1980-81 seemed to be characterized by shifts of power. Powerhouses from the ‘70s such as LA and Minnesota found themselves beginning to drop in the standings, while clubs like Washington, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and the defending champion California Nuggets found their way to the top. Now two years removed from their impressive dynasty, the LA Wizards dropped to second place in the Pacific Division for the first time since 1973, finishing just one point behind California, who took first place in the Pacific thanks to a 100-point effort from Captain Dennis Yates. Seattle returned to the post-season while Edmonton struggled, losing ten in a row in March to drop out of playoff contention. David Appleby enjoyed an incredible season that saw him score 63 goals thanks in large part to Niklas Ekberg’s 77 assists. On the strength of the dynamic duo, the Spirits won the league regular season title for the first time in franchise history, just edging out California by two points for the top spot. In Chicago, Vladimir Gaganov enjoyed a very successful sophomore year, scoring 48 goals to lead the club in scoring once again as the Shamrocks took second place in the Central. Denver also made a push for the division title as the Central Division proved to be arguably the toughest in the league. Minnesota keenly felt the loss of their longtime captain Guy Dupont. Despite a solid effort in goal from Bobby Sorel, the aging Lumberjacks dropped all the way to fourth place in the Central Division, while Dallas dropped back out of the playoffs after a disappointing 24-win season.
The 1980-81 season also saw a few big rivalries develop. After meeting in the playoffs twice in the previous three years, things were getting tense between the Pittsburgh Stingers and Washington Generals. Things boiled over in a home-and-home series on December 19 and 20 when Pittsburgh’s Nate Carroll delivered a vicious elbow to the head of Washington’s Tommy McGuire. Carroll was suspended for five games but the Generals still wasted no time going after the Stingers in Washington December 20. Several fights broke out and even Danny Stevenson got involved when he fought defenseman Joe Kelly in his first career fight. There would be more incidents like this between the two teams throughout the year, but the rivalry still would not equal the lengths the Ottawa Beavers and Toronto Racers rivalry escalated to. All year, as usual, the two teams played each other hard and nasty, even chirping each other off the ice and to the media. But on February 2, the intensity found a whole new level. Three nights earlier, Ottawa defenseman Ben Stewart caught Toronto’s Pasi Villanen with a devastating hit that knocked the young Fin out for three games. After a few more questionable hits from Ottawa players, Toronto coach Dave Mills called out the Beavers for their dirty play, calling them “a bunch of cavemen.” When the Racers visited the Beavers on February 2, much of the Ottawa crowd came dressed as cavemen, carrying plastic clubs and bones. When Toronto put the game out of reach, the fans began to litter the ice with the props while the on-ice officials struggle to maintain order on the ice as several fights broke out. Finally, afraid the benches would clear, the officials decided to end the game, giving it to the Racers. Needless to say, the decision was not a popular one with the Ottawa fans, who began to litter the ice even more. On March 1, the rivalry finally culminated with a heavyweight fight between Ottawa captain Casey Beckett and Toronto enforcer Rex Hull at the Queen Elizabeth Arena. Ottawa would eventually get the better of the Racers, finishing second in the Division with 91 points.
While the rest of the Eastern Conference teams were beating up on each other, the veteran-heavy Montreal Royal enjoyed another strong year. Most of the Royale’s success came from a big year from 12-year vet Emmett Husdson, who scored 44 goals and a total 128 points in his best season ever. In the Atlantic, Washington would need only 38 wins to claim the division, thanks mostly to their 14 ties. This made them the first team since the 1973 Calgary Wranglers to win a division with less than 40 wins. Philadelphia, after some disastrous seasons at the end of the 70s, finally returned to the playoffs, While Boston struggled once again as they continued their rebuild with a stunning move, trading longtime captain Johnny Bedford to Calgary in exchange for top prospect Justin Brady at the trade deadline. Although the fans were upset, Boston Management defended the move saying Brady would be an important piece in the rebuild and a player who could potentially play a full-time role the following season. Meanwhile Calgary now felt they had a veteran player in Bedford who gave them an enormous boost heading into what figured to be a very intriguing post-season.