The NHL draft is full of intrigue and suspense. Any time you get all management teams from every team in a room, fans and media expect something big to happen. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, however, something almost unbelievable happens. Something that you think couldn’t happen. Sometimes these great hockey minds do things that leave people scratching their heads. In the 1988 NHL draft, we had one of these moments. Actually, the story spans multiple drafts and teams and one player that was drafted by four teams (well sort of) and never played a game in the NHL.
NHL Draft Stories
Our story actually begins in 1986. Young emerging prospect Stefan Nilsson was coming off a strong showing at the European Junior Championships. Nilsson scored five points in five games at the tournament – now known as the IIHF U18 Championship. On top of the strong showing at the EJC’s, Nilsson spent some time in the top Swedish Men’s league. This performance caught the eye of the Washington Capitals. The Caps took a flyer on Nilsson in the sixth round. Unfortunately the team and player could not come to an agreement, so Nilsson re-entered the draft in 1988. A player and team not being able to come to terms with a draft pick is nothing new or strange. In this case, it is however a significant part of the story.
1988 NHL Draft
Nilsson continued to play in the Elitserien and stayed on NHL team’s radars. In 1987-88, he scored 10 goals and 21 points in 31 games as a 19-year-old leading to NHL teams looking to kick the tires on Nilsson one more time.
In the seventh round of the 1988 draft, the Calgary Flames selected Stefan Nilsson. Then, in the twelfth round, the Vancouver Canucks picked… Stefan Nilsson? If you are asking yourself, how can two teams pick one player, they can’t. The Flames immediately complained to the league about the Canucks selecting their player. After some investigation, the Flames were left with some red on their face.
The league reported to Calgary that there were two 20-year-old Stefan Nilsson eligible for the draft, both playing in the Elitserien. One playing for HV71 and one playing for Lulea HF. The player both teams wanted was the Stefan Nilsson that played for Lulea HF. Unfortunately for the Flames, they picked the wrong Stefan Nilsson.
If things weren’t already confusing enough, there was a THIRD Stefan Nilsson in the 1988 draft as well. While this Nilsson was 19-years-old, what are the odds of three players having the same name in the same draft year from the same country? You have to feel sorry for the Flames though. You can just picture their front office making sure they don’t pick the 19-year-old Nilsson not realizing there were two 20-year-old Nilsson’s.
Well other than the Flames being rather embarrassed by selecting the wrong Stefan Nilsson, there is no significant fallout. Neither side won the Nilsson affair. None of the Stefan Nilsson’s in the 1988 NHL draft ever played in the NHL.
One Final Turn
In 2000, the NHL expanded by two teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. With expansion comes an expansion draft. While the rules for expansion drafts are relatively the same, back in 2000 teams could protect up to 15 players and each team had to select two players from each team. So it was SLIM pickings for expansion teams. Couple that with two teams picking at the same time, it does not leave much talent to fill out these rosters.
When it came time to pick from the Canucks, the Wild selected Darby Hendrickson a Minnesota native that served as an inaugural assistant captain. The second player the Wild selected was none other than Stefan Nilsson. Despite never making his way over to the NHL, the Canucks still held Nilsson’s rights. At this point, Nilsson was 32 and was no longer playing in the Swedish league and not going to make his way over to the NHL.
So why would the Wild select Nilsson? Well, the rules stated that an expansion team must select two players from each team. With the Wild already set with their roster, they focused on players they would never have to pay. Nilsson was not going to ever play for the Wild, so they held his NHL rights but did not have to pay him a salary.
This just goes to show that anything can happen in the NHL draft. Especially in a pre-digital age, human error was going to lead to some interesting issues, especially before the draft was limited to seven rounds. Granted when there are three players with the same name, playing in the same league from the same country, it’s pretty easy to see how this kind of issue can happen. Still, it’s pretty funny to see all of this drama around a late-round pick that never played a minute in the NHL. Although for his part, Nilsson became a legend with Lulea where he is currently the team’s general manager and has his number retired by the club.