|If Jack Skille, Jonathan Toews, or whomever the Blackhawks select with their initial pick at the upcoming entry draft ever need advice about how to handle being the team’s first-round selection, they need look no further than behind the Chicago bench.
Head coach Denis Savard was Chicago’s first-round pick in the 1980 draft. He promptly embarked on a career that included a Stanley Cup title with the Montreal Canadiens as well as ten seasons with the Hawks that resulted in his jersey number being raised to the United Center rafters in retirement. Not a bad role model for the current group of number-ones.
The NHL’s entry/amateur draft goes back to 1963. The entire process that year probably took less than an hour - the ‘original six’ picked a player apiece for two rounds, but there was so little roster turnover anticipated that only five teams made a third round pick and just four made a fourth-round selection. Of the 21 players selected that year, all 21 were Canadian and five eventually played in the NHL.
43 years later, in 2006, ten times as many players were drafted. NHL teams combined to offer 213 players (selected over seven rounds) the opportunity to embark upon a professional hockey career. The sheer number of players selected isn’t the only thing that has changed since 1963 -- less than 40% of last year’s class was Canadian-born; roughly 28% of the players drafted were American while nearly one-third were European.
The Blackhawks have certainly been part of the growing “internationalism” of the NHL. During Mike Smith’s tenure as general manager, the Blackhawks drafted a large number of European-born players. Of the 47 draftees picked during his four years (2000-2003 inclusive), 23 were European, as were four of the team’s six first-round picks.
The NHL had actually ‘discovered' Europe in the mid-70s, in part out of necessity. The World Hockey Association was in business then, increasing the size of the professional player pool and thus making it essential for the league to identify new sources of talent. Sweden and Finland were the first countries to have their natives drafted (by both leagues), and Philadelphia made history in the 1975 amateur draft by becoming the first NHL team to select a player from the Soviet Union.
Viktor Khatulev was their ninth-round pick, but he never made it to North America. He was banned from Russian hockey for frequent on-ice fights and off-ice behavioral problems. With a resume like that he would have been a natural for the Flyers of the “Broad Street Bullies” era.
The Blackhawks will make a bit of team history later this month, assuming they hold on to their current first round pick. This will be the first time ever the team has chosen first overall. Prior to this year, the team’s highest pick was third overall, which they have had on five occasions. Eddie Olczyk joined the Blackhawks for more than 320 games after being the third pick of the first round in 1984, and hopes remain high for Cam Barker and Jonathan Toews, fellow third-overall selectees in the first round of their respective draft years.
If either one of those players even approximates the level of success achieved by the best player the Hawks ever took with the third pick overall, well, no one will be more pleased than the best player the Hawks ever took with the third pick overall -- current head coach Denis Savard.
While the first round picks get most of the publicity on draft day, Savard will be the first to note that players chosen in later rounds can be just as successful and just as important to their teams. The 1980 draft that initiated Savard’s professional career also brought to the Hawks Troy Murray, Steve Ludzik, and a high-scoring sixth round gem named Steve Larmer.
Van Oler is a freelance writer who grew up in Wheaton and currently lives in Cincinnati, OH.