It was a year of tragedy, triumph and, OK, a few unwanted licks. The 2018 calendar year was truly memorable in the hockey world.
To commemorate, here’s a glance back at the 12 moments that shaped it:
Too close for comfort
Hockey is a grueling sport involving physicality, slippery ice, sharp blades and, sometimes, gnarly facial hair. That combination can lead to some humorous, if not grotesque, highlights. The 2017-18 NHL season brought us two incidents in which something unsavory (chunks of beard, saliva) became the focal point.
The first came in January, when Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri grabbed a chunk out of one of the sports’ most iconic beards (the orange and gray bushel belonging to Joe Thornton) in a scrum. The plucked bundle rolled along the ice like a tumbleweed before it was bagged up by the training staff.
The next incident came during the Stanley Cup playoffs, when Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand just couldn’t stop licking his opponents (Toronto’s Leo Komarov and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Callahan were the slimy recipients). There was no discipline, though Marchand eventually stopped after the league called and reminded him that the playground tactic was unacceptable and, well, pretty gross.
U.S. women win Olympic gold
For the U.S. women’s national team, 2017 was all about fighting for equal treatment. Then 2018 was all about catharsis on the ice. In Pyeongchang, South Korea, the U.S. women overcame their Olympic hump and finally beat rival Canada in the gold-medal game. It was the U.S. women’s first Olympic gold in 20 years.
Goaltender Maddie Rooney — who was 20 years old herself — had a breakout performance in the tournament, though naturally, the final came down to a shootout. That’s when Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson deployed a sick deke, a move she called “Oops I Did It Again,” for the winner. The goal looked slicker with every rewatch, and will live forever in hockey lore:
It was a year to forget for the Chicago Blackhawks, who missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade and then in November dismissed coach Joel Quenneville, who led the franchise to three Stanley Cups.
But March 29, the team was cause celebre in the entire NHL, and gave its fan base a reason to cheer. That’s when Scott Foster, a 36-year-old accountant/beer-leaguer and father of two, enjoyed 14 minutes’ and seven saves’ worth of viral fame when he was called upon as an emergency goalie and shut out the high-octane Winnipeg Jets to seal a win. It was a tale almost too absurd to be true, and of course, it happened right in the heat of tax season.
On April 6, the Humboldt Broncos — a team of 16- to 21-year-olds in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League — were en route to a playoff game when their bus crashed with a truck carrying peat moss. Sixteen people died and 13 others were injured, including several players who were left paralyzed.
The tragedy reverberated across the hockey community because those long bus trips are ubiquitous in the sport. A GoFundMe campaign collecting funds for those affected raised more than $15 million in less than two weeks, with more than 140,000 people donating from more than 80 countries.
The Golden Knights set the new standard for expansion franchises, and also left other leagues with a blueprint for how a professional franchise can thrive in a city with endless distractions. Vegas opened the season with 500-to-1 odds to win the Stanley Cup. Improbably, the Golden Knights won the Western Conference and were one series away from becoming the first expansion team in the NHL, MLB, NBA or NFL since the 1950 Cleveland Browns to win a championship in its inaugural season.
The team banded behind a self-appointed nickname, the Golden Misfits, as it captured the imagination of underdogs everywhere while galvanizing an overlooked community that was hungry for a team to call its own, one which helped Las Vegas cope with a horrific tragedy that took place on the eve of the season.
Alex Ovechkin was at risk of carrying the label of the greatest hockey player to never win a Stanley Cup. Then 2018 happened.
In his age-32 season, Ovechkin was a menace, scoring a league-high 49 regular-season goals, then added 15 more in the postseason as the Capitals won the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 43-year history. After many near-misses — including nearly a decade of postseason heartbreaks at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins — Ovechkin and the Caps exorcised their demons.
Then, they partied hard (like, really hard) with one of the booziest, most fan-accessible celebrations in recent memory, reminding us all that if you work really hard and wait long enough, the deferred gratification is totally worth it.
