NHL Draft Stories: The Wheel

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The NHL Draft is just under a month away. The draft always provides plenty of drama and intrigue amongst fans and media. This has been true since the inception of the draft. While people tend to get excited about trades and prospects, there are other moments that leave people scratching their heads. In 1970 the NHL had two new teams and needed to figure out which one would get the first overall pick. While there seemed to be an easy solution, this being the NHL, they had to make it more complicated.

1970 NHL Draft

The 1970 NHL draft was the eighth amateur (now called the entry draft) in NHL history. After working through the early drafts where most of the top prospects were already affiliated with NHL teams, the 1970 draft was the first to have the top-tier amateur players to be selected. At the top of that draft was highly rated prospect Gilbert Perreault of the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
1970 also saw two new expansion teams added to the NHL. The Vancouver Canucks and Buffalo Sabres brought the number of teams in the league up to 14. With two new teams joining, the league needed to determine which franchise was going to pick first overall. While the simple solution would have been to flip a coin, something other leagues had done that year, the NHL went a much different route. They decided to leave it up to the spin of a wheel.

NHL free agent frenzy

The Wheel

NHL president Clarence Campbell concocted this ‘spin the wheel’ concept for determining the first pick. The rules were simple (I guess). The Wheel would go from numbers 1 to 13 with each team being allotted a set of numbers. Vancouver was given numbers 1 through 6 and the Sabres had 8 through 13. If it landed on 7 the spin would be considered a wash and they would spin again.

When the teams arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal for the draft, there was Campbell with this makeshift wheel at the front of the room all set to spin it to see which team would get the right to draft Gilbert Perreault.

The Prize

Gilbert Perreault was the consensus number one pick. The Victoriaville Qc native was coming off a 51-goal 121-point season with the Junior Canadiens. He also led them to their second consecutive Memorial Cup. Perreault was the best player on arguably the most dominant junior team in history. A lot was riding on the spin of a wheel for both teams.

The Spin

With all teams in attendance and Buffalo and Vancouver representatives sitting up close, Campbell spun the wheel. Around it went, and finally stopped. Campbell called out the winning number… ONE! Vancouver celebrated. They jumped from their table and cheered as if they won the Stanley Cup. They were about to get an elite building block for the future.  Except, Buffalo general manager ‘Punch’ Imlach, sitting right up front, coldly and calmly asked Campbell to re-examine the wheel. Of course, this had to end in some dispute. Upon further inspection, the wheel landed on the number 11 not 1. It was the Sabres who won the first overall pick.

The Pick is In

With the first overall pick in hand, the Sabres, to nobody’s surprise, selected Gilbert Perreault. The Canucks picked the consensus second overall pick, defenceman Dale Tallon. Perreault would go on to fulfill his promise as an NHL player scoring 512 goals and 1,326 points in 1,191 games and would be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1990. Tallon had a great rookie season in Vancouver but would only last three seasons with the Canucks before being traded to the Chicago Black Hawks. Talon would retire after the 1979-80 season. While Tallon was a serviceable player he never quite lived up to his draft status.

As Luck Would Have It

The spin of a wheel changed the fates of these two NHL teams. The Sabres won a future hall of fame player that led them to their best sustained period of (reasonable) success. While on the other side of the coin the Canucks ended up with a player that would only last three seasons with the team and end up middling for much of their early existence. It’s kind of crazy what the spin of a wheel can do.

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