October 29, 2020

Hockey Trade Rumors From The Past: Wayne Gretzky, Cam Neely and Patrick Roy

 The 2020 hockey book season is in full swing, even if the 2020-21 NHL season is not. I guess if we are forced to isolate during a global virus pandemic and can't watch hockey, reading about it is the next best thing.

I have been fully enjoying two books in particular - Brian Burke's autobiography Burke's Law and Serge Savard's authorized biography Forever Canadien.

Both authors were once powerful general managers on the hockey scene, and privy to more inside information than anyone. And, of course, they spill a few beans for us.

Each drops bombshell trade details on trades involving the Vancouver Canucks that never happened. While the two key superstars at the center of the trade details did eventually get moved, apparently the Canucks either had or they offered alternatives to the massive trade.

Let's start with Burke. 

Now if you may remember, there was a guy named Wayne Gretzky who was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings back in 1988, forever re-shaping hockey history in countless ways. Just to refresh your memory, the Oilers trade Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings in exchange for $15 million (US), three first round picks, the just-drafted-in-first-round Martin Gelinas and Jimmy Carson.

Now the Kings were headhunting Gretzky and most teams were not even in on the bidding war. But the one franchise that somehow was was the lowly Vancouver Canucks. This isn't exactly new information, as it has been long accepted that they were somehow involved. Arthur Griffiths confirmed this some time ago, even talking about how they would make Gretzky part owner. But the precise details of the proposed trade haven't come out until now with Burke's new book.

Brian Burke had just arrived in Vancouver a year earlier, apprenticing under the great Pat Quinn. Burke tells us the details though he does not really get into too many details about how the talks came to be. We are left to assume that the trade talks were directly between owners Peter Pocklington and the Griffiths family, just like it was Pocklington and Bruce McNall doing all the talking involving LA. After all, ask any Edmonton Oilers fan and they will confirm that the Gretzky trade was not so much a trade but a sale.

Burke tells us the Vancouver was for Wayne Gretzky only. History tells us that once things came to close Gretzky insisted his buddy McSorley was to come with him, but I don't think Vancouver ever truly got that close to closing the deal.

Vancouver's deal featured $25 million, but he does not specify if that is in US or Canadian funds. I'd actually assume it is in Canadian currency, as it was still common practice back then for Canadian teams to use the newly minted Loonie until the early 1990s, including for player payrolls. With a little bit of Google searching we can learn that $25m was a significant increase over the LA offer even with the exchange rate. $15m US in August 1988 was approximately worth $18.5m in Canadian funds.

Burke also tells us Vancouver committed three first round picks as well. LA ultimately staggered their surrendered picks to the 1989, 1991 and 1993 drafts. There is no mention of such a breakdown in the Vancouver offer.

Burke also said that - like the LA offer - there were two young emerging stars included in the deal. Where LA offered Gelinas and Carson, Vancouver had Greg Adams and Kirk McLean in place. Both Adams and McLean went on to become key parts of Vancouver's success in the 1990s, but how Vancouver had a nearly accepted offer on Wayne Gretzky that did not include the recent 2nd overall draft pick by an Albertan kid named Trevor Linden, I will never know. And the inclusion of McLean was interesting given that even though he went on to a fantastic career he was still largely unproven at that point, and the Oilers had goalies named Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford.

Burke says the deal for Gretzky fell through because the money just did not make any sense. When Quinn and Burke arrived a year earlier, they inherited a team that was losing upwards of $30m annually. And the Griffiths family didn't have the deepest pockets in hockey, not like Bruce McNall, at that time anyway.

In some bizarre parallel universe Wayne Gretzky lined up with Petri Skriko and Tony Tanti and a young Trevor Linden and Vancouver took the NHL by storm. But in reality, the deal probably wasn't ever as close as the Kings' deal that reshaped the hockey landscape to this very day.

Speaking of bizarre parallel universes, can you imagine the ultimate Boston Bruin Cam Neely in a Montreal Canadiens uniform?

In his new book Forever Canadien, Serge Savard regretted not pulling the trigger on a trade with the Canucks back in the mid 1980s.

The Canucks infamously grew inpatient with a young Neely and were shopping him around the league. At one point, according to Savard, he could have closed a deal for Neely and it would only have cost him left winger Mike McPhee.

McPhee, said to be a favorite of Canucks coach Tom Watt, was a fantastic support player in Montreal. He was a really solid pro and a great teammate, the perfect third line kind of a player. But Neely went on to become one of the all time greats.

Savard lamented not making the deal, saying he was just a young general manager at the time and afraid to pull the trigger on a deal which had a risk with the still unproven Neely.

The Canucks of course infamously traded Neely and the third overall draft pick in 1987 to Montreal's arch rivals in Boston in exchange for Barry Pederson. At least Pederson had a high scoring background at the NHL level but was never the same after major shoulder surgery to remove a benign tumor. He was still a point a game player in Vancouver, but not the superstar he was emerging to be alongside Rick Middleton in Boston in the early 1980s.

Speaking for Serge Savard and trades, he also let the cat out of the bag on another trade he was working on, but he never got to complete because he got fired by the Habs. Oddly enough, the trade would still happen later on.

Savard tells us he was shopping Patrick Roy well before the infamous Roy snapping and demanding a trade. Before that incident, no one could have thought the Canadiens would have traded their superstar goaltender. But Savard tells us he was closing in on a deal with, of course, the Colorado Avalanche. Savard felt Roy's personality was just too big for the dressing room, and the team would be better off moving him.  Roy's old agent Pierre Lacroix was now the general manager in Colorado and pushing hard to get his old pal, and, according to Savard, offered Owen Nolan and Stephane Fiset.

Savard was abruptly fired after 4 games in October 1995, and the deal died. But once Roy snapped at Ronald Corey and Mario Tremblay and demanded to be traded, Lacroix and the Avalanche were quick to pick up the telephone. 

The actual deal saw Colorado trade Jocelyn Thibault, Martin Rucinsky and Andrei Kovalenko to Montreal for Roy AND team captain Mike Keane, who also became a real key player in Colorado. Savard said he would never, ever have traded Keane.

Ah yes, the good ol' days. Lets finish this post off by watching Mike McPhee and Cam Neely get into a disagreement about something, if Gord Kluzak would get out of the way anyway.

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