An Alternate NHL (Revisited)


Way back in 2006 I posted an alternate history timeline to the now-defunct DH.N forums.  The idea was a world where the Quebec Nordiques never relocated to Denver and looking at what relocation and expansion might have taken place after that.

I was going to pull that out of the archives and re-post it, but, after giving it another look, I think there was a different direction to take.  This is my re-visit to that idea.

Spring 1995
A possible deal involving COMSAT Entertainment Group purchasing the Quebec Nordiques falls through when a small, eleventh-hour financial bailout is granted to the Nordiques by the government of Quebec. The Nordiques pledge to remain in Quebec for at least three more seasons, continuing to ask for a new arena.

December 3, 1995
Patrick Roy demands a trade from the Montreal Canadiens. The Nordiques inquire but Montreal refuses to trade Roy to a division- and province-rival. Roy eventually goes to the Dallas Stars with Mike Keane for Manny Fernandez, Guy Carbonneau and Joe Nieuwendyk.

Spring 1996
The Stars just miss the playoffs after surging since picking up Roy.

Quebec endures a seven-game Eastern Conference Finals series with Philadelphia to advance to face Detroit in the Stanley Cup Finals.

Detroit wins the series in six close games. Goalie Chris Osgood is the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Summer 1996
The Winnipeg Jets are sold to COMSAT Entertainment Group and relocated to Denver, Colorado. They become the Colorado Avalanche.

The Quebec Nordiques look to upgrade their goaltending, trading Stephane Fiset and Andrei Kovalenko to the Chicago Blackhawks for Ed Belfour. Belfour had previously demanded a trade, ripping into his teammates and insulting fan-favorite backup goaltender Jeff Hackett after his team’s second-straight loss to Detroit in the Western Conference Finals.

The Hartford Whalers trade the disgruntled Brendan Shanahan to Detroit for Mike Vernon and Keith Primeau. Vernon was deemed expendable by the Red Wings with the younger Chris Osgood in net.

Spring 1997
The Quebec Nordiques best the Hartford Whalers in an Eastern Conference Finals goaltending duel. Mike Vernon and Ed Belfour combine for five shutouts in the series, won by a Joe Sakic goal in the final moments of Game Seven.

The defending champions lack the motivation they had the previous season and the Dallas Stars take advantage of that in the Western Conference Finals, eliminating Detroit in five games, including three shutouts by Roy. Osgood is unspectacular, leading Red Wings fans to complain about the trade of Vernon and making Shanahan a scapegoat.

After few thought the goalie matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals could be matched, Belfour and Roy create a series for the ages. The Nordiques defeat the Stars in six games, all decided by one goal and four in overtime. Belfour is the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

June 25, 1997
With the Hartford Whalers and the defending champion Quebec Nordiques still looking for new arena deals, the NHL announces that they will put off expansion at this time.  This leaves several markets on the table for those two teams to use as leverage against their current homes.

Quite a bit of backroom dealing is required to pacify the prospective owners who feel like they’ve been led on a wild goose chase.  For some, just being unofficially notified that they were a near-shoo-in is enough.  St. Paul, Minnesota, for example, is so certain that they’ll be awarded a team that they move forward with plans to demolish the St. Paul Civic Center and replace it with a new arena.  On the other hand, lack of a decision essentially kills both public- and private-sector support for an arena in Columbus, Ohio.

August 7, 1997
After losing Mark Messier to the Vancouver Canucks via free agency, the New York Rangers make the bold move of signing Quebec captain Joe Sakic to a offer sheet as a restricted free agent.  The deal includes a $15 million signing bonus, intended to dissuade the cash-strapped Nordiques from exercising their right to match the contract.

It’s a plan that works.  The defending champions have leverage in arranging a new arena but they’ve lost their captain.

Spring 1998
Defending champion Quebec Nordiques are led into the playoffs by new captain Peter Forsberg and a dominant season in goal by Ed Belfour.  The Nordiques’ reward?  A first-round matchup with Joe Sakic and the New York Rangers.  Sakic and Wayne Gretzky prove too much for Quebec to handle as the Rangers advance in a four-game sweep.  Particularly bitter for Quebec fans is Sakic scoring the game-winning goal at Le Colisee late in Game Four.

