On March 30th, 1979 the NHL announced it would be adding four teams from the World Hockey Association (WHA) and expand from 17 teams to 21. The Winnipeg Jets, Quebec Nordiques, Hartford Whalers and Edmonton Oilers became expansion teams. They paid a $6 million expansion fee.
The WHA’s two remaining teams, the Cincinnati Stingers and Birmingham Bulls, were each given $1.5 million and ceased operations.
The final bit of business for the WHA was a dispersal draft. The Oilers’ most notable pick was goalie Mike Luit from Cincinnati.
The NHL announced they would hold a reclamation draft and an expansion draft in June.
On June 9th, NHL teams announced their list of reclaimed players. Players who had previously played for them or been drafted by them could be reclaimed. Thirty players were reclaimed, including 14 from the WHA Oilers, easily the most of the four teams.
Forwards: Doug Berry, Steve Carlson (from the movie Slapshot), Wes George, Jim Mayer, Dave Semenko, Dennis Sobchuk and Stan Weir.
D-men: Kelly Davis, Dave Langevin, John Hughes, Carl Sandbeck, Paul Shmyr and Risto Siltanen.
Goalie: Mike Liut.
Prior to this, the WHA announced each team was allowed to keep two skaters and two goalies. But the list must not have been given to the NHL teams, as some of them put in a claim, only to get rebuffed. If a player was on the protected list of the WHA team, then the WHA team would retain his rights. For instance, had the Oilers protected Liut, then St. Louis, who had drafted him in 1976, would not have been able to reclaim him.
Edmonton kept Wayne Gretzky, Dave Dryden, Eddie Mio and Bengt-Ake Gustafsson.
The Oilers protected Gretzky, even though no NHL team had any rights to him, but they did it so he wouldn’t go into the NHL entry draft. Players who were young enough to be draft eligible into the NHL were not allowed to be protected, but Edmonton protected Gretzky.
Oddly, Gretzky didn’t have a contract with the Oilers. In fact, he had a personal services contract with Peter Pocklington. The league decided he could stay with the Oilers, but Edmonton would move down the draft and pick last in every round. This turned out to be a great deal for the Oilers. Obviously keeping Gretzky was a huge reason for their future success. And they selected Kevin Lowe with the final pick in the first round, 21st overall,
During the merger negotiations, the NHL had sent a directive to the WHA that the WHA was to cease contract negotiations with players effective December 31st, 1978. According to then-Oilers GM, Larry Gordon, the WHA hadn’t sent this directive to the respective teams until March, and he had signed Gustafsson in early 1979. Gustafsson joined the WHA Oilers for two playoff games in 1979.
He never played for the Oilers, because the Washington Capitals, who had originally drafted Gustafsson in the fifth round, in 1978, challenged it and the league awarded Gustafsson property of the Capitals. But they made that decision on September 15th, well after the expansion draft, so the Oilers just lost Gustafsson and didn’t have the chance to protect another forward prior to the June expansion draft.
I haven’t been able to figure out why the NHL didn’t make a decision on Gustafsson between June 9th and 13th when the league held the expansion draft. But my guess is they gave them the Gretzky ruling and this was a way to even it out a few months later.
On June 11th, the protected lists were announced. NHL teams were allowed to protect 15 skaters and two goalies. They would lose four players.
On June 13th, 1979, the expansion draft took place.
Just like any expansion draft, there were deals made prior to the expansion draft, so teams wouldn’t reclaim a player or an expansion team would draft a certain player and get an additional player for making the pick.
The Oilers made 16 selections. It was a reverse snake draft. Winnipeg selected first, then Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec. Then in the second round, it went Quebec, Hartford, Edmonton and Winnipeg. And then Winnipeg had the first pick in the third round and so on.
The Oilers selections were, in order:
*By choosing Connor the Oilers also received Dave Hunter from the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens had reclaimed him, but if the Oilers agreed to take Connor and not Rod Langway or Rick Chartraw, for instance, then they’d get him and Connor. Hunter was a top-rated young player and this moved turned out to be very good for the Oilers as Hunter was a solid role player, penalty killer and agitator during their Stanley Cup years.
The Oilers opted not to protect Paul Shymr, so Minnesota could reclaim him. The Oilers got a fourth round pick from Minnesota and they used that pick to select Glenn Anderson.
The North Stars did reclaim Dave Semenko, but in August of 1979 the Oilers acquired him and a third round pick in exchange for the Oilers second and third round picks. The Oilers selected Mark Messier with their pick, while Minnesota took Neal Broten and Kevin Maxwell.
The Oilers also reacquired Risto Siltanen in a trade with the Blues. They acquired Siltanen and Tom Roulston in exchange for Joe Micheletti.
(The Maple Leafs did reclaim Stan Weir, but he ended up playing for the Oilers in 1979/1980. I just couldn’t find the transaction that got him back to the Oilers. If you know please let me know in the comment section.)
So 41 years ago today, the wheels for the current Oilers organization were put in motion. After that announcement, in a span of six months, the Oilers had Gretzky, Messier, Anderson, Lowe, Semenko, Hunter, Fogolin, Hicks, Connor, Mio and Dryden and more.
Another big event happened today in 1996. Former Oilers D-man, and my current TSN 1260 co-host, Jason Strudwick, played his first NHL game. He finished even with seven PIMS, and was the only D-man who wasn’t a minus. Atta boy, Struds.
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