The Biggest “What Ifs” in Hockey History: A Beginning

Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin/38 Photography

Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin/38 Photography

Hindsight is 20/20… or so they say.

It’s been nearly 100 years since the inaugural season of the National Hockey League. Hockey history is filled with some of the greatest games, stories, and achievements which has captivated fans for nearly a century.

But what about the “would’ve, could’ve, should’ve”s that the annals of hockey history weren’t privy to? There are many situations that are fun to ponder and figure out what may have been had certain instances played out differently. This is going to be the first part of a series of articles like this.

Let’s look back at some of the biggest “what if’s” in hockey history, shall we?

What if Jaromír Jágr hadn’t left to play in Russia in 2008?

The legend of Jaromír Jágr is still playing out in today’s current NHL. As we speak, the ageless wonder is playing for the Florida Panthers at the ripe age of 44, but eight years ago, he decided to jump across the pond and play for boatloads more money in the KHL for three seasons. While I’ll never knock a guy for going somewhere to earn more money, just imagine what an extra three years in the NHL could have done for Jágr’s individual statistics.

The season before he left for Russia, Jágr scored 25 goals and racked up 79 points for the New York Rangers in 2007-08. Let’s say for arguments sake he would’ve scored 20 goals and a generous 65 points each of the three seasons he missed. With those numbers, he’d already be ahead of Mark Messier (1,887) on the all-time points list. And, second in goals scored only to Wayne Gretzky (894).

Jágr is showing no signs of slowing down and has stated that he wants to play until he’s at least 50 years old. While he’d never reach Gretzky’s total all-time points (2,857), he could at least push to break Gretzky’s goal total.

Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin/38 Photography

Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin/38 Photography

What if the Anaheim Ducks had won the draft lottery in 2005?

The Pittsburgh Penguins were not sitting pretty in 2005. They were a hockey team at the bottom of the NHL barrel for a few years with talks of possible relocation. That was until the 2005 Draft when the Penguins watched their fortunes turn before their eyes as they won the draft lottery and select Sidney Crosby. But what if it hadn’t played out that way?

The draft lottery came down to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Anaheim Ducks. The Ducks were two years removed from a heartbreaking appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals where they lost to the New Jersey Devils. They did not qualify for the playoffs the following season and while they had some nice pieces to move forward with, they were missing the elite-level talent since Paul Kariya had moved to the Colorado Avalanche.

Their defense was still mainly intact from the 2003 Cup run and some talented prospects in Joffrey Lupul and Chris Kunitz were emerging. Coupled with Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf on the way, just think what that roster would’ve been like with Sidney Crosby down the middle. Maybe they would’ve won a Stanley Cup sooner than 2007, with the potential for more.

On the flip side, how would the Penguins future have shaped up? I don’t think Bobby Ryan—while a solid player in his own right—would’ve done anything major to bring back the Pittsburgh Penguins from the brink of relocation. Pittsburgh may have continued down it’s bumpy road. But then again, if the next few seasons continued to be abysmal, they still would have had Evgeni Malkin and Marc-André Fleury to fall back on.

Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin/38 Photography

Photo courtesy of Amy Irvin/38 Photography

What if the WHA turned into a successful competitor to the NHL?

We’ve seen it happen in just about every professional sport in America. In basketball the ABA rivaled the NBA. It was the USFL that rivaled the NFL in football. And in hockey it was the World Hockey Association that tried to poach players from the NHL.

The WHA gave way to many promising careers. Gretzky, Mike Gartner, Messier, Rod Langway, Michel Goulet, and Mark Howe all started their careers in the WHA before playing an NHL game. Even more impressive was how many established NHLers had a change of heart and signed in the WHA. Gordie Howe, Andy Bathgate, Bernie Parent, Frank Mahovlich, Gerry Cheevers, Bobby Hull, and Dave Keon all jumped ship and spent time in the competing league at one point in their careers.

Financial issues are the ultimate cause why the league was unsustainable. Many of the teams could not pay to house their teams in arenas and many of them ended up jumping around to different cities to play. There were a handful of clubs that folded before they even played their first game.

Just think, had the WHA panned out, hockey fans could be cheering for Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Blazers, John Tavares of the New York Raiders, And Auston Matthews of the Toronto Toros.

  • John

    As far as the WHA is concerned, I will go in a different direction (just bear with me):

    What if Lamar Hunt was able to buy a majority stake in the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals?

    Well, he subseqently would have moved them to Dallas (maybe to become the Dallas Texans, but I am not sure). As a result, the AFL probably doesn’t get started, and a guy named Gary Davidson isn’t as inspired to start the WHA (maybe he starts a new football league by the late-60’s, but it ends up like the WFL, more than likely) and ABA.

    With no WHA, the expansions in 1972 and 74 (N.Y. Isles, Flames, Washington, KC) probably don’t happen, and the Oilers, Jets, Nordiques, and Whalers aren’t all added to the NHL. Plus, Gretzky is with a different team, and Lemieux may be as well.

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