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Photo Credit: ALLSPORT USA /Allsport

Tracers: 1980 Summer

In the spring of 1980, Edmonton Oilers fans were basking in the glow of the team’s first NHL season. Watching the town team march into Maple Leaf Gardens and winning in a romp was fantastic, I well remember the absolute glee it brought me. Oilers fans most enjoyed watching opposition teams experience the shock and awe that was Wayne Gretzky, who honestly went from outside the NHL to the league’s best player in one heartbeat.

The 1980 edition of The Hockey News Yearbook reads as a monument to understatement now, but at the time the Oilers were newly famous for Wayne Gretzky, Ron Low’s performance after a late trade, and Blair MacDonald’s goal-scoring prowess alongside 99. The defense got some mention but most of the verbal worried over offense coming from a blue that boasted Lee Fogolin, Doug Hicks and Kevin Lowe.

The team that won so many Stanley’s in the 1980’s didn’t emerge whole and some of the major players on the championship team were not immediately recognizable as the impact players they would become. I think the story of that 1979-80 team, and the miles that were still to come, can offer us some perspective on the journey ahead for the current team.

THE OILERS IN GOAL, 1980

The acquisition of Low (in March 1980) allowed the Oilers to settle the goaltending situation in a big way. During 1979-80, Edmonton employed six goalies in what was a major story during the season. Incumbent Dave Dryden, who had been a WHA hero, hit a wall upon his return to the NHL and that left expansion Oilers scrambling. Ron Low calmed the waters, and the hockey preview magazines that summer suggested men like Eddie Mio and Jim Corsi would be allowed to grow into NHL roles. Ron Low would be the No. 1 goalie until further notice.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

  • Mio emerged as the No. 1 goalie in 1980-81, playing 43 games (Dryden 24gp) and looking for all the world like the future. Until Andy Moog arrived. Moog would play seven regular season games in 1980-81, and nine playoff contests. His three games against Richard Sevigny and the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round that spring will never be forgotten. His April 9 performance, where he stopped 40 of 41 in Game Two, remains one of the best performances in Oilers history.

THE OILERS ON LEFT WING, 1980

To give you an idea about the left wing position at that time, The Hockey News mentioned Brett Callighen’s fine play before an eye injury, Don Ashby capably filling in for him, and the following line I have lifted verbatim:

  • The Oilers are also high on a couple of youngsters who, while they didn’t achieve any scoring records, gave indications they’ll be solid NHL players: Mark Messier, who is eight days older than Gretzky, and Dave Hunter, a great checker.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED?

  • Brett Callighen was a dandy player and he had a fine year in 1980-81, a little better than the previous one. Callighen’s career was derailed by injury, detailed by Robin Brownlee here. Don Ashby passed away in May of 1981 after a car crash. Dave Hunter continued to be a brilliant checker for several seasons and won Stanley with Edmonton in 1984, 1985 and 1987. Mark Messier emerged as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

In a way, the Oilers current situation on RW has a lot in common with the goaltending and left wing slots in 1980. There are plenty of options available and the organization is willing to invest much of their available playing time on youngsters in the hope a dominant player emerges. The most logical player for a big role is Jesse Puljujarvi, but Anton Slepyshev and Drake Caggiula have their supporters as well. As much as we want to know the answer, we’ll just have to wait and see, secure in the knowledge that whoever plays with Connor McDavid will have an insane advantage.

    • Mike Modano's Dog

      I know – they really didn’t see his potential back then. They talked about huge upside, but never in the way that he would end up becoming. “If he doesn’t play with his elbows, he can’t play in the league!” was a familiar refrain back then, and not just from the faithful but the insiders of the game back then. Few saw the superstar level he would attain as a possibility.

    • The last dynasty

      I think lining up across from the greatest of all time every practice really boosted Messier’s pace and skills. Hopefully McDavid does the same for some other centres on today’s Oil.

  • Spydyr

    That Montreal series was the coming out party for the boys on the bus. I will never forget Gretzky skating by and tapping his pocket after Sevigny decided to add fuel to the fire by suggesting Lafleur would “put Gretzky in his back pocket” during the series.

    • Gretzky said that they went into that series with a “nothing to lose” attitude that kept them loose, with no expectations, and so they had a lot of fun doing it. For goalies, that calmness helps big time and Moog elevated himself.