For nearly 50 years the NHL operated largely on a first come first serve basis when it came to clubs acquiring new talent from the amateur levels. Most franchises had a team of scouts that would scour the minor leagues looking for the next great player and when they found him all they had to do was simply convince the kid’s parents to agree to a sponsorship-level contract. This contract would give the team sole rights to the player once they assigned him to one of their sponsored junior squads. As such, teams would sponsor numerous clubs so that they had plenty of teams available to assign players to and a constant stream of talent to pick from.
In theory this does not seem like that bad of a system (aside from the obvious balance issue in which good teams could still acquire the best talent without losing anything). However, one rule stipulated that each team had exclusive rights to negotiate contracts with players found within 50 miles of its home ice. This obviously provided a great competitive advantage to Canadian teams, as the vast majority of players during this time hailed from Canada, many of them from within the 50-mile limit of Toronto or Montreal. In contrast, teams in New York and Boston had very little quality talent emerging from their respective 50-mile limits. While all teams were free to make offers to players not within one of the 50-mile limits, this wasn’t enough to create an even playing field.
Therefore in 1963 the NHL Amateur Draft was established. This was done, in the words of NHL President Clarence Campbell, to create “a uniform opportunity for each team to acquire a star player”. Teams would now take turns selecting draft eligible players one at a time. Each selection would give that team exclusive junior priority rights to the player and they could then assign that player to one of their tryout schools or to a junior club that they sponsored.
However, the institution of the draft did not have an immediate impact due to the talent pool being immensely poor in the beginning. This was because of the fact that any player that had already been sponsored by an NHL club under the old method was ineligible and their rights remained with the club that sponsored them. Not only that, sponsorship still existed so it was rare for a highly talented player to not get sponsored before reaching draft eligible age. Due to this poor talent pool each of the first six drafts lasted only 3 or 4 rounds and teams weren’t even required to make all their selections. For instance, in 1965 the Toronto Maple Leafs elected not to participate at all.
In 1968 the NHL abolished direct sponsorship of junior hockey as a way to improve the dispersal of talent in wake of expansion doubling the number of teams. The 1969 Amateur Draft was the first to see the outcome of this as the number of rounds immediately jumped to 10, making it the first draft to resemble that which you see today. The following draft in 1970 would be the first to feature selections of multiple future Hall of Fame players, such as Gilbert Perreault and Darryl Sittler, with each consecutive draft continuing this trend.
From there the draft remained largely unchanged until 1979, at which point it was renamed the NHL Entry Draft. The following year would bear witness to the first draft opened to the public as roughly 2,500 fans were in attendance at the Montreal Forum. Since then the draft has grown to become an eagerly anticipated event that’s televised internationally to a legion of fans hoping to catch their first glimpse of hockey’s next star.
The importance of the draft itself cannot be understated and therefore it was the easy choice for Best Structural Rule Change. Unlike some other changes, it didn’t have an immediate impact due to complications in the beginning, but it eventually did create a level playing field for all teams when it came to acquiring the necessary young talent to build a competitive franchise. It also created an increase in trade activity throughout the league as no longer were players simply being traded for other players, but also for the opportunity to draft the next superstar. Also, unlike some other changes, it did not have any major negative impacts on the league to go along with the positive.
For a long time now many NHL teams have had trouble luring top talent to their clubs through free agency and trades, either because of poor geographical location, poor ownership/management, poor performance history, or some combination of these factors. Just imagine how much worse this would be if teams were simply allowed to sign any young prospect they felt like once he reached a certain age. The great teams would always remain great, the rich teams would get richer, and the poor teams, both financially and on the ice, would almost certainly be stuck that way forever. The NHL Entry Draft may not be perfect in achieving a competitive balance among all franchises, but it most definitely does so better than anything else at present.