getting just five third-place votes from the 50 panelists. Mario Lemieux beat Doug Gilmour that year and Pat LaFontaine, Adam Oates and Pierre Turgeon got more votes than Teemu.
Yes, his feat came in the final innings of the live puck era, but the number 76 is absolutely gaudy and has become synonymous with Selanne. Consider that the top three goal-scoring rookies in the NHL in 2013-14 combined for just 71 goals. Teemu’s fourth quarter that rookie season with the Winnipeg Jets was absolutely magical. In his first three 20-game blocks, Selanne scored 16, 15 and 14 goals, which prorates out to a boffo 60-goal season. Then in his fourth 20-game segment, he exploded for 29 goals, including nine in a three-game span that enveloped the iconic shoot-the-glove record-breaking goal.
NELS STEWART, FORWARD Nels Stewart earned the nickname ‘Old Poison’ because of how he scored virtually every one of his 324 NHL goals. He’d park himself in front of the net – two generations before Phil Esposito became famous for doing the same – and bang away at centering passes and loose pucks.
Stewart had a quick release and the heaviest shot of his era. Maskless goalies had no choice but to stand in the crease and take the punishment like slow-acting poison. Playmaking linemates Babe Siebert and Hooley Smith – the ‘S Line’ was among the best early lines in the NHL – helped turn Stewart into Old Poison.
The Montreal native played amateur hockey for five seasons in Cleveland of the United States League before signing with the expansion Montreal Maroons in 1925. There was no NHL learning curve at all for him as he led all players with 34 goals and 42 points and guided the Maroons to the Stanley Cup. For that, the league named rookie Stewart winner of the Hart Trophy. Stewart, who played with a mean streak and was often called a dirty player, also played for Boston and the New York Americans during his 15-year career. He’s one of just seven players to lead the NHL in career goals. He surpassed Howie Morenz in 1936 and was passed by Rocket Richard in ’52.
HERB GARDINER, DEFENSEMAN For hockey players in the 1920s, making the NHL wasn’t the be-all, end-all it is today. If you were from the west and excelled at the game, you probably played in the Western Canada Hockey League. Teams in Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria, Vancouver, Regina and Saskatoon had all-world stars such as Newsy Lalonde, Red Dutton, Frank Boucher, Dick Irvin, Bill and Bun Cook skating for them. The caliber of play was on par with the four-team NHL. For a few seasons, the WCHL champs played the NHL winners for the Stanley Cup. Players of that era generally had other paying jobs outside hockey, especially in the off-season. So it didn’t make a lot of sense for WCHLers to pack up and go play in the NHL, unless there was an offer just too good to turn down. It would be akin to asking your family to move across the country because you wanted to change men’s evening bowling leagues. When the Montreal Canadiens played the Calgary Tigers for the Stanley Cup in 1923-24, the Habs had 21-year-old rookie Howie Morenz in the lineup playing alongside 22-year-old Aurel Joliat and 23-year-old Bill Boucher. They were a dominant trio all season, scoring 44 of the team’s 59 goals (it was just a 24-game season). Montreal beat Calgary 6-1 and 3-0 in the Cup final, but Canadiens coach-GM Leo Dandurand was so impressed with Calgary defenseman Herb Gardiner, he approached him on the ice post-series and offered him a playing and off-season job if he’d move to Montreal. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I’m a great nephew of Herb Gardiner. Family legend has it, Gardiner sent Morenz flying over the boards into the stands with a devastating hipcheck early in the series and Montreal did all of its scoring when Gardiner wasn’t on the ice.) Herb said no thanks. He was, right to the core, a stay-at-home defenseman.
Gardiner grew up on a military base in Winnipeg in the 1890s. He learned to skate going to school, using the city’s frozen rivers as a quicker mode of transportation. At 17, he played senior hockey with the Winnipeg Victorias and joined a local bankers’ league. He gave up hockey at 19 to study engineering while also working as a surveyor for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Calgary in 1910.
