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The Nearly Tales of Sport

By Pete Usher


 

Sport is always full of “nearly” stories, normally at the business end of a competition. Just recently, Scotland nearly beat France at rugby in the Six Nations tournament, after a try with the last move of the game was controversially ruled out, depriving the Scots of a victory. Every football fan will have multiple tales of their side hitting the frame rather than scoring, losing the game as a consequence. It is part and parcel of the sporting landscape.


Marcus Smith denies Ireland a Grand Slam with the last kick of the England-Ireland game in the 2024 Six Nations.

Picture courtesy BBC.



But sometimes, a single moment can have an impact that ripples into the future in unexpected ways.

 

On 4th January, 2007, the Edmonton Oilers were playing the Dallas Stars in an NHL regular season game. Edmonton were having a poor season, Dallas were looking to get into the Stanley Cup play-offs in three months. Given the NHL season is 82 matches long, individual games rarely seem to have any major importance.


With just thirteen seconds to go, Dallas were winning 5-4, and Edmonton had replaced their goalkeeper with another skater in a last-ditch attempt to equalise and take the game into overtime. As Edmonton brought the puck out, it was intercepted by Patrick Stefan, who skated towards the open net, seemingly about to put Dallas into an unassailable 6-4 lead with just a handful of seconds left.

 

And then the puck bobbled.

 

As Stefan went to tap the puck into the net, it must have hit an imperfection on the ice. Regardless of the cause, the puck span over the top of his stick, and past the side of the goal. Stefan tried to retrieve the puck, and in doing so he fell over, allowing Edmonton to recover the puck, rush up the ice and score an equaliser, pushing the game into overtime, which ended with Dallas winning in a shoot-out.


He missed.

Picture courtesy Yahoo News.



So, with Dallas having won anyway, picking up 2 points in the standings, why does this matter? The answer is because by losing an overtime game, Edmonton picked up 1 point, rather than none that they would have won if they had lost in regulation time. And this mattered at the end of the season.

 

Like all Major Leagues in the United States, the NHL uses a draft system to try to maintain competitive balance. In essence, the teams that do worst get the first picks of the best new talent coming through the various developmental routes available (US college, various minor leagues, other global ice hockey leagues). However, to avoid ‘tanking’ (deliberately trying to lose to secure the worst record) the NHL, like the basketball NBA, had instigated a weighted draft lottery to determine who got the first pick. The team with the worst record in 2006-07, the Philadelphia Flyers, had a 25% chance of getting that pick, whereas the team that was closest to making the play-offs, the Colorado Avalanche, only had a 0.5% chance.

 

Edmonton finished with the 6th worst record in the league, tied on points with the Chicago Blackhawks, but with a better defensive record, which was the tie-breaker used. Without the point from the loss to Dallas, the positions would have been reversed. And Chicago (as the 5th worst team) had a slightly higher chance of getting that top pick (8.1% against 6.2%).

 

The two teams were complete opposites in terms of success. Chicago, despite having been in the league since 1926, had only won three Stanley Cup titles, the most recent of which was in 1961. During a large proportion of that time, there were only six teams in the entire league, between 1942 and 1967, known as the Original Six Era. The Blackhawks had only made one playoff appearance in the previous ten seasons.

 

The Oilers were a much younger franchise, having been founded in 1972 as part of the rival World Hockey Association, before merging in the NHL in 1979. The Oilers then became an absolute power house, winning five Stanley Cups in seven seasons from 1984 to 1990, and having just lost out to the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2006 final series.

 

When the winning lottery ball was drawn, it was number 5, meaning the Blackhawks picked first.

 

Chicago picked right winger Patrick Kane, who was widely regarded as the best player available, and the effect was transformative. Kane won rookie of the year in his first season in the league, and was a crucial player in turning the Blackhawks around. That season, Chicago won nine more games than 2006-07, missing out on the play-offs by 3 points, and again finished dead level with the Oilers.


Patrick Kane.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



In 2008-09, the Blackhawks took another huge step forward, finishing with the fourth best record in the Western Conference, before getting all the way to the Conference Finals, where they were beaten by the Detroit Red Wings. Kane’s performance was at the same high level as the previous year.

 

In 2009-10, things went even better. Chicago finished second in the Western Conference, then beat Nashville, Vancouver, and San Jose to reach the Stanley Cup finals, where they would face the Philadelphia Flyers. Going into the finals, Chicago had the longest drought of active NHL teams, at 49 years (currently, the Toronto Maple Leafs have a 55-year drought, last winning in 1967). Led by Kane and club captain Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks went on to win the series by 4 games to 2, clinching the title. Earlier in the season, Toews had been part of the Olympic gold medal winning Canadian team at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, Kane part of the silver medal United States side.

 

The title started a run of success for Chicago, as they made the playoffs for the next seven seasons, and won the Stanley Cup twice more. In 2013, the season was shortened due to a lockout, but when it started in Junauary 2013, the Blackhawks emerged as the best team in the league. They finished with the best overall record in the entire league, and again made the Finals where they beat the Boston Bruins 4 games to 2. Kane won the Most Valuable Player award for the Finals, the Conn Smythe trophy. The team then went on to win the Stanley Cup again in 2015, with another win by 4 games to 2, this time against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Kane won the league MVP award, the Hart Trophy, as well as being the leading scorer (goals and assists), collecting the Art Ross Trophy.

 

Patrick Kane played 15 seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. He played 1161 games, scored 446 goals and made 779 assists, before being traded to the New York Rangers to help with their unsuccessful Stanley Cup campaign. He then signed with the Detroit Red Wings for the 2023-24 season.

 

Conversely, the Oilers did not make the play-offs again for another decade, have not reached the Stanley Cup finals since 2006, and haven’t won the title since 1990. The player they selected sixth in the draft, Sam Gagner, is a solid NHL player, having played over 1000 games in the league.

 

Whether or not Kane would have enjoyed the same success in Alberta is an open question, but we were one bobble of a puck away from potentially finding out.

 

 

 

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