July 21 saw the greatest player in National Hockey League history sign on to play for one of its most historic franchises. Plus, a franchise-altering player signed his first-ever professional contract and some new head coaches were hired.
The Great One Opens on Broadway
Wayne Gretzky signed with the New York Rangers on July 21, 1996. This was the fourth and final team of his legendary NHL career. He is reunited with his former teammate Mark Messier, who he won four Stanley Cups with during their time together with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s.
Messier led the 1996-97 Rangers with 36 goals while Gretzky had a team-high 72 assists and 97 points during the regular season. The team advanced to the Eastern Conference Final before losing to the Philadelphia Flyers.
The following summer, Messier left and signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Gretzky remained with the Rangers for two more seasons. He scored 32 goals and 152 points, but the Rangers failed to qualify for the postseason in both 1998 and 1999. Gretzky retired following the 1998-99 season.
New Coaches Hired
On July 21, 1997, the Buffalo Sabres hired Lindy Ruff as their new head coach. He replaced Ted Nolan, who had won the Jack Adams Award, for being voted the best coach in the NHL, the previous season.
Ruff spent the next 15 seasons behind the Sabres bench, winning 571 games and taking them to the 1999 Stanley Cup Final. He was let go just 17 games into the lockout-shortened season of 2013. He was hired by the Dallas Stars, the team that beat the Sabres in the 1999 Final, prior to the 2013-14 season and head that job until 2017. He was recently named as the new head coach of the New Jersey Devils.
A year later, on July 21, 1998, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim named Craig Hartsburg as their new head coach. He was the third coach in franchise history, replacing Pierre Page. Hartsburg, who spent the previous three seasons as the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, led the Ducks to the postseason in his first season. They were swept in the first round by the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, Detroit Red Wings.
Hartsburg and Ducks missed the playoffs during the 1999-2000 season. He is dismissed 33 games into the 2000-01 season. Following his departure, he bounced between the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the NHL, where he was an assistant for the Flyers. He was named the head coach of the Ottawa Senators for the 2008-09 season, but was fired 48 games into the season. He is currently employed by the Columbus Blue Jackets after some time with the Calgary Flames and a head coaching stint Western Hockey League (WHL).
The Matthews Era Officially Begins
Auston Matthews signed his entry-level contract, on July 21, 2016, just a few weeks after being drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the first overall pick of the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. He was the first American-born player to be taken number one since the Blackhawks took Patrick Kane in 2007.
Matthews made an immediate impact by scoring four goals in his NHL debut, on Oct. 12, 2016, against the Ottawa Senators. He scored 40 goals and 69 points to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie. He had 47 goals when the 2019-20 season was put on pause in March, setting a new career-high.
Odds & Ends
Gerard Gallant signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Lightning on July 21, 1993. The move came after he played 563 games over the previous nine seasons with the Red Wings. He played in 51 games for the Lightning during the 1993-94 season, scoring four goals and 13 points. He played in just one NHL the following season, his last in the NHL as a player. Of course, Gallant has gone on to a successful coaching career with the Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes and Vegas Golden Knights.
On July 21, 1998, the Flames claimed veteran defenseman Phil Housley off of waivers from the Washington Capitals. This was Housley’s second stint with the Flames. He was originally acquired by them, in 1994, via a trade with the St. Louis Blues for Al MacInnis. He played the next three seasons in Calgary, scoring 26 goals and 143 points.
Ulf Dahlen was a veteran of 10 NHL seasons when he returned to play in his native Sweden in 1997. He returned to the NHL, at 32-years-old, on July 21, 1999, when he signed with the Capitals. He scored 53 goals and 138 points in 217 games over the next three seasons in Washington.
Happy Birthday to You
There is a total of 16 former NHL players who were born on July 21. There are no players born on this date on a current NHL roster.
Bill Flett, born on July 21, 1943, has the most goals of this group. He scored 202 goals 11 seasons with the Los Angeles Kings, Flyers, Maple Leafs, Atlanta Flames and Oilers.
Defenseman Phil Russell, who is turning 68 today, leads the July 21 birthday boys with 325 assists and 424 points. A former first-round pick by the Blackhawks in 1972, Russell’s career spanned 15 seasons with Chicago, the Flames (in both Atlanta and Calgary, the Devils and Sabres.
Fellow blueliner Lyle Odelein, born on this date in 1968, played in the most NHL games of the lot. The 1992 Stanley Cup winner played in 1,056 games over 16 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Devils, Phoenix Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Stars, Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Goaltender Cody Rudkowsky, born on July 21, 1978, played in just one NHL game for the Blues during the 2002-03 season. He did appear in nearly 300 professional games in the American Hockey League (AHL) and ECHL during his nine-season career.