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Top 25 NHL Debuts of All-Time: From a lucky goalie in 1917 to Matthews' four-goal entrance in 2017

Check out the 25 most memorable NHL debuts in the 100-year history of the league, from netminding heroics in 1917 to Auston Matthews' four-goal explosion is his first game last season.

By Andrew Podnieks

Nearly 7,600 players have skated in an NHL game in the first century of the league, and along the way there have been several memorable debuts that stand high above the others. Here's a synopsis of the greatest, weirdest and most remarkable first games, from 1917 to present day:

Dec. 19, 1917 – Luckiest Goalie Debut Imaginable

On the opening night of the NHL’s first season, the Toronto Arenas travelled to Montreal to face the Wanderers. Incredibly, Montreal goalie Bert Lindsay, father of the great ‘Terrible Ted,’ was the winning netminder in a 10-9 score. That’s right – he gave up nine goals in 60 minutes, and still ended up with the W. It’s a record that stands to this day.

Nov. 15, 1928 – Best Goalie Debut

‘Tiny’ Thompson made his NHL debut on Nov. 15, 1928. The Boston netminder went into Pittsburgh to face the Pirates and not only earned a shutout in a 1-0 overtime win, but he also played 70 minutes in an era when 10 minutes of OT was the standard. He is the only goalie to win his debut game, via shutout, having played as many as 70 minutes. In all, only nine goalies have played 70 minutes in the first game of their career.

Dec. 13, 1930 – What More Does A Guy Have To Do?

Of course, among the nearly 7,600 players to appear in the NHL, some discovered that, unfortunately, their first game was also their last. Some 393 fall into this category, although several are still active and may get a shot at a second game in the future. But among those 393 are two who must have felt bitter after the fact.

Consider the cases of Rolly Huard (Toronto, Dec. 13, 1930) and Dean Morton (Detroit, Oct. 5, 1989). Called up for one game, they scored a goal – yet never played in the NHL again. Ever. They are the only two players to score a goal in the only NHL game they ever played.

Also notable, 12 of the 393 one-game wonders made their lone appearance in a playoff game, most famously among that number Don Cherry. He played for the Bruins on March 31, 1955, and never again.

Nov. 28, 1925 – Most Penalties

Some 1,382 players have incurred a penalty in their first NHL game, but 959 of that number registered only a single minor penalty. At the other end, future Hall of Famer Nels Stewart – a.k.a. ‘Ol’ Poison’ – spent much of his big-league debut in the penalty box after incurring some five minor penalties.

Jan. 26, 1939 – Lone Hero

In 100 years of NHL hockey and tens of thousands of games and 7,600 players, only four times has a first-timer scored the only goal of the game. And Connie Brown is the only one to do so on the road. He scored the only goal of the game on Jan. 26, 1939, in a 1-0 Detroit win in Chicago.

Other one-goal heroes include: 

– Bill Cook was the lone scorer on Nov. 16, 1926, when his goal gave the Rangers a 1-0 home win over the Montreal Maroons.

– Stan Brown scored on Jan. 6, 1927, to help the Rangers record a 1-0 home win over the Canadiens.

– And, most recently, Daniel Corso had the only goal for St. Louis on Dec. 5, 2000, in a 1-0 home win against Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.

Oct. 31, 1943 – Cutting It Super Close

Of the 7,597 players to have stepped on the ice in an NHL game, 631 have scored a goal in their debuts, but none have left it so late as Bernie Ruelle. He made his NHL debut as a member of the Detroit Red Wings on Oct. 31, 1943, and he scored his goal at 19:59 of the third period. One second from anonymity, but he made history all the same.

April 16, 1951 – Best. Timing. Ever.

Wayne Hillman made his NHL debut with the Chicago Black Hawks. OK, so what? His first game was April 16, 1961. It was a playoff game. The Hawks won the Stanley Cup that night, making Hillman the only player to make his NHL debut on the night Lord Stanley’s bowl was handed out. One game, and he got his name on the Cup. Incredible.

March 29, 1964 – Singular Playoff Debut

Exactly 101 of the 7,597 players have made their NHL debut in a playoff game, and only five of that number have been goalies: Earl Robertson (Detroit), Bob Champoux (Detroit), Mike Richter (New York Rangers), Daniel Berthiaume (Winnipeg) and Paul Goodman (Chicago). More amazingly, only one won the game – Champoux. That came on March 29, 1964, a 5-4 road win for the Red Wings in Chicago.

Among the 96 skaters, only three managed to score a goal: Rod Brind’Amour (with St. Louis in 1989), Father Les Costello (Toronto, 1948) and Eddie Emberg (Montreal, 1945). Only eight others managed an assist, and no player has had two points in an NHL debut that was a playoff game.