The Rangers move on to make quick work of the Philadelphia Flyers, then Mike Richter outduels Olaf Kolzig and the Washington Capitals in the Eastern Conference Finals as New York advances to face the Dallas Stars.

Patrick Roy dominates the Western Conference for the Stars, getting through the first three rounds of the playoffs with a 1.78 goals-against average.  The Rangers, particularly Gretzky, are able to get to him in the Stanley Cup Finals, but Richter’s spectacular run ends as well.

Mike Modano scores seven goals in the six-game series, leading the Stars to their first Stanley Cup Championship and claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP.

Late June 1998
A series of announcements shake up the structure of the NHL.

On June 19, just days after the close of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Hartford Whalers announce their intent to relocate to St. Paul, Minnesota.  For two seasons they will call Minneapolis’ Target Center home until the new arena in St. Paul is complete.  Team owner Peter Karmanos had intended to move a year earlier but the Whalers’ run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997 led him to hold off.  In the end, an agreement to keep the team in Connecticut couldn’t be reached, though Hartford fans and officials accused him of negotiating in bad faith.

“Proof” of that bad faith is demonstrated three days later, with the NHL announcing it’s delayed expansion plan.  Though no one formally submitted an expansion application on its behalf, Raleigh, North Carolina, is named as one of the league’s new cities, to be owned by Detroit Pistons owner Bill Davidson.  Raleigh had attempted to woo Karmanos and the Whalers and many view their expansion franchise as a consolation prize.  Phoenix, Arizona; Portland, Oregon; and Houston, Texas; are also granted expansion franchises.  Portland and Houston will begin play for the 1999-2000 season while Phoenix and Raleigh will join for 2000-2001.  A new league alignment is not announced, fostering theories that another shoe is yet to drop.

On June 26, rumors begin to swirl that the Quebec Nordiques will join the Whalers in relocating.  No arena plan has been announced for the team and Nashville, Tennessee, had been conspicuously left out of the league’s expansion plans.  The next morning, hours before the start of the NHL Entry Draft in Buffalo, the rumors are confirmed: The Nordiques will be sold and moved to Nashville.  This leads to an awkward position where the team drafts as Quebec while everyone knows the players will never wear a Nordiques sweater again.

July 20, 1998
The NHL belatedly announces new divisional alignments that feature three five-team divisions in each conference.

In the Eastern Conference, the Boston Bruins, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens, Ottawa Senators, and Toronto Maple Leafs will make up the Northeast Division; the New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Pittsburgh Penguins will play in the Atlantic Division; the Southeast Division will be made up of the Carolina Hurricanes (entering 2000-2001), Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Washington Capitals.

In the Western Conference, the Midwest Division will be the Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Houston Aeros (entering 1999-2000), and St. Louis Blues. The Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Northmen, Portland Navigators (entering 1999-2000), and Vancouver Canucks will make up the Northwest Division while the Pacific Division will consist of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Arizona Scorpions (entering 2000-2001), Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings, and San Jose Sharks.

For the first season under the new alignment, the Toronto Maple Leafs will play in the Midwest Division to help even out the conferences until expansion evens out the number of teams.

Spring 1999
The Detroit Red Wings head back to the top of the NHL, with the strong defensive triumvirate of Nicklas Lidstrom, Vladimir Konstantinov, and a resurgent Paul Coffey helping make up for the average play of goalie Chris Osgood in a relatively weak Midwest Division.

The defending conference champion Dallas Stars claim the third seed for the playoffs (behind Detroit and the Colorado Avalanche, who won their division for the first time) and sweep the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the first round. Unfortunately, Patrick Roy suffers a hand injury and is unavailable as the Stars fall to the Avalanche in the second round.

Game Six of the New York Rangers’ second-round series with the Buffalo Sabres is the last of Wayne Gretzky’s legendary career.  The Rangers are shutdown by Buffalo goalie Dominik Hasek while Sabres captain Pat LaFontaine and free-agent signee Brett Hull carry their team past the defending conference champions.

In what’s technically a rematch of the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, the Red Wings eliminate the Nashville Predators in five games, then the St. Louis Blues in six games.  They go on to defeat Colorado and advance to face the New Jersey Devils, who knocked out the Sabres in the Eastern Conference Finals.

