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1963 | 1974 | 1986 | 1997
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DATE: AUGUST 9, 1979

The first NHL Entry Draft changed the league in more ways than any of the league's previous 16 "amateur drafts." More than two decades after it took place, the players taken in this draft are still regarded as the greatest pool of talent ever available to NHL teams in one year. An amazing 81.7 percent of the 126 players drafted managed to play at least one NHL game. Prior to 1979, no more than 58 percent of the players picked in one year had ever reached the NHL, and it is almost certain that this stunning record set in 1979 will never be broken.

In terms of available talent, the 1979 draft had some big advantages over its predecessors. In fact, it was really two drafts in one. For the first time since 1974, the NHL allowed the drafting of underage players (those who would reach age 20 in their draft year). This draft also included the influx of underage players from the WHA, which had merged with the NHL in the spring of 1979. In its final season, the WHA had signed numerous teen-agers, and their development had been accelerated by their opportunity to enter pro hockey so early.

The WHA factor was the major reason the NHL had to change the name of the draft from "Amateur Draft" to "Entry Draft." With eight WHA players eligible for the draft, it was unfair to label it a selection of amateurs, so the NHL changed the name. The NHL knew it had to let all players who had spent 1978-79 in the WHA come into the league, regardless of their age. This created particular problems for Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, who had played in the WHA as 17-year-olds and would normally have been too young to enter the NHL in 1979. In Gretzky's case, the NHL avoided a draft dilemma by letting Edmonton retain his rights from its WHA franchise. Messier, however, was coming from a defunct WHA team (Cincinnati) and had to join a new one in the NHL. But if Messier was eligible at age 18, would that mean all 18-year-olds would have to be eligible as well?

The NHL struggled with the question of underage eligibility. A debate over this topic, plus the busy agenda for the 1979 June meetings, forced the league to postpone the draft from the weekend of June 10, 1979, until Aug. 9, 1979. This gave NHL officials an extra two months to settle the eligibility issue, which would require the blessing of the NHLPA as well as the key players in major junior hockey. To make matters worse, the NHL found itself under outside pressure from agent Art Kaminsky, who insisted that client Tom McCarthy be eligible for the draft or he would sue the NHL. McCarthy was not due to turn 19 until the end of July, so by waiting until August, the NHL was able to draft him as a 19-year-old rather than an 18-year-old. But drafting in August also meant that the NHL would be holding the latest draft in its history, another record that is all but certain to stand the test of time.

Finally, the issue was settled when the league agreed to allow the drafting of 19-year-olds in 1979 with a promise to widen the pool to include 18-year-olds in 1980. To placate the junior leagues, the NHL agreed that drafted 19-year-olds would be returned to their junior teams if they did not make the NHL out of training camp. No underage NHL player was allowed to be sent to the minors without permission of his junior team. Underage players were also allowed to join Team Canada or the U.S. Olympic team, although only the college players chose this route. This rule also affected the eight former WHA players, who were to return to the junior teams that owned their rights when they entered the WHA. In the final analysis, the NHL selected 53 underage juniors directly out of major junior hockey, plus the eight players from the WHA. All eligible players who were not drafted were given the option of signing with any NHL team as unrestricted free agents or returning to junior and re-entering the draft in 1980. NHL teams, however, had to sign underage free agents prior to Nov. 1, 1979, otherwise they would re-enter the draft. A total of 31 undrafted players, including Dino Ciccarelli, Tim Kerr, J-F Sauve, Ron Flockhart and Dave Pichette, ended up signing with NHL teams for the 1979-80 season. As with draft picks, once a free agent signed with an NHL team, he had to either be kept on the NHL roster or remain with his junior team.

The 1979 draftees were also the first players required to wear helmets in the NHL, under a mandatory helmet rule passed during the summer of 1979. Former WHA players were exempted from the helmet rule because they had played professionally during the 1978-79 season. The draftees were immediately kept busy, as teams rushed to sign them before the opening of training camps on Sept. 15, 1979. Some teams opened their rookie camps as early as Sept. 9, meaning draft picks had only one month to sign in order to report to camp on time. Because of the short lead time before the season, the draft was limited to six rounds and a total of 126 players. For the first time in history, teams were not allowed to pass in a round and re-enter later in the draft. Nor were they allowed to sell draft picks on draft day. No teams passed and no late-round picks were sold, marking the dawn of a new era in draft history and a primary tenet of the draft as we know it today.

Eligible For Draft: All amateur players born before January 1, 1961, and any younger players who spent the 1978-79 season in the WHA.
Draft Order: Teams drafted in reverse order of their 1978-79 finish with the four WHA expansion entries drafting at the end of each round.
Irregularities:  The order in which Hartford, Winnipeg and Quebec drafted was determined by a drawing unrelated to their expansion-draft position. Edmonton drafted last since it had retained Wayne Gretzky.
Rotation: Colorado, St. Louis, Detroit, Washington, Vancouver, Minnesota, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Atlanta, N.Y. Rangers, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, N.Y. Islanders, Hartford, Winnipeg, Quebec, Edmonton
Total Rounds: Six
Cost to Draft: The NHL paid a lump sum to the CMJHL to support major junior hockey as a whole.
Draft Rights: Team could offer player contract at any time after draft, however, underage players would be required to spend the 1979-80 season with their major-junior teams if they did not make their NHL teams out of camp, and would only be available for emergency recall.
No. 1 pick: Rob Ramage (by Colorado)
Reached NHL: 103 players (81.7 percent)
Won Stanley Cup: 23 players (18.2 percent)
Most NHL Games: Mark Messier (1,756 games)
Most Playoff Games: Mark Messier (236 games)
Highest Pick to Miss: No. 23 (Mike Perovich)
Lowest Pick to Reach: No. 126 (Blair Barnes)
Players Drafted: 126 (74 forwards, 41 defense, 11 goalies)

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Total Selected: 126
Forwards: 74
Defense: 41
Goaltenders: 11
Major Junior: 97
College Players: 15
Canadian: 109
Euro-Canadian: 1
USA Citizens: 10
U.S.-Born: 10
European: 6
Reached NHL: 103
Won Stanley Cup: 23
Hall of Fame: 3
All-Star Game: 23
Year-end All-Star: 10
Olympians: 15
Picks Traded: 17
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