“It’s not okay to lose. You don’t make it to that level by accepting losing easily.”
The hockey world knows Jamie Baker as the color analyst on NBC Sports California. San Jose Sharks fans know him as the Game 7 hero against the Detroit Red Wings in 1994. But before each of those recognitions, he was a member of the original Ottawa Senators who came into the NHL in 1992.
“You know when you go for a run?” Baker explained. “It’s one thing when everything is flat. When you hit a pretty good size hill, it slows you down and takes a lot out of you. That’s kind of what it’s like. There’s no flat area and you’re never going downhill at all.”
That’s what being part of an expansion team in the National Hockey League can be like. That first season in existence, the Senators were an atrocious 10-70-4, including an NHL record 38-game road losing streak.
“I tried to keep a positive attitude as much as possible,” Baker said about the ordeal. “But I wasn’t walking in with my pom-poms saying ‘C’mon guys! We’re gonna win this one tonight!’ There is some reality to what’s going on. Guys are frustrated.”
The Vegas Golden Knights will drop the puck on their inaugural season this October and, if history is any indication of the future, they’ll struggle mightily. No team to enter the League in the Expansion Era has ever earned a record above .500. Matter of fact, the combined records of every expansion team in their first year since 1967 is 477-955-203-11, good for a .355 win percentage.
In other words, rarely competitive.
“When you’re going to an expansion team, ultimately, you know you’re not going to compete for a Stanley Cup,” Baker said. “You know that. In Las Vegas, it would be a huge year for them if they could just make the playoffs.”
He isn’t wrong. Excluding 1967, when the NHL doubled in size thanks to six new franchises, no expansion team has ever made the playoffs in its first year. Matter of fact, only Anaheim (1993-94) and Nashville (1998-99) have finished as high as fourth (in their division) in their inaugural season.
“The Stanley Cup is great but it’s not meant for all of us,” original Nashville Predator Rob Valicevic said. “Every player has his own situation. Some of us are climbing ladders. Some of us are coming down.”
As a 27-year old, Valicevic had played several years of pro hockey but all in the minors. With expansion Nashville in 1998, he wasn’t looking for a Cup. He was just looking for a chance to play in the NHL.
“I don’t know how many people can imagine but I’m just making the NHL and my roommate is Cliff Ronning,” he recalled with a smile. “When he talked to me as a person, that made me feel welcome. I knew I’d never be Cliff Ronning but for him to accept me and pull me in? It wasn’t about him, it was about us. It wasn’t that he played 1,500 games in the NHL. I was on the same page as him.”
That comradery gave him the confidence he needed to become a full-time NHL player with Nashville. Valicevic would go onto register the first hat trick in franchise history in 1999.
“I felt it was important that the older guys set the tone in practice and Barry Trotz was very good at keeping us humble and making us realize we had to work extra hard,” Ronning said. “You’re in a situation where the League might not take you seriously and other teams might not either so playing hard every shift was very important. I know I tried to do that a lot.”
Ronning would lead the Preds in scoring all four seasons he was a part of the franchise.
“The scariest part of an expansion team is if you get in a drought of 10, 12 or 14 losses in a row,” Ronning said. “The big clubs start feeding off of that and you become a circle on their calendar. They come ready for you because they know they need those two points. That’s the biggest fear. You want to stay as consistent as you can.”
In October of 1998, when he was acquired from the Phoenix Coyotes, Ronning was 33 years old and coming out of the prime of his career. He had tasted success with the Vancouver Canucks just four seasons prior when they took the New York Rangers to seven games in the Cup Final but came up a goal short and would now be starting over on an expansion team.
So how does a veteran player deal with that reality?
“A lot of us thought we had been passed over and had something to prove, that we belonged in the League,” he said. “Also, there are always players playing on the third and fourth line that could be on a first or second who want to prove themselves.”
Kelly Kisio was 32 years old when he became an original San Jose Shark via the Expansion Draft back in 1991.
“I was in a situation in New York where I was the captain of the Rangers and actually didn’t know I was being made available,” Kisio said. “So, when the news that I’d been selected hit, it hit me pretty hard.”
Not a good start, especially for a veteran seeking a player’s ultimate goal: a Stanley Cup.
“That first year, you’re a little down,” Kisio said. “You realize you’re going to a team that’s starting from scratch and will slowly make their way while you’re kinda nearing the end of your career. It was a little unnerving for a while. But, once you got there and saw the hype around the team and the fans, it was a pretty neat experience for sure.”
The Sharks became the 21st team in the NHL and the first new club since 1974. So, essentially, everyone was learning as they went.
“Expansion teams are always tough,” Tony Hrkac, Kisio’s teammate on that original Sharks club, said. “Especially then. That was the first one [since the 70’s]. Not a lot of people knew how to navigate through a year like that.”
For all the challenges they faced as the first expansion team in 18 years (a 17-58-5 record, playing in a building 50 years old, etc.) they did get one thing right from the outset: the team colors.
