The 1980s were a time of transition for the NHL. They opened with legends Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita playing their final games against youthful stars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Ray Bourque. By the end of the high-scoring decade, the League was on the cusp on a new expansion era that would take the game all over the United States.
Over the next 10 weeks, I'll take a look back at the seasons of the '80s, picking out 10 developments or memories from each of those campaigns. I'll start with the memorable 1979-80 season.
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1. GREATNESS ARRIVES
The NHL-WHA merger brought 18-year-old wunderkind Wayne Gretzky into hockey's elite spotlight. A season earlier, skating for Indianapolis and Edmonton in the WHA, Gretzky scored 46 goals and 110 points in 80 games. Still, there were many who weren't certain how he'd fare in the NHL.
Gretzky answered the critics emphatically with a sensational 51-goal, 137-point season, tying him with Los Angeles Kings center Marcel Dionne for the NHL scoring lead. Dionne earned the Art Ross Trophy via the goal-scoring tiebreaker (he had 53). Gretzky, however, skated away with the first of eight straight Hart Trophies.
Gretzky also won the first of his five Lady Byng Trophies, but he was not eligible for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year because of his time in the WHA.
2. ONE OF A KIND
The NHL-WHA merger brought legendary 51-year-old Gordie Howe back to the NHL for a final season. Howe retired in 1971 but returned to active duty for the '73-74 WHA season to skate with his sons, Marty and Mark, on the Houston Aeros.
After four years in Houston, the Howes took their act to the Northeast, signing with the New England Whalers in 1977. In total, during six WHA seasons, Gordie Howe scored 174 goals and 508 points in 419 games.
He decided to stay with the Whalers for their entry into the NHL. Despite his age, "Mr. Hockey" didn't miss a game, putting up 15 goals and 26 assists during the 80-game season, becoming the first NHL player -- and one of two men in history -- to crack the 800-goal plateau (Gretzky is the other).
Howe's farewell season was highlighted by an appearance in the All-Star Game, held in Joe Louis Arena on Feb. 5, 1980. The longtime Detroit Red Wings icon received multiple standing ovations and skated on a line with Gretzky.
3. NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
The Nordiques settled into the Adams Division with the Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Minnesota North Stars, while the Jets and Oilers landed in the Smythe Division alongside the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Vancouver Canucks and Colorado Rockies.
The 21-team NHL would play a balanced schedule during the '79-80 campaign with the clubs playing four games (two home, two road) against each other. With the growth, the League expanded the Stanley Cup Playoffs from 12 teams to 16. The four division winners and the next best 12 teams (based on final point totals) advanced to the postseason.
Unlike today, the playoff seedings were not separated by conference. The teams were lined up 1-16 by point totals. The top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers faced the 16th-seeded Oilers in the opening round, with subsequent 2-15 (Sabres-Canucks), 3-14 (Canadiens-Whalers), 4-13 (Bruins-Penguins), 5-12 (Islanders-Kings), 6-11 (North Stars-Leafs), 7-10 (Blackhawks-Blues) and 8-9 (Rangers-Flames) matchups.
In the end, the Whalers and Oilers – the two WHA teams to make the NHL playoffs in that first season – were swept in the best-of-5 first round. But the Oilers would quickly become a force in the League, winning five Stanley Cups by 1990.
4. DYNASTY BEGINS
After some bitter playoff disappointments – including a stunning Stanley Cup semifinal loss to the rival New York Rangers a year earlier – Al Arbour's New York Islanders, in their eighth season in the League, captured their first championship in dramatic fashion, defeating the favored Flyers in six games. Clutch postseason performer Bob Nystrom scored the clincher at the 7:11 mark of Game 6 sudden death to set off a joyful celebration on Long Island.
General manager Bill Torrey made some shrewd moves to retool his team around the edges in the months leading up to the 1980 playoffs.
By season's end, newcomers Ken Morrow, Dave Langevin and Gord Lane had taken their place on the blue line alongside Denis Potvin and Stefan Persson, giving the team a harder edge. Up front, skilled Anders Kallur and scrappy Duane Sutter proved nice complements to a talented group of forwards led by Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies.