Growing up, John Tavares was just a kid who loved his hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. His hockey career took him elsewhere — mostly to the New York Islanders, the team that drafted him and named him captain, and appointed him the face of the franchise. But when the 27-year-old reached free agency this summer, he opted to do what few hockey players in their prime dare: test the market.
Sure, it turned into a spectacle at times (with reporters camped out outside of his agent’s Los Angeles offices as teams swooped in to make their pitch), but in the end, it was a heartwarming tale as the gravitational pull of home was too intense to ignore.
Tavares is still shining, even with extra scrutiny, and his move could serve as a blueprint for future free agents to consider truly exercising their right to choose.
Karlsson is a two-time Norris Trophy winner and perhaps the best defenseman to ever play for the Ottawa Senators. In 2018, unfortunately, he became the casualty of a franchise beset by dysfunction.
After months of speculation — including a nasty period where his wife, Melinda, was involved in a cyberbullying scandal involving the fiancee of teammate Mike Hoffman — the Swede was traded to the Sharks just before training camp. The blockbuster deal involved six players and up to three draft picks, and ended a sad saga where the franchise was unable to sign the 28-year-old to a long-term deal (though, depending on who you ask, the Senators perhaps never put in a truly earnest effort to do so).
Tom Wilson receives a 20-game suspension
The discipline was eventually reduced to 14 games by a neutral arbitrator, but the sentencing (for a preseason hit to the head of St. Louis’ Oskar Sundqvist) was the culmination of a year when the 24-year-old Capitals winger received plenty of attention from the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
The Sundqvist discipline was the fourth suspension for Wilson since September 2017 and included a three-game ban in the playoffs. Wilson, a skilled forward who often plays on Washington’s top line with Ovechkin, cemented himself as one of the most divisive players in the league in 2018 by toeing the line between physicality and danger so often. In 2019, we’ll find out of he can stay true to his pledge to “be smart out there” and “play within the rules.”
You thought you’d make it through a year-end list without the mention of one hairy, orange creature with googly eyes? Think again.
The Flyers unveiled their new mascot, Gritty, in September to mixed reaction. OK, that was for the first few hours. Then the city of Philadelphia (and really, everyone else) warmed up to the goofy, big, orange creature in a big way. As was the intention when he was created, he has emerged as something you want to high-five, but probably not hug.
Gritty’s popularity exploded and truly transcended hockey, including appearances on “Good Morning America,” late-night TV and a classic John Oliver segment. Among his many year-end awards, Gritty was named one of 2018’s “Few Good Men” by the prestigious New Yorker magazine.
On Nov. 27, the Sabres defeated the Sharks 3-2 for their league-leading 36th point. That made Buffalo the first NHL team ever to finish the previous season with the worst record and then lead the NHL outright in points after 25 games the next season, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. The victory was part of a 10-game winning streak that highlighted Buffalo’s resurgence.
The Sabres were everyone’s favorite sleeper team this preseason, thanks to general manager Jason Botterill‘s busy offseason, which included shipping away top players such as Ryan O’Reilly, acquiring a ton of depth players and a top-line winger for Jack Eichel in Jeff Skinner, and of course, landing Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick.
Next up for the Sabres in 2019? Maintaining pace and qualifying for the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Seattle awarded an NHL team
Upping its expansion price by 30 percent to $650 million (up from the $500 million Vegas paid) the NHL announced its intentions to round out to 32 teams with the addition of Seattle for the 2021-22 season. Seattle has a rich hockey history: The Seattle Metropolitans of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association were the first U.S. team to win the Stanley Cup, in 1917.
The NHL is expected to thrive in Seattle, one of America’s fastest-growing cities, especially with $800 million being spent to renovate KeyArena, and thousands already putting down season-ticket deposits. Of course, many in Seattle would like for the NBA to return as well, but one step at a time.