Feb. 14, 1977 – The Great Al Hill

Al Hill played his entire NHL career with Philadelphia (a modest 221 regular season games) from the late 1970s and into the 1980s, but his first game was the greatest debut in NHL history. Although he would accrue but 95 points in his career, five came in his first game. And, not only did he score two goals and add three assists, he also got into a fight with Billy MacMillan, marking the only time in NHL debut history that a player recorded a "Gordie Howe Hat Trick."

Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky.

Oct. 10, 1979 – The Mother of All NHL Debut Nights

Although NHL expansion in 1967 doubled the size of the league, many of the players on the six new teams had had a taste of NHL action previously. The same cannot be said for the amalgamation of the NHL and WHA in 1979. In fact, the single greatest night of NHL debuts was Oct. 10, 1979, when some 45 players appeared in their first NHL game, including three future Hall of Famers – Gretzky, Mark Messier and Michel Goulet.

Oct.10, 1979 – All for One

Only twice in NHL history have three players earned their first NHL points on the same goal in which all three were playing in their first NHL game.

– On Oct. 10, 1979, Morris Lukowich scored for the Winnipeg Jets, with assists from Peter Marsh and Barry Melrose.

– On Oct. 4, 2007, three Coyotes replicated the feat when Daniel Winnik scored, with assists from Martin Hanzal and Craig Weller.

March 27, 1981 – Goals (And More Goals) Against

Ron Loustel holds a record no goalie wants to match. He made his NHL debut with the Winnipeg Jets on March 27, 1981, a home game against Vancouver. Unfortunately, the visitors won 10-2 and Loustel played the full 60 minutes, allowing more goals than any other ’tender in NHL debut history. Worse yet, he never played in the NHL again.

Nov. 19, 1983 – M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e

Jim Playfair made his NHL debut on Nov. 19, 1983, a home game for the Edmonton Oilers against the then sad-sack New Jersey Devils. Gretzky racked up eight points, including an assist on a Jari Kurri goal also assisted by Playfair, who also scored a goal. The score was 13-4, and after the game Gretzky referred to the Devils as a “Mickey Mouse” team. Playfair could only dream every game would be so easy.

Oct. 11, 1985 – Was It Even A Debut?

It was the strangest, weirdest NHL debut of all-time. In fact, it was so bizarre, it might not even be a debut at all. Except that, statistically speaking, it was. Goaltender Marc D’Amour was called up by the Calgary Flames to back up Reggie Lemelin on Oct. 11, 1985, a Flames home game against rival Winnipeg Jets. D’Amour participated in the warmups and then took his place at the end of the bench to watch the game. But midway through the second period, all hell broke loose and a brawl ensued. D’Amour became involved on the ice and received a minor penalty for roughing and a game misconduct. He’s the only player to incur statistics while not playing a minute of game action during his “debut.”

Oct. 18, 1986 – Sharing The Dream

Only once in NHL history have two goalies shared a game in which it was the first for both. On Oct. 18, 1986, both Karl Friesen and Chris Terreri tended the twine for the New Jersey Devils, but it was in a losing cause on the road, an 8-4 loss to Pittsburgh.

Feb. 25, 1990 – Goalie Assists

Of the 751 goaltenders who have played in the NHL through the 2016-17 season, only nine had earned an assist in their first game, a unique group, to be sure: Bob Froese, David Goverde, Ron Tugnutt, Alex Auld, Rick DiPietro, Rick Heinz, Joaquin Gage, Jason Bacashihua and Mike Greenlay. Of this group, Edmonton’s Greenlay had the shortest debut, on Feb. 25, 1990, playing only one period, allowing four goals, and not figuring in the decision of a 10-4 Oilers loss to the Flames.

Oct. 3, 1997 – Debuts Across The Pond

Mattias Ohlund and Dave Scatchard are famous in NHL debut lore because, as members of the Vancouver Canucks, they were the first players to skate in their first NHL career game outside North America. On Oct. 3, 1997, the Canucks beat Anaheim 3-2 in Tokyo as part of the preamble to the Nagano Olympics.

Oct. 10, 2000 – Goaltender Penalties

Of all the goalies who have passed through the NHL, only 20 have incurred a penalty in their first game. Leading the way is the aforementioned D’Amour, who not only had 12 penalties in minutes but also two penalties. However, in more traditional terms, the only goalie to incur two minor penalties in an NHL debut is Dallas’ Marty Turco. More incredibly, he incurred two delay of game penalties within 85 seconds, the first at 9:10 of the opening period and then again at 10:35, on Oct. 10, 2000, in a 5-2 road loss to Carolina.

