Five Holdouts Who Changed the NHL

NHL training camps opened last week, and all players have now reported, completed their fitness testing, and started playing preseason games.

Well, almost all players. A few aren’t there yet, because they’re sitting at home waiting for a new contract. The most notable name in that group is Blue Jackets star Ryan Johansen, whose increasingly ugly contract dispute has left him millions of dollars away from the team’s best offer.

Except that Johansen isn’t holding out. Neither are Torey Krug and Jaden Schwartz, and neither was P.K. Subban two years ago nor Drew Doughty the year before that. A restricted free agent without a deal isn’t holding out — he just doesn’t have a contract, and he’s not allowed to play without one. Stop calling RFAs holdouts. I feel very strongly about this.1

No, a real holdout comes when a player has a valid deal and refuses to honor it, usually because he wants to renegotiate for more money. And those holdouts are essentially nonexistent in today’s NHL, thanks to the 2005 CBA, which made it impossible to tear up an existing contract. That change eliminated the incentive to stay home, and basically made long holdouts obsolete.

That’s a good thing, because it wasn’t always that way. Years ago, true holdouts happened all the time in the NHL, often involving superstar players who’d sit out for months or even a full year in an attempt to get their way. Somehow, this didn’t seem like all that big of a deal at the time — everyone just kind of accepted it.

Usually, those old-school holdouts eventually ended with a new contract and some hurt feelings. But sometimes, the impact was far greater. Here are five players who decided they didn’t like their contracts and held out, and who helped change NHL history along the way.

Ken Dryden lawyers up

For a team that spends so much time celebrating its many legendary stars, the Montreal Canadiens have dealt with a surprisingly long list of holdouts over the years. Guy Lafleur once threatened to walk out and take Larry Robinson with him. Patrick Roy’s infamous tantrum behind the bench was essentially a midseason holdout, although it didn’t last long. And in maybe my favorite contract dispute story of all time, the Canadiens once forced a reluctant Jean Beliveau to finally sign with them by buying his entire league.

Dryden’s case wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it came close. In 1973, the towering goaltender had played two full seasons as the Canadiens’ starter, and had already amassed two Cups, a Conn Smythe, a Calder, and a Vezina. He was the best goalie in the league at the age of 25. And he figured he deserved a raise.

That was a bit of a problem, because the Canadiens weren’t interested in reworking his deal, which reportedly paid him $80,000. That wasn’t bad money back then, but in an era where superstars were starting to get six-figure deals, Dryden knew he was worth more. He didn’t have any leverage, though. After all, what was he going to do — go out and find another job?

Yes, as it turns out. Unable to come to an agreement with the team, Dryden took the entire 1973-74 season off. He used the time to finish his law degree and got some experience working at a Toronto firm. When time permitted, he suited up for Vulcan Industrial Packaging of the Toronto Lakeshore League. He played defense.

Dryden’s holdout lasted until he re-signed with the Canadiens in time for the 1974-75 season, getting the sort of big-money deal he’d wanted all along. He went on to win four more Vezinas and four more Stanley Cups in Montreal before retiring for good in 1979, at the relatively young age of 32.

Then he enjoyed a successful post-playing career as a best-selling author, general manager, politician, Grantland contributor, and yes, it goes without saying, a lawyer.

Alexei Yashin learns to always read the fine print

Alexei Yashin was done with the Ottawa Senators. That much seemed clear during the 1999 offseason, with the Russian star insisting the team tear up the one year remaining on his $3.6 million contract. The team refused, so Yashin stayed home, with controversial agent Mark Gandler making it clear that his client would be more than happy to sit out the entire season.

Strategically, Yashin’s holdout was as much about time as money. With just one year left on his deal before hitting free agency, it stood to reason that his absolute worst-case scenario was to miss the entire season, at which point he would be able to shop himself to the highest bidder. That would still earn him a financial windfall, and it would get him out of Ottawa once and for all.

That was the idea, at least, and Yashin did indeed sit out the entire 1999-2000 season. But then the Senators threw Yashin a curveball. The team (backed by the league) argued that he shouldn’t be declared a free agent after all, on the grounds that he hadn’t fulfilled the last year of his contract. The situation wasn’t actually covered in the NHL’s CBA, so the case went to an arbitrator, who ruled in Ottawa’s favor. Yashin stilled owed the Senators a year of service and wouldn’t be able to return to the NHL until he provided it.

He did, reluctantly, sulking his way through the 2000-2001 season. The following offseason, the Senators finally agreed to move him, sending him to the Islanders in a trade for grinder Bill Muckalt, a big but raw defenseman named Zdeno Chara, and the second overall pick in that year’s draft, which they used to select Jason Spezza.

The deal turned out to be a disaster for the Islanders2, who signed Yashin to a massive 10-year contract they’d eventually be forced to buy out — a buyout that’s still on their books to this day. Meanwhile, the trade landed the Senators a pair of future superstars in Chara and Spezza, and laid the foundation for Ottowa to become one of the league’s best regular-season teams of the next decade.

Steve Larmer’s holdout snaps The Streak

Blackhawks defensive forward Steve Larmer was entering the option year on his contract in 1993. He didn’t like the money — he was making just $790,000 in a time when star players were well into the millions — and he really didn’t like playing in Chicago. Citing the need for a change of scenery, Larmer informed the team during the offseason that he wanted a trade.

