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.
'92-93 SEASON: MANON RHÉAUME
Part 1: Shattering the gender barrier
By Arpon Basu - Managing Editor LNH.com Twenty years ago, Manon Rhéaume became the first woman to play in a major-league game, appearing in goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning during the NHL preseason. Her impact is felt to this day. READ MORE ›
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Under GM Cliff Fletcher and coach Al MacNeil, the Flames earned a playoff berth with a 35-32-13 record. The team was led by top forward Kent Nilsson, who had 40 goals and 98 points.
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.
Craig MacTavish, skating here for the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 1, 1996, elected to play without a helmet throughout his NHL career that spanned 1,093 games. (Photo: Ian Tomlinson/Getty Images)
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
The eighth pick in the 1979 NHL Draft, defenseman Ray Bourque, jumped right from the Verdun Blackhawks of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League into the Boston Bruins' lineup.
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.