April 4, 2006 – Shootout Hero

Minnesota goalie Josh Harding made NHL history when he became the first goalie to make his NHL debut by playing 65 minutes of regulation and overtime and winning the game in a shootout, a 5-4 home win against St. Louis.

March 10, 2007 – Fight Night!

Chicago’s David Koci put himself in the NHL debut record books by accumulating 42 penalties in minutes to start his career. He incurred a fighting major at 2:52 of the first period, tangling with Josh Gratton of the Phoenix Coyotes. He then had a roughing penalty and soon after fought Gratton later in the period. He solidified his place in history early in the third, incurring a charging major, fighting major (this time with Nick Boynton) and game misconduct in one fell swoop.

Dec. 6, 2011 – How is That Even Possible?

Goalie Mike Murphy was like any other aspiring netminder, hoping to get into an NHL game and prove his worth. That happened on Dec. 6, 2011, when he stepped onto the ice for Carolina midway through the third period in a game against Calgary. The Canes were trailingc 6-3 when he came in to finish a game that had loss written all over it. His team scored, though, to make it 6-4, after which he came to the bench for an extra attacker. The Flames scored into the empty goal (not charged to Murphy), so he returned to the ice with the score 7-4. But the worst thing happened. His team scored twice, but Carolina couldn’t tie the game, which ended 7-6 for the Flames. In every game a goalie must be credited with a win and a loss, and since Murphy was the goalie of record for the seventh (winning) goal, albeit on the bench, he incurred the loss despite stopping both shots he faced during his 8:37 of ice time. Zero goals allowed, but an 0-1 record. Cruel.

Jan. 18, 2014 – Tick, Tick, Done: Shortest NHL Debut

Kellan Lain was a 6-foot-6 prospect playing for the Utica Comets of the AHL when the parent Vancouver Canucks called him up on Jan. 15, 2014. Three days later, the Canucks played a home game against bitter rival Calgary Flames, and coach John Tortorella started Lain and two other tough guys after Flames coach Bob Hartley put out three goons for the opening faceoff.

As soon as the puck was dropped to start the first period, a line brawl ensued, and Lain had to fight Kevin Westgarth. Lain was given a five-minute fighting major and game misconduct, his NHL debut lasting exactly two seconds.

Just as bizarre, Brian White made his debut with the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 21, 1998, and also “played” just two seconds, but he didn’t incur a penalty. This is almost certainly the shortest “shift” in NHL history without any event to interrupt the debut.

Oct. 12, 2016 – Auston, Ontario

When Auston Matthews opened the 2016-17 season with four goals in his first NHL game, the league was emphatic in declaring this was not a record. It noted that Harry Hyland and Joe Malone had scored five goals in their debuts, and Reg Noble also scored four. Puh-lease. Of the 631 players to score in their first game, 52 have scored two goals, and five have scored three goals. And then there are Matthews, Noble, Hyland, and Malone.

However, consider that Hyland was 29 years old and had played in the NHA (a precursor to the NHL, which formed in 1917) since 1909. Malone was 27 and had been playing professionally since 1908. Noble was 21 and had two years of NHA play under his belt. Matthews’ feat should be considered a rookie record, plain and simple.

Dec. 31, 2016 – A Dream Ending

Thanks to coach Bill Peters, Jorge Alves is among the truly unusual members of the NHL alumni. It was only last year, on Dec. 31, 2016, that Alves made his NHL debut – and almost certainly his finale as well. An equipment manager with the team, he signed a pro contract that afternoon as an emergency goaltender replacement, and with the team losing 3-1 in the dying seconds, Peters inserted Alves with 7.6 seconds left in the game. Alves didn’t record a shot against, but the 36-year-old did get his name into the league register as a goalie.

April 3, 2017 – Ultra Hero

Five players have scored a goal in the shootout in their NHL debut, but only one scored the game-winner. On April 3, 2017, Evgeni Svechnikov scored the only goal of the shootout, in the seventh round no less, to give Detroit a 5-4 home win over Ottawa. The only other player to score in the shootout in a winning cause was Toronto’s Tim Stapleton (Feb. 26, 2009). Other shootout scorers in their NHL debuts were Linus Omark (Edmonton, Dec. 10, 2010, loss), Mats Zuccarello (Rangers, Dec. 23, 2010, loss), and Reid Boucher (New Jersey, Dec. 4, 2013, loss).

– Andrew Podnieks is the author of more than 100 books on hockey. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewpodnieks.


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