“Most every place we went, you saw a sea of teal in the stands,” Kisio remembered. “We were in the exhibition season that first year and we were in Quebec. For some reason, we made a tour across Canada and we were out in Baie-Comeau playing a neutral site game. There had to have been 300 teal jerseys in the stands. It was incredible.”
Like Vegas in 2017, San Jose in 1991 was a non-traditional hockey market. The NHL knew it couldn’t just put a team out west and hope it would thrive. A lot of hard work and outside-the-box thinking was required in order to ensure the best chance for success.
“A lot of people had no idea what a puck felt like,” Kisio recalled. “So we’d do stuff as far as showing people different aspects of the game like shots and how hard the puck was. Our outreach efforts were what I expected. I’d been around long enough to know that going into a market like that there were going to be some growing pains.”
“It caught on really well in San Jose but, yeah, there was unique promotion,” he said. “Sometimes you were going to grocery stores to sign autographs. Other teams don’t really need to do that.”
Nashville, another non-traditional market at the time of its inception, grew the game in similar ways.
“David Poile was smart, getting the team out into the community,” Ronning said. “The players he had on his team really understood that it was about grass roots. Getting to the young kids and really being out there, going to the hospitals, helping out with charities and getting involved in the community so, eventually, we would start seeing kids play. That was our main goal and I remember, about six months in, me and [Tom] Fitzgerald were driving and saw kids playing road hockey. We both looked at each other and said ‘here we go!’”
To this day, Ronning remains extremely proud of what he helped build in Music City. Vegas has a chance to foster that same growth.
“It’s an original group of guys here and you’ve got to be proud of something new,” Kisio, now a scout for the Golden Knights, said. “They get to be part of building a culture here in Vegas and a culture that you hope you’re proud of by the time you leave.”
By the time they leave. That’s the key for some guys. Veteran guys, mainly. History suggests they have little to no chance of hoisting Lord Stanley in Vegas those first few years. So, if you’re a veteran player seeking your first Cup like James Neal or Clayton Stoner or Deryk Engelland, what is your mentality like this first season?
“If you only have a couple years left, you could get picked up by a team that’s going to the playoffs and goes for a long run,” Hrkac said. “There’s always that hope.”
Hrkac knows that first hand. In February of that first Sharks season, he was dealt to the Chicago Blackhawks who would go onto appear in the Cup Final that year.
“When you’re playing, you know that scouts from other teams are watching you,” Baker said. “Guys talk about it, your agent tells you about it, so you’re always trying to showcase yourself a little bit. If your team doesn’t want you, you want other teams to. That’s the case with Las Vegas. They picked guys just to move them for other assets. The young guys they took in the draft, they’re looking for a long career in Vegas. Other guys’ mindsets are to showcase themselves for another team and get traded at the deadline.”
For the younger guys and the fringe guys, the non-contender pill is a little easier to swallow. Mainly because their goal is to simply stick around.
“We were playing for jobs,” Hrkac recalled about the tough times. “You want to keep playing in this League, the best league in the world. Some guys probably didn’t, got down on themselves and found themselves on the outside looking in. There were definitely times when the team wasn’t doing well but you knew you had to go out there and either block a shot or make a hit just try to stay in the League.”
The moral of the story? If you want to be an NHL player, you have to do what it takes. Win or lose.
“There gets to a point halfway through the season where you want to be a good team player and everything but it’s self-survival,” Baker said. “You’re just trying to stay in the League at that point. When you know your team’s not going to make the playoffs, you know your team’s not winning and you know your team’s not that good, it’s up to you to go out and perform your best every single game. That’s the circumstance you’re in and that’s what you can control. I wanted to play full time in the NHL so I went to the rink every day doing whatever I could. I had a decent career and part of the reason is because of the ice time and the opportunity I got in Ottawa.”
An interesting and often overlooked subculture on expansion rosters is how career AHL players trying to become career NHL players are both rooting for and against their own teammates.
“You’re competing against the guy beside you,” Baker explained. “I’m competing with him because he wants ice time and I want ice time. It doesn’t do me any good if we win the game but I only get two or three minutes of ice time. At some point, I’m going to get replaced and end up in the minors. That’s what makes the dynamic of team sports so interesting. You have to play for yourself, you have to play well, but once you know you’ve established yourself on the team, that’s when then the wins, playing for everyone else and making others better comes into play.”
At the end of the day, regardless of what the future holds for each player on the Vegas roster, each should embrace the unique opportunity to be a part of the original fabric of a National Hockey League team. After all, it’s only happened ten times in the past 42 years.
“Whether you want to stay in Vegas or want to play in another city, you have motivation to do your best,” Baker said. “You can’t change the past but you can learn from it. You can’t control the future but you can certainly prepare for it. Put the focus on the moment and enjoy the journey. If you can do those three things, you’ll make the best of it.”
Welcome to the world of major league sports, Las Vegas. On this year of the Predators’ 20th anniversary, the city of Nashville wishes you the best in your first.