The 1981 NHL Entry Draft featured a clear cut #1 draft pick. With two Memorial Cups, a Memorial Cup MVP, a scoring championship and a Canadian Junior Player of the Year Award, Dale Hawerchuk was such a decorated junior player that he was the obvious superstar to build a franchise around. That's exactly what the Winnipeg Jets did with the first pick.
Though The Hockey News draft preview rated him #7, the Los Angeles Kings went slightly off the board and made Doug Smith the 2nd overall pick. The Ottawa 67's speedster had practically no silverware in comparison to Hawerchuk or several other first rounders, which should have been an omen. Smith played 535 NHL games, but was mostly a utility forward.
The Washington Capitals traded up in the draft to land the much talked about Bobby Carpenter. Carpenter was the highest rated US hockey player to that point in history. Sports Illustrated was so high on the St. John's Prep high school student that they did a cover story on "The Can't Miss Kid." Carpenter would once score over 50 goals in Washington, but offensively he never really became the first American superstar. He reinvented himself into a terrific defensive player, and lasted in the league almost 1200 games.
One man who was terribly upset about Washington trading up to get Carpenter was Carpenter's father, Bob Sr. The policeman stormed out of the Montreal Forum visibly upset, for everyone expected Carpenter to end up with the hometown Hartford Whalers, who owned the 4th pick. History would smile on the Whalers ultimately, as they landed the face of the franchise in Ron Francis.
The Edmonton Oilers continued their masterful drafting. They landed Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson in 1979, and added Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Andy Moog in 1980. In 1981 they used their 8th overall selection to land none other than Grant Fuhr. In the sixth round they would add Steve Smith. He was actually the second Steve Smith to be drafted that day. Philadelphia took the other Steve Smith with the 16th overall pick in round one, but with only 18 games and just 1 assist, he proved to a draft dud.
Other notable 1st rounders included James Patrick, Garth Butcher, Mark Hunter, Tony Tanti, and Al MacInnis. A noteworthy European pick was Buffalo's decision to gamble at No. 17 and take Czechoslovakia's Jiri Dudacek. Unfortunately for Scotty Bowman and the Sabres, the formerly Communist Czech hockey federation never released Dudacek to play in North America. Still, Dudacek made history as the first Czech player picked in a first round.
This draft also produced Chris Chelios, the only active player from this draft. He was taken 40th by Montreal, after Montreal ultimately wasted higher picks on Jan Ingman and Lars Eriksson, both of whom never played in the NHL.
The European trend definitely continued in this draft, though not all would cross the Atlantic. Some notables who did include Jan Erixon, Hannu Virta, Peter Sundstrom, Kjell Dahlin, Petri Skriko, and Miloslav Horava.
It was a good draft for goalies. After Fuhr the likes of Mike Vernon, John Vanbiesbrouck, Peter Sidorkiewicz, Wendell Young, Clint Malarchuk, and Greg Stefan
Some bigger names found in later rounds include Dean Kennedy, Paul MacDermid, Gerard Gallant, Bruce Driver, Marc Habscheid, Mike Eagles, Tom Kurvers, Rick Zombo, Gaetan Duchesne, and Dave Hannan.
A very embarrassing moment came in the 3rd round when Philadelphia selected Barry Tabodondung, a winger from Oshawa who never made it to the NHL. Tabobondung was so excited to hear his name called that he tried to hurdle a Montreal Forum chair in order to get out onto the draft floor. Unfortunately, his foot slipped through the chair and got caught. Arena workers had to take the chair apart to free.
One other notable player was drafted in 1981. With the 64th pick, the Winnipeg Jets selected a center from the University of Vermont. The center was born in Kapuskasking, Ontario, but was unique in that he grew up in Nashville, Memphis, Vancouver, Phoenix and Los Angeles before settling in Phoenix, Arizona. The following season, 1981-82, he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker award as the best player in US College hockey, and would even play one season of professional hockey in the minor leagues. But he was a multi sport star, notably good at soccer and baseball. He was so good at baseball that he would ultimately walk away from the ice and pitch in the major leagues. His name: Kirk McCaskill