In an era where holdouts had become commonplace, Larmer’s wasn’t all that unusual. But there was a wrinkle, and it was one that would impact the league record books: Larmer had never missed a game in his NHL career, and his 884-game iron-man streak left him just 80 behind record holder Doug Jarvis.3 With an 84-game schedule ahead of him, Larmer would break the record by the end of the 1993-94 season … if he played.

That led some to assume the holdout talk was a bluff, but that notion was put to rest when Blackhawks training camp opened and Larmer was a no-show. Next came speculation that the league might grant some sort of exception, declaring that games missed due to a holdout wouldn’t count against the streak. That too was quickly shot down. With the Blackhawks dragging their feet on any trade talks, it quickly became clear that Larmer had two choices: Show up, or sacrifice the streak to do it.

He stayed home. On October 6, 1993, the Blackhawks hosted Florida in the first game in the expansion Panthers’ franchise history. Larmer wasn’t in the lineup for the first time in 11 years, and his streak was officially over.

The holdout would last another four weeks, before Chicago finally agreed to trade its disgruntled forward to the Rangers as part of a three-way, seven-player deal with the Whalers. Despite the end of his streak, Larmer would ultimately get the last laugh in New York, earning his first Stanley Cup ring seven months later.

Things go from messy to Messier in New York

Oh, hey, speaking of that Rangers Stanley Cup win, you may remember a guy named Mark Messier having a little bit to do with that. Messier was no stranger to winning championships, or to coming through in the clutch. He was also no stranger to holdouts. And as the Rangers came to learn, sometimes the holdout giveth, and sometimes the holdout (almost) taketh away.

Messier’s most famous holdout came in 1991, when he stayed home rather than report to the Edmonton Oilers. He had two years left on a deal that paid him $1.2 million, which wasn’t bad back then. But he wanted out of Edmonton and had told Oilers GM Glen Sather that he wasn’t reporting until he was traded.4

Sather obliged him relatively quickly, making a deal with the Rangers just days into the season in a deal for high-scoring center Bernie Nicholls and prospects.5 At the time, some criticized the Rangers for picking up a player who was already in his thirties; in fairness, Messier turned out to have only another 13 years left in him.

Messier didn’t get a new contract, but it’s fair to say moving from Edmonton to New York raised his profile, and he was embraced quickly on Broadway. By the time he had helped the Rangers snap their 54-year Cup drought, you could make a good case he was the most popular athlete in New York.

That popularity would take a hit during the following offseason, when Messier announced that he wanted the Rangers to tear up his $2.6 million contract and give him a long-term deal that would more than double his salary.6 He didn’t report to camp, and there was talk he could be traded, including one rumor that had him going to St. Louis in a blockbuster for Brett Hull.

In the end, Messier sat out all the way through to late January — not because he was stubborn, but because of the league’s boneheaded lockout that wiped out half the season. When play finally resumed, Messier still hadn’t agreed to a new deal as the hours ticked down to the Rangers’ home opener and banner raising, creating the possibility that the captain wouldn’t be around to see the ceremony. He eventually decided to play and finally agreed on a new contract days later.

Pavel Bure and the phantom holdout (which eventually led to a real one)

Holdouts aren’t always about money. Back in 1998, Pavel Bure’s $8 million salary made him one of the highest-paid players in the league. But he wanted out of Vancouver, and he made it clear he wouldn’t honor the one year remaining on his deal until the team traded him.

That incident wasn’t the first time Bure had been associated with the idea of a holdout. In 1994, a rumor spread in hockey circles that Bure had threatened to stage an impromptu holdout right before the playoffs if the Canucks didn’t immediately give him a new deal.7 The story was apparently untrue, with even then-GM Pat Quinn denying the demand ever happened, but it badly damaged Bure’s reputation and was one of the many factors that led to his relationship with the Canucks deteriorating.

By 1998, that relationship was so bad that Bure told Canucks GM Brian Burke he was done. Burke, as you might imagine, wasn’t thrilled with the news, and he let Bure sit at home until January. That’s when the Canucks finally pulled the trigger on a deal, sending Bure to the Florida Panthers for a package built around Ed Jovanovski.

All things considered, the deal worked out reasonably well for both teams. The Canucks got seven years of Jovanovski’s prime. And while Bure’s first season in Florida was a bust (the holdout and injuries limited him to just 11 games), he followed that by leading the league in goals in back-to-back seasons. He was eventually traded to the Rangers and was out of the league by the age of 32, thanks to bad knees.

Bure’s rocky story does come with a nice ending. While players like Yashin were never forgiven for forcing an exit from their longtime teams, Bure was eventually able to patch things up with the Canucks organization. His number was retired last year, and Vancouver fans showered him with a loud ovation.

By the way, that list of five superstar holdouts is by no means exhaustive — we haven’t even got into guys like Pat LaFontaine or Keith Tkachuk, among many others. In fact, this post might need a sequel at some point. Maybe we can keep it timely by scheduling it for right after Johansen signs in Columbus.

So … pencil it in for January?

Filed Under: NHL, Ken Dryden, Montreal Canadiens, Mark Messier, New York Islanders, Edmonton Oilers, Alexei Yashin, Ottawa Senators, Steve Larmer, Chicago Blackhawks, Pavel Bure, Vancouver Canucks

Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at Down Goes Brown. When he's not writing, he makes hockey jokes on Twitter at @downgoesbrown.

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