At the trade deadline, Torrey finished his work by acquiring Butch Goring from the Kings. Goring proved to be the final piece to a championship puzzle. A versatile team that could succeed playing a physical game or a finesse style, the Islanders would win four straight titles and a record 19 consecutive playoff series before relinquishing the Cup to the Oilers in 1984.
5. END OF AN ERA
The '79-80 campaign was a season of change for the four-time defending champion Canadiens. Coach Scotty Bowman left for a coaching/GM gig in Buffalo, and veteran forwards Jacques Lemaire and Yvon Cournoyer, as well as goaltender Ken Dryden, opted to retire.
New coach Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, a former star scorer in Montreal, lasted three months before stepping down. He was replaced by veteran bench boss Claude Ruel.
Though the club still won the Norris Division with a 47-20-13 record, the multiple personnel losses caught up with the Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs.
Their drive for a fifth Cup stalled in a deciding Game 7 against the visiting North Stars, who left the fabled Montreal Forum with a 3-2 victory. The loss signaled more changes for the Canadiens in the following few years. In 1986, they regained the title behind the stellar goaltending of rookie Patrick Roy.
6. RECORD BREAKER
Under second-year coach Pat Quinn, the Flyers ran off a record 35-game unbeaten streak (25-0-10), starting with a 4-3 win over the Maple Leafs on Oct. 13, 1979. The stretch finally came to an end in Minnesota on Jan. 7, 1980, with a 7-1 loss to the North Stars.
Goalies Pete Peeters and Phil Myre shared crease time during the run, while snipers Reggie Leach (50 goals) and Bill Barber (40 goals) led the offense. Interestingly, Ken Linseman, who is remembered by most for his irritating play, was the club's leading scorer with 79 points.
The Flyers breezed through the first three rounds of the playoffs, losing two games, before falling to the Islanders in a six-game Cup final.
7. OLYMPIC HEROES GO PRO
Hockey gained a huge, unexpected bump from the United States' "Miracle On Ice" performance at the 1980 Winter Olympics. The American team, a group of unknown amateur players, shocked the powerful Soviet Union squad en route to a gold medal.
After the Olympics, many of the suddenly popular U.S. players made the jump to the NHL.
Defenseman Ken Morrow made the most successful leap, helping the Islanders to a Stanley Cup championship three months after winning Olympic gold.
In all, Morrow and seven of his teammates (Mike Ramsey, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, Dave Christian, Dave Silk, Steve Christoff, Rob McClanahan) would play NHL games following the Olympics during the '79-80 season.
8. FLAMING OUT IN ATLANTA
Hockey has suffered a rocky history in Atlanta. As you know, the Atlanta Thrashers left in 2011, after an 11-year run, relocating to Winnipeg.
Three decades earlier, Atlanta's first NHL team, the Flames, skated in their final season before relocating to Calgary.
Dan Bouchard and Pat Riggin shared the goaltending duties for most of the year, but they were upstaged late in the season by the arrival of U.S. Olympic hero Jim Craig, who worked four games for the Flames after his sensational gold-medal performance.
The Flames' final game in Atlanta was a 5-2 loss to the Rangers on April 12. The loss eliminated the Flames from playoff contention and started the process of the franchise's move to Alberta.
9. TIME FOR SAFETY
Prior to the '79-80 campaign, the NHL announced a new rule to make helmets mandatory for all players entering the League. Players who signed their first professional contract prior to June 1, 1979, were exempt from the rule.
Over time, helmets became a standard part of players' equipment, with fewer and fewer exempted players opting to go without.
The final holdout was veteran center Craig MacTavish, who played through the 1996-97 season, thus becoming the last NHLer to skate without a protective lid.
10. ROOKIE RAY
On a veteran team, Bourque posted 17 goals and 65 points in 80 games. He added two goals and 11 points in 10 postseason games.
For his good work, Bourque was awarded the Calder Trophy. Of course, if Gretzky, who is actually a month younger than Bourque, had been eligible, he'd have skated away with the award. Still, Bourque had a sensational rookie season that was a sign of things to come.
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