As it was in the regular season, Detroit’s defense is the difference in the Finals. Even boosted by the trade deadline acquisition of Chris Chelios, the Devils can’t stop the Red Wings, who win the series in six games with captain Steve Yzerman leading the team in scoring and claiming the Conn Smythe Trophy.

Following his team’s championship, Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom announced his intent to return home to Sweden, ending his NHL career on top.

June 24, 1999
Ted Turner buys the bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins, beating out an offer by former player Mario Lemieux. The team will play one final season in Pittsburgh before relocating to Atlanta to play alongside Turner’s Atlanta Hawks of the NBA. After some legal trouble, the team is christened the Atlanta Thrashers.  The Thrashers will play in the Southeast Division, swapping places with the Washington Capitals.

June 26, 1999
In a messy and public ordeal, the Red Wings and Paul Coffey part ways as Coffey is traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Detroit gets Toronto’s second and third round draft picks in that day’s NHL Entry Draft, using them to select local forwards Adam Hall and Mike Comrie.  With Lidstrom and Coffey gone, alternate captain and Norris Trophy winner Vladimir Konstantinov is left as the leader of the Red Wings’ blue line.

July 1, 1999
Though he was initially hesitant to enter free agency at all, defenseman Chris Chelios is convinced by US Olympic teammates Pat LaFontaine and Brett Hull to sign with the Buffalo Sabres.

March 6, 2000
The Dallas Stars acquire future Hall-of-Famer Ray Bourque from the Boston Bruins for Brendan Morrow and two draft picks.  The longtime Boston captain had requested a trade to a contending team in an effort to end his career with a Stanley Cup Championship.

Spring 2000
The Dallas Stars return to the Stanley Cup Finals, surviving a grueling Western Conference Finals matchup with the Colorado Avalanche.  Dallas’ Patrick Roy and Colorado’s Nikolai Khabibulin deliver a goaltending duel for the ages while the series also showcases a physical matchup between the two teams’ captains: Derian Hatcher of the Stars and Keith Tkachuk of the Avalanche.

While the Western Conference feature an epic goalie showdown in its final series, the Eastern Conference is full of them.  With names such as Curtis Joseph in Toronto, Olaf Kolzig in Washington, Mike Richter with the New York Rangers, Dominik Hasek in Buffalo, and Martin Brodeur in New Jersey, this should have been expected.  Brodeur’s Devils emerge from the East, having shut down the Sabres’ mini-Team USA of Pat LaFontaine, Brett Hull, and Chris Chelios in the conference finals.

For the second consecutive season, the Devils fall short in the Stanley Cup Finals.  Down 3-2 in the series, a double-overtime goal by Jason Arnott forces Game Seven and keeps New Jersey alive, but Roy cements his clutch status with a shutout in the deciding game as Dallas earns a 2-0 win.

As expected, Ray Bourque announces his retirement immediately following the game.  The image of Hatcher handing Bourque the Stanley Cup becomes iconic.

Spring 2001
The Colorado Avalanche knock off the Dallas Stars as Western Conference Champions.  While Dallas’ Patrick Roy generally outplays Colorado’s Nikolai Khabibulin, the depth of the Avalanche is just too much for the Stars to handle.  It’s a team effort from Colorado, with the blue line led by Teppo Numminen and summer free agent signing Gary Roberts easing the load on Keith Tkachuk and Shane Doan up front.

In the Eastern Conference, the Team USA reunion in Buffalo would not be denied.  Pat LaFontaine and Brett Hull combine with Miroslav Satan for a dominant forward unit.  Chris Chelios anchors the Sabres’ blue line.  To say nothing of Dominik Hasek.  The Sabres blow through the first three rounds with hardly a speedbump presented by the defending conference champion Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Stanley Cup Finals games are close but not many of them are needed.  The Avs simply can’t solve Hasek and the Sabres end the series in five games, claiming their first Stanley Cup Championship.

July 19, 2001
After months of rumors, Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux returns from retirement, signing with his hometown Montreal Canadiens.  Two months later, Saku Koivu relinquishes the team captaincy to Lemieux while announcing that he would miss the season recovering from non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Some notes…

As I said when I originally posted this, it’s pretty general and has some faults but I still think it’s interesting.

