The NHL expanded prior to the 1980 season and one of the teams that brought on board was the Edmonton Oilers. A flagship franchise of the old World Hockey Association, the Oilers had been in existence as a minor league team since 1972 and would now compete at the highest level. It proved to be a turning point, not just for the city of Edmonton, but the entire NHL—indeed, the world of sports.
Edmonton was, for the most part an ordinary expansion team. They were young, with all the key players except one being in their 20s. They weren’t a great team, fighting on the playoff fringe all year in a league where 16 of 21 teams qualified for the postseason. But that one player who wasn’t in his twenties was all the difference—19-year-old Wayne Gretzky came on the scene.
Gretzky’s rookie year saw him score 51 goals and lead the league with 86 assists. It would be the first of thirteen straight years he led the league in the latter category. Two years later his already-impressive goal numbers would top the NHL. Despite playing for a low-level team, Gretzky won the Hart Memorial Trophy, given to the league’s MVP. It would be the first of eight straight MVP seasons. Gretzky tacked one more Hart Trophy onto his resume after he left for Los Angeles.
Because of the presence of this one player, Edmonton’s expansion season ended up being anything but ordinary. We should also add that the Oilers had another 19-year-old who didn’t have the same impact in his rookie year, but it’s fair to say that Mark Messier ended up being pretty good.
Edmonton got off to a predictably slow start, at 3-12-5, but won consecutive games against good teams in the Chicago Blackhawks and New York Rangers. But the Oilers were still at 9-22-9 as mid-January approached, with a 6-2 loss to the Rangers being the low point. Edmonton rebounded to go 5-1-1 over the next seven games and the season was able to stabilize.
The key sequence for this young team came from March 19 to March 29. It started with a win over the Rangers and Edmonton then pounded a comparable Pittsburgh team by a 9-2 count. Both of these wins were at home, but then the Oilers won three straight on the road. The five-game win streak decisively changed their season and they scored 31 goals in the process. A win over the old Colorado Rockies (yes, that was a hockey team, not a baseball team) in the season finale put Edmonton in the playoffs.
Prior to 1982, the NHL ignored conference and divisional affiliation in setting up the postseason bracket. The teams were just seeded 1 thru 16. Edmonton was the lowest-seeded team, due mainly to a defense and goaltending situation that was second-worst in the league. But thanks to the presence of Gretzky they could score, ranking 9th in the NHL at lighting the lamp. They were the #16 seed and got a crack at league-leading Philadelphia.
The Oilers put up a spirited effort in their first-ever NHL playoff series. They went to overtime in the opener of the best-of-five affair before losing and after dropping Game 2, came back home and treated the fans to a double-overtime game. But the Flyers were able to finish it off in a sweep, en route to the Finals before losing to the New York Islanders.
It was the Islanders who would dominate hockey over the next four years, winning the Cup each time. But Edmonton kept the steady improvement they’d shown in the spring of 1980 going. The Oilers went a little further in the playoffs each year before making the Finals in 1983. While they lost to the Islanders, it proved to be the end of one dynasty and the start of another. Edmonton won the Cup in 1984, one of five they brought home in the seven-year span from 1984-1990.
The 1980 Edmonton Oilers got it all started—NHL hockey in their hometown, the birth pangs of a dynasty and the career of the man who would eventually become known as “The Great One”, as Wayne Gretzky’s greatness would eclipse even hockey itself and be comparable only across sports lines. Quite an achievement for one expansion season.