TSN Rewind: Last time NHL expanded to Canada
When the Vegas Golden Knights unveil their expansion draft roster tonight, it will be done with a splashy, made-for-TV event that will likely be heavy on the showmanship.
The Golden Knights reveal will be a stark contrast to how the expansion draft played out for the Ottawa Senators 25 years ago this week.
“It’s like night and day. There was no glitz and glamour,” said Randy Sexton with a laugh. Now the director of amateur scouting with the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, Sexton was part of the Senators front office that selected the inaugural expansion team.
A few weeks prior to that expansion draft, the Senators secured the first pick overall ahead of their expansion cousins the Tampa Bay Lightning by virtue of a coin flip. Held inside the Civic Centre arena in Pittsburgh prior to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and the Blackhawks, NHL president John Ziegler flipped a specially commissioned coin that featured the logos of the Senators and Lightning.
The Lightning won the right to select first in the NHL Entry Draft, while Ottawa had the honours of choosing first in the expansion draft.
On June 18 – two days before the Entry Draft – the Senators, Lightning and NHL executives gathered in a ballroom inside the Montreal’s Gouverneur Hotel to start the expansion draft. But according to one of the original team owners Bruce Firestone, the Senators almost weren’t allowed to participate that day because of a financial hiccup.
Firestone says the NHL asked both the Senators and Lightning to produce a $5 million dollar bond as the expansion draft approached. “It was kind of a guarantee to show that we were going to do all the stuff that we said we were going to do,” he explained.
On draft day itself, Bernie Ashe – who was serving as the club’s chief financial officer – was working diligently to ensure the money was in place so that Ottawa could have a seat at the expansion draft table.
“Bernie couldn’t come to the draft because he was back in Ottawa working with the bankers trying to get a letter of credit – or we wouldn’t be able to draft,” recalled Firestone. “So we were waiting for Bernie to tell us that he had posted the bond so we could actually have our first draft.”
Once the Senators got the green light around Noon that day, they were able to proceed. And it was a bare-bones affair to say the least.
“There were just a couple of tables and a microphone. And it was us and the Lightning,” said Sexton.
There were no fancy television studios set up inside the room and there certainly weren’t plans to unveil the players in a flashy manner like we’ll see tonight in Vegas. In fact, in some cases, it took several hours for players to be notified that they were taken by the Ottawa Senators.
Laurie Boschman was travelling with his family on June 18 - flying from Newark to his summer home in Winnipeg.
Having just completed his second season with the New Jersey Devils, he was left exposed by the club for the expansion draft. But he was given a reassurance by then-GM Lou Lamoriello that he would not be taken by either Ottawa or Tampa Bay.
“Laurie, we’re going to leave you unprotected. But I’ve spoken to both (Senators GM) Mel Bridgman and Phil Esposito and both of them said they aren’t going to touch you. So you should be fine,” Boschman recalled Lamoriello telling him.
On a stopover in Minneapolis, Boschman frantically called multiple people from a terminal pay phone to see if they heard any news about the expansion draft. One friend told him that he didn’t hear his name being involved in the expansion draft, so Boschman figured he was safe.
But when he landed in Winnipeg, he got a major surprise from the customs officer who recognized him.
“Welcome back. What do you think about getting picked by the Ottawa Senators?” the Canada Customs agent asked the 32-year-old forward.
“What?” replied Boschman.
“Yeah – you got picked by Ottawa,” he said.
“I just turned back to my wife and said, “Oh...my...God.”
Boschman said he later had conversations with both Lou Lamoriello and Mel Bridgman and the two general managers were willing to make a trade if Boschman had his heart set on returning to New Jersey.
“I wasn’t that excited about being part of an expansion team, but at the end of the day I let Mel make the decision,” he explained. “And he decided to keep me.”
That may have been one of Bridgman’s only good decisions around the expansion draft. On multiple occasions at the draft table, he tried to select a player who wasn’t eligible to be claimed. The tales from that day became NHL folklore - and 25 years later, there’s still no clear answer as to what actually happened.
It started with the 33rd overall pick in the draft, when the Senators selected forward Todd Ewen from the Montreal Canadiens. Bridgman and his staff didn’t realize that the Habs had already lost the maximum two players in the draft – Sylvain Turgeon and goalie Frederic Chabot. So instead, they selected centre Mark Freer from the Philadelphia Flyers.
But a few picks later, the Sens did the exact same thing – incorrectly drafting Todd Hawkins from the Maple Leafs after Toronto had already lost Brian Bradley and Keith Osbourne. After a few minutes of consulting with his staff, Bridgman announced the club would be taking winger C.J. Young from Calgary. That seemed like a safe bet since the Flames had yet to lose two players.
But Young was actually ineligible for the draft because he hadn’t met the professional requirements to be selected. NHL vice-president Brian O’Neill, who was overseeing the proceedings, was reportedly not amused with each gaffe made by the Senators front office.
And that led to Bridgman’s infamous line, “Ottawa apologizes” into the microphone.
Over the years there has been a lot debate as to how the Senators front office managed to bungle such a simple exercise. One theory – which has gained a lot of traction over the years – is that the Senators had all of their expansion draft information on a single laptop. But when they got to their table inside the Gouvernment Hotel ballroom, there wasn’t a power cord readily available to them. And since they didn’t have spare batteries, all of their draft information disappeared once the laptop went dark.
Boschman - who became the club’s first captain - said he had never heard about the laptop theory until he was told about it for this story. “I haven’t heard that story, but I wasn’t privy to a lot of things,” he said. “That one is new to me.”
For his part, Firestone claims the laptop story is true.
“We were one of the first groups to bring laptops onto the draft floor, but in those days, there weren’t power cords everywhere for laptops,” he said. “People just weren’t doing that.
“It was a little bit of an embarrassment. If you put your faith in technology, sometimes it lets you down. Obviously today, you’d be better prepared and maybe we should have been. But that’s the way it goes.”
Sexton - on the other hand - has no recollection of that technological snafu happening to his team at the draft table.
“I don’t recall that,” he said flatly when asked to expand on the infamous laptop theory.
Sexton admits the Senators had issues that day, but claims it was because they didn’t have the proper information for the draft.
“At some point, the league passed on some new rules for expansion. Somebody on our team didn’t read it or disclose it to the rest of the group,” he explained. “It was a small misstep.”
The struggles at the expansion draft table would be a harbinger for a tough inaugural season for the Senators. The club managed to win only one road game all season and finished the 1992-93 campaign with only 24 points – among the lowest totals in NHL history.
The pickings were so slim for both the Senators and Lightning (each team was allowed to protect 14 skaters), that Firestone actually pleaded with league officials to amend the expansion rules moving forward. He sat on a committee that year to help set the parameters for the Anaheim Ducks and Florida Panthers to joining the league for the following season.
“I told them at those meetings, we should fix these expansion rules,” said Firestone. “We should give these guys a better selection than we had.”