PHT All-Star Time Machine: Gordie Howe’s fight, Sandis Ozolinsh trade
Throughout the season we will be taking an occasional look back at some significant moments in NHL history. This is the PHT Time Machine. Today we look back at a couple of truly bizarre and strange NHL All-Star Game moments.
The NHL All-Star Game has taken on many forms throughout its existence. There is the current 3-on-3 divisional format that we have now. There was the short-lived by sometimes absurd fantasy draft spectacle. We also had more traditional conference vs. conference setup, and the sometimes easily forgotten North America vs. The World format that was held between 1998 and 2002.
Most of those formats have come over the past 25 years as the league has tried anything and everything to spice up a game that really hasn’t had much intrigue on the ice.
In the early days, the game had plenty of spice on its own and a format that was completely different from even any of the modern ones.
[Related: Gretzky to Lemieux, the ‘called shot’, and the ’97 NHL All-Star Game]
The NHL first started playing an annual All-Star game during the 1947-48 season and instead of featuring two teams of the league’s best players going against one another, it featured one team of All-Stars (comprised of the league’s end of season first-and second-team All-Stars that were voted on from the year before) competing against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
It was also played before the season, and not in the middle of it.
That format went mostly unchanged until the NHL expanded in 1967 with two exceptions -- in 1951 and 1952 the NHL’s first and second team All-Stars from the previous year played against one another. When both of those games ended in a tie (which did not please fans), the league went back to the original All-Stars vs. Stanley Cup champions format.
Those games were interesting, and despite some early dominance from the All-Star side the Stanley Cup winners held their own against the league’s best by winning seven games of the 19 matchups, with three ties mixed in. They were also competitive and physical.
Fights sometimes happened
In today’s All-Star Game there is almost no physical contact, anything even resembling defense is basically frowned upon, penalties are almost unheard of and go years without happening, and the idea of two players actually dropping the gloves and fighting in one is completely preposterous.
But when we’re talking about 1940s and 1950s hockey we’re talking about an entirely different era of sports when players were just simply wired differently. Not better. Not worse. Just different. This game was taken seriously and was played more like an actual hockey game instead of an exhibition of skill and a celebration of the game’s best talent.
Players were sometimes out for blood. Literally.
In the second ever All-Star Game in 1948 (featuring the NHL All-Stars vs. the Toronto Maple Leafs) there was a doozy of a confrontation between Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe and rugged Maple Leafs defensemen Gus Mortson.
Howe’s style of play is well known and his name is synonymous with “old school hockey, but if you are unfamiliar with Mortson just consider that he was the second most penalized player in the NHL between 1946 and 1959 (the span of his career in the league) and was nicknamed “Old Hardrock.”
In the second period the two players squared off in wild fight that continued in the penalty box (there was only one penalty box at the time that both teams shared) until officials decided to have them serve their penalties on their respective benches just to separate them ... in an All-Star game.
This was not the only actual fight in an All-Star Game.
A few years later in the 1953 game, a 3-1 win for the All-Stars over the Montreal Canadiens, Bert Olmstead and Red Kelly fought in a game that featured 11 penalties!
The Sandis Ozolinsh game
Moving forward to a more recent generation, I think my favorite All-Star Game story might center around the 2003 game (the return of the conference vs. conference format following the North America vs. The World experiment) because of what happened with defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh.
It is truly one of the most bonkers All-Star stories you will ever get.
The situation: The Florida Panthers were hosting the 2003 game and despite a down year on the ice had two representatives in the game, including Ozolinsh who was voted into the game as an Eastern Conference starter (Olli Jokinen was their other player in the game).
At the time, Ozolinsh was one of the NHL’s elite offensive defensemen and a bonafide All-Star due to his play with the puck. He was tremendous and received more votes than every player in the Eastern Conference that season except for Pittsburgh Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.
Keep all of this mind, because it is worth repeating: A team going nowhere that season, hosting the All-Star Game, with one of the starters voted into the lineup for what might have been one of the few highlights of the year. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Then, just two days before the game, the Panthers traded Ozolinsh to the Anaheim Ducks for a return that included Matt Cullen (who is still playing in the NHL today), Pavel Trnka, and a draft pick.
This, obviously, created an unbelievable storyline around the game. Just look at the sub-head from the Palm-Beach Post during the All-Star weekend.
Of course something like this involved Mike Keenan, who was coaching the Panthers at the time.
Once the trade was completed there was still the matter of what should happen with Ozolinsh who was now no longer a member of the Florida Panthers or the Eastern Conference.
Ozolinsh considered sitting out the game entirely but opted to play, but only after skipping the skills competition the previous night.
Again, from the Palm-Beach Post...
The other factor in skipping the skills competition is that he would have had to have worn a team jersey, and since he was still a member of the Eastern Conference team and voted in as a member of the Panthers he would have had to have worn a Panthers jersey. He did not want to wear a jersey of a team he was no longer a part of. That was not an issue during the game when teams simply wore uniforms with the NHL emblem and not their team.
When Ozolinsh was introduced before the game he received a thunderous applause from the crowd and ended up playing more minutes than any other player in the game.
Adding to the mayhem was the fact that Ozolinsh and his wife had just closed on a house in Florida ... the morning of the trade.
It the end, it ended up working out well for Ozolinsh as he went to Anaheim and played a huge role on a Ducks team that made a run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.
As for the Panthers and Iron Mike? They won 24 games that year and Keenan was fired 15 games into the 2003-04 season, ending what was a mostly disastrous run with the team over parts of three seasons.
Previous PHT Time Machines:
• Remembering the Jaromir Jagr Trade Nobody Won
• When the Blues skipped the NHL draft
• Expansion teams build Montreal dynasty
• The 1991 Dispersal Draft and Birth of the San Jose Sharks
• The Eric Lindros Trade That Did Not Happen
• The Mighty Ducks and the most insane pregame introduction ever
• When the Detroit Red Wings’ Russian Five was not celebrated
• Paul Holmgren’s crazy year of Philadelphia Flyers blockbusters
• Remembering the Nassau Coliseum Santa Brawl