It was a wild year in the NHL and as much excitement as there is for the future of the game with plenty of young and exciting talent coming in, 2016 also gave us a few moments to ponder the past.
Through the year, the hockey world lost a legend, celebrated another and witnessed one of the craziest 23 minutes in the history of the NHL, if not all sports.
Undoubtedly when coming up with a year-end top 10, a few noteworthy stories had to be left out that should get a mention:
Recently, the firing of Gerard Gallant as head coach in Florida was probably the most controversial coach dismissal ever and left Don Cherry labelling it the “worst” in NHL history.
And we can’t forget the scariest moment in hockey this year. Craig Cunningham, captain of the AHL’s Tucson Roadrunners, collapsed on the ice prior to the start of a late-November game, leaving him in critical condition at a local hospital. Though his hockey career is likely over, he spoke last week about his remarkable recovery.
With 2016 coming to a close, the NHL looks ahead to its centennial celebration as the league turns 100 years old, which will be shared with fans through many planned events and, surely, many more big stories to come.
Here are the biggest NHL stories of 2016:
10. Canada dominates on the international stage again with World Cup win
The NHL hosted the first World Cup of Hockey since 2004 and the performance put forth by Canada was reminiscent of the way they ran away with gold at the Sochi Olympic tournament in 2014. The Canadians allowed just eight goals in a perfect six games as Carey Price returned to action for the first time since an early-season injury in 2015 and Sidney Crosby led the tournament with 10 points. Not even the amalgamated Team Europe could stop the super power Canadian roster in the final, although it was an exciting finish that needed two late goals to clinch the title. This group of Canadians has been head and shoulders better than everybody at the best-on-best level for a number of years.
9. Penguins win the Stanley Cup, Sidney Crosby earns Conn Smythe
When Mike Sullivan was hired as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 12 of last year the team was 15-10-3 and ninth place in the conference. Crosby had 19 points in 28 games. They weren’t being considered a Cup contender by any means. But since the calendar flip to 2016 the Penguins have been the best team in hockey and Crosby has been the premier scoring talent again. Once considered a potential dynasty when they made back-to-back Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, the Penguins had lost their way before recapturing glory in 2016. And Crosby, who didn’t win the Conn Smythe when Pittsburgh won the 2009 Cup, was sublime in this run and came away with the award, adding another layer to his amazing career.
8. Jaromir Jagr passes Mark Messier for No. 2 in all-time points
Any child of the 1980s is amazed and grateful that “Jammy” is still around. In a way, he’s the last connection those of us who fall into that category have to our youthful NHL fandom. We remember him breaking in to the league with an incredible mullet and sick moves. And though the game has drastically changed a few times over Jagr’s career, he’s adapted to it and accomplished an amazing career achievement in December when he recorded point number 1,888 to pass Messier for sole possession of No. 2 on the NHL’s all-time points list. It may not have been the prettiest assist, glancing off his butt in front of the net, but they all count. Jagr is 46 goals away from catching Gordie Howe for No. 2 all-time on that list — incredible milestones for an NHLer who played through the Dead Puck Era and took off for three years to play in the KHL. Not to mention the work stoppages.
7. Wideman gets concussion, hits linesman, earns weird suspension
Calgary Flames defenceman Dennis Wideman isn’t known as an overly aggressive player and hasn’t even reached 50 penalty minutes in a season since 2008. So it was a bizarre incident in late-January when, after taking a hard hit from Mikka Salomaki, Wideman ploughed over linesman Don Henderson on his way to the Flames bench. The aftermath was messy and involved the league, NHLPA, NHL Officials’ Association and an arbitrator. Wideman was initially suspended 20 games by the league, which was later reduced to 10 after Wideman had already served 19 games.
6. Drouin demands trade, then rescinds and returns for a playoff run
Though Jonathan Drouin and his agent officially asked the Lightning for a trade in November, the news didn’t become public until January and that’s when things spiralled out of control. Tampa Bay assigned Drouin to the AHL and then suspended him after he failed to report to the Syracuse Crunch for a game in Toronto. The holdout/suspension lasted about a month and a half before he returned to the Crunch. He was recalled to the Lightning at the end of the regular season after Steven Stamkos was found to have a blood clot in his arm and subsequently became a star in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, scoring five goals and 14 points in 17 games.
5. Las Vegas awarded expansion team, logo/name revealed
It was a terribly kept secret, but in June the NHL made it official that a 31st team would be added to the league for the 2017-18 season. Hockey, of all sports, will be the first big league to break into the Las Vegas market. And in a November unveiling that had its glitches, owner Bill Foley announced the “Vegas Golden Knights” team name and the steel grey, gold, red and black colour scheme. Next up, the expansion draft in 2017, for which the speculation has already begun.
4. The John Scott All-Star Game phenomenon
Whether you liked it or not, pugilist John Scott was the story of the All-Star Game in Nashville — a tale so good a movie is in the works. With voting open for fans to elect a player of their choice to the game, enough people decided it would be more interesting to have fun with the process and put somebody in the game who, by traditional standards, had no business being there. After the final voting results were tallied, the league pressured Scott to gracefully bow out, but the big man went anyway, participated in the hardest shot competition, scored a couple of goals and, in the end, was carried off the ice by his peers. It was a moment that wouldn’t have been recaptured if a similar voting campaign started up for the 2017 event, but the league changed the rules anyway so a John Scott-type won’t appear again.
3. Mr. Hockey passes away at 88
June 10, 2016 was a sad day in hockey as legendary NHLer Gordie Howe passed away after many months of deteriorating health and suffering a series of strokes. Regarded as the most complete player in the game, feared in the corners for his flying elbows, and revered across the hockey world, Howe earned the nickname “Mr. Hockey’, which says all you need to know about his connection to and place in the game. Howe played 26 NHL seasons across five decades and made his final appearance in the NHL at the record age of 52.
2. Maple Leafs win draft lottery, select Arizona prospect Matthews out of Switzerland
Trust the process. Trust the Shanaplan. After years of struggle and lacking a No. 1 centre since Mats Sundin left for Vancouver in 2008, the Maple Leafs finally got their guy in Auston Matthews, who probably didn’t come from where most Leafs fans expected their “saviour” to call home. Born and bred in Scottsdale, Arizona, Matthews didn’t even take a traditional route in his draft year, electing to play pro in Switzerland instead of going to major junior or the NCAA. His four-goal debut was the best start to a career ever and his emergence, along with Mitch Marner and William Nylander, has Leafs Nation optimistic that this time, finally, the team is on track for future success.
1. 23 minutes that shook the hockey world
Wednesday, June 29 brought a dizzying combination of huge signings and trades unlike we had ever seen before and each of them had massive implications. It started at 3:34 p.m. ET, as the Edmonton Oilers traded Taylor Hall for some much-needed help on the blue line in the form of Adam Larsson. That controversial move alone would have kept Canadian hockey fans — especially Oilers loyalists — with plenty to discuss for a while. Then, 20 minutes later, an even bigger trade broke as the Habs made the unbelievable decision to send P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators straight up for Shea Weber. And finally, three minutes after the Subban trade, Steven Stamkos re-signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning for eight years, just two days before he would have become the most sought-after unrestricted free agent in NHL history. Woah. I need to sit down.