I had to cut it off in 2001 because it’s just too hard to see what players would be where by then.  It’s easy to assume that each team would mostly have it’s core intact six years after the point of departure but what draft picks would they have made?  I originally had a comment about Jiri Fischer learning from Vladimir Konstantinov but would the Red Wings have even picked Fischer in a 1998 where they have a higher draft pick?  Can I count on Maxim Afinogenov being part of the 2001 Stanley Cup Champion Sabres?

Additionally, by delaying expansion the entire 1998 draft is thrown into flux.  How would things look without a 27th team in 1998 impacting trades and free agency?  How would it look without that year’s expansion draft?  Do we have Vincent Lecavalier of the San Jose Sharks and David Legwand of the Tampa Bay Lightning?

With completely different organizations joining the fold in 1999 and 2000, who can say who they would pick?

We start seeing “butterflies” pretty quickly.  With no Roy-led Avalanche in 1996, there’s no one to stop the Red Wings.  With Osgood leading the Wings, Vernon becomes expendable and Coffey isn’t needed in the Shanahan trade (which, I admit, I mostly included because I still want Shanahan on the Red Wings).  Having won in 1996, the Red Wings have less motivation in 1997, and because they’re not celebrating a Cup that spring there’s no limo accident for Vladimir Konstantinov.

I don’t think you can prevent the Jets or the Whalers or the Nordiques from moving.  The original version of this timeline did but I don’t think the butterflies are that strong.  Karmanos wanted out of Hartford, one winning season on the back of Mike Vernon isn’t going to change that.  Meanwhile, losing Joe Sakic just proves to emphasize that there’s not enough money in Quebec to support the Nordiques.

Would the NHL actually delay expansion?  I think that might be the second-biggest stretch in this.  I imagine a lot of back-room handshake deals.  The delay enables Houston and Portland to improve their positions while Columbus drops out.

The biggest stretch is Raleigh getting an expansion team without bidding, especially with Turner in Atlanta denied.  This is akin to St. Louis getting the Blues in the Great Expansion.  My thought is that with no Raleigh-based bid, the league recruits Bill Davidson to own the team, preempting his efforts to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Would he want to do that without controlling the arena, though?

With butterflies to the schedule, Pat LaFontaine never suffers his concussions, leading him to continue as a dominant force.  The Rangers get Sakic so they don’t trade for him and the Sabres build around him with his Olympic teammates.

Another player who might be profoundly impacted by butterflies in this timeline is Steve Chiasson.  He won’t be playing for the Carolina Hurricanes in 1999, so the accident that killed him doesn’t happen.  That said, given his actions prior to that incident, it’s entirely possible some other event comes along.

The rise of the Jets/Avalanche comes on the back of Nikolai Khabibulin, who doesn’t hold out and get traded to Tampa Bay.  In fact, the Lightning are probably in a bad place since Bill Davidson owns the Hurricanes in this scenario.  Or maybe at some point Davidson pulls a Craig Leipold (who’s probably a co-owner of the Minnesota Northmen in this universe) and swaps the Hurricanes for the Lightning since he really wanted that arena.

Other teams in a bad place?  Without local ownership, the Hurricanes will probably have difficulty.  Assuming Atlanta’s ownership takes the same path it did in real life, the Thrashers won’t last long.  I see two of Winnipeg, Quebec, and Pittsburgh getting teams back, eventually.

One thing that could save the Thrashers: Captain Jaromir Jagr.  Theoretically these Thrashers don’t have to sell off their players like the Penguins did, so they should be able to rebound more quickly.  Would a better team in Atlanta have gotten more support?

The Scorpions?  Someone submitting an expansion bid for Phoenix with the Jets having gone to Denver.  Their future is tied to whoever that new owner is.  But they’re “Arizona” from the start because by the time they come into existence, the Arizona Diamondbacks are around and “Arizona” has become the place-name for Phoenix teams.

Is there a lockout in 2004?  I’m sure of it.  Do we get a Las Vegas expansion for 2017?  Probably.

Jaromir Jagr of the Atlanta Thrashers.  Joe Sakic of the New York Rangers.  Keith Tkachuk of the Colorado Avalanche.  Peter Forsberg of the Nashville Predators…  in 1998.  Alternate history is weird.

Anyway, this was fun to revisit.  If you’ve got any thoughts, feel free to post them in the comments.

Clark founded the site that would become DetroitHockey.Net in September of 1996. He continues to write for the site and executes the site's design and development, as well as that of DH.N's sibling site,

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