The Vegas Golden Knights are Stanley Cup champions. Original “golden misfit” Jonathan Marchessault claimed Conn Smythe honors over his old team, the Florida Panthers. Marchessault is the first undrafted player to win the Conn Smythe since NHL all-time scoring leader turned TNT Broadcaster Wayne Gretzky.
Wait, that can’t be right. The NHL’s all-time leader in goals, points, and assists who more than earned the title the “great one” went undrafted? Surely there must be a story behind this. There’s no way there’s no explanation for what would have been the greatest draft blunder in any sport ever.
Jonathan Marchessault is the first undrafted player to win the Conn Smythe trophy since Wayne Gretzky. Here’s the interesting story how the “Great One” took a different road to the NHL.
“Maybe the draft didn’t exist when Gretzky started”, you might be thinking, but you would be wrong. The first NHL entry draft was held in 1963. Gretzky began his professional hockey career in 1978.
Notice we said “professional;” hockey career and not “NHL” career because that’s where the explanation behind Gretzky’s undrafted status. Most hockey fans with some historical knowledge of the game know that in the 1970’s there was another professional hockey league that challenged the NHL. The World Hockey Association existed from 1971-1979 before four of their teams merging into the NHL.
One of the legacies of the “rebel league” was how it stole talent away from the NHL. Bobby Hull was the biggest name to defect, and the most famous example. Gretzky also chose the WHA over the NHL, but not for a reason you might think. Back then the NHL wouldn’t allow any player to sign a contract before they turned 20 years old. The WHA technically had no minimum age to sign a contract. That means the WHA was the only major professional option for the 17 year old Gretzky when he signed with the Indianapolis Racers June 12, 1978. Under then NHL rules, he wouldn’t have been able to be drafted until 1981.
The Racers were a financial dumpster fire and that’s part of the reason why Gretzky was traded to the Edmonton Oilers (also in the WHA at the time) where he stayed when the Oilers entered the NHL in 1979. The NHL saw what the WHA did in stealing established talent and signing top young talent and lowered their minimum age so players wouldn’t have to stay in the juniors until their age 20 season. Those underage players in the WHA were forced into the 1979 NHL entry draft. Gretzky had signed a 10 year personal services contract on his 18th birthday so the NHL made an exception but moved Edmonton down to the last team in the draft order.
So why did Wayne Gretzky go undrafted? Because he was already under contract in the WHA. “But KHL players get drafted in the NHL, isn’t that the same thing”, you might be thinking, and the answer is kind of, but not really. Now the NHL draft has ways to deal with players who might not immediately make the jump to the NHL and might spend a few seasons still overseas, or in college, etc. The WHA was a direct threat to the NHL, and the NHL had almost a monopoly over the way the junior to NHL talent pipeline was done before the WHA shook things up.
Marchessault went undrafted in the traditional sense, being passed over by all then 30 teams in all seven rounds of the 2011 NHL draft. He signed with the Connecticut Whale of the AHL for the 2011-2012 season before signing a three year entry level NHL contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets the next year. Ironically, the first NHL draft Marchessault was selected in was the 2017 expansion draft when he was sent to Vegas.