During the First World War, Gardiner served for the Canadian Forces, rising to the rank of lieutenant, fighting in France and Belgium (Flanders) starting in 1914. He was wounded in 1918 and returned to Calgary a year later to resume working as a surveyor. Nine years removed from skating, Gardiner started playing again for the Calgary Wanderers senior team. He joined the Tigers in the WCHL the next season and flourished. The offer from the Montreal Canadiens a couple years later in 1924 was flattering, but Gardiner never considered it. He was now a 33-year-old married man with his first child on the way. He had a good job and also played hockey in his adopted hometown. Montreal won the NHL title in 1925, but lost the Cup final to Victoria. The following season, Habs goalie Georges Vezina came down with tuberculosis in November (dying a few months later) and Montreal bottomed out, finishing last in the seven-team NHL. Knowing the WCHL was folding in the spring of 1926, Dandurand approached Gardiner again, espousing the virtues of Montreal and planting visions of being teammates rather than rivals with Morenz. By then, Gardiner was 35 and severely bitten by the hockey bug after such a long layoff. Without a team or league to play in and still feeling young, he quit his job and moved his family to Montreal. It was early in his freshman NHL year with Montreal that Gardiner earned the nickname ‘The Ironman of Hockey.’ For each of the team’s 44 games that season, Gardiner played every second of every game, forming a sublime defense tandem with fellow future Hall of Famer Sylvio Mantha. It wasn’t offense that earned Gardiner the Hart Trophy as a rookie (award runner-up Bill Cook of the New York Rangers outscored him 33 to six). It was Gardiner’s ability to maintain his defensive dominance without taking so much as a breather on the bench.
DENIS POTVIN, DEFENSEMAN It was a close battle for the other defenseman spot on our all-time all-rookie team. Denis Potvin gets a slight nod over Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque because he stepped in right away and became a leader whereas the other two had strong supporting casts.
The Islanders were a struggling second-year expansion team in 1973 when Potvin was the first-overall draft selection. Draft age was 20 back then and Potvin made an impact immediately, leading the team in scoring and commanding respect league-wide. From Season 1, Potvin was physically and mentally mature and played both sides of the game like a poised 10-year veteran. He even accumulated 175 penalty minutes as a rookie, which ranked seventh in the NHL.
“What impresses me about him is his intelligence,” said Islanders GM Bill Torrey halfway through Potvin’s rookie season. “He’s smart enough to know he doesn’t know it all. He’s willing to work.” The Bruins were a powerhouse in 1979-80 when Bourque came in as an 18-year-old and had 65 points to win the Calder. And the Bruins had a veteran team led by John Bucyk when Orr arrived in 1966-67.
TOM BARRASSO, GOALIE The passage of time has made Tom Barrasso’s feat in 1983-84 more remarkable. NHL teams increasingly shy away from drafting goalies in the first round, and if they do it’s with long-term objectives.
Carey Price was taken fifth overall in 2005 but didn’t stick in Montreal until 2007.
Roberto Luongo went fourth overall in 1997 but stayed in junior another two seasons. First-overall goalie picks
Marc-Andre Fleury and
Rick DiPietro made the NHL as 18-year-olds but eventually were demoted that same season and retained their rookie status until they made it as 20-year-olds. Barrasso? Not only did he step in as an 18-year-old after being drafted by Buffalo fifth overall in 1983, but he made the gargantuan leap from tiny Acton-Boxborough High School in suburban Massachusetts.
Buffalo’s plan was Barrasso would need seasoning in college or with the 1984 U.S. Olympic team. The Sabres were set between the pipes with 27-year-old Bob Sauve and 23-year-old Jacques Cloutier. They were coming off a season in which they were sixth among 21 teams in goals against. But coach Scotty Bowman acknowledged Barrasso beat out Cloutier in training camp. And the teenager ended up playing more games with better numbers than Sauve. Barrasso had a 2.84 GAA and .893 SP in 42 games compared to 3.49 and .869 in 40 games for Sauve. (Remember, that was the live puck era.) Buffalo finished second to Washington in fewest goals allowed and Barrasso beat Calgary’s Rejean Lemelin for the Vezina.
“Let me tell you, that was an unbelievable story,” former Boston Bruins GM Harry Sinden told THN in 2009. “It’s been 25 years since that happened, and it gets more remarkable the more you think about it…an 18-year-old kid from high school stepping in and becoming the best goalie in the NHL. Think about that for a second.”
This feature appears in the Feb. 16 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.