If you know any Maple Leafs fans, you may have noticed that they’ve been even crankier than usual over the past few days. That’s because last week marked the 25th anniversary of one of the worst trades in the history of hockey: the Tom Kurvers deal.
The notorious trade went down on October 16, 1989, and saw New Jersey send Kurvers to Toronto in exchange for a first-round pick in the 1991 draft. Kurvers was a decent enough offensive defenseman, but the Maple Leafs were terrible, and the pick ended up being third overall. The Devils used it to select Scott Niedermayer, and the rest is history.
All of that makes the deal bad enough, but it may have actually been even worse. The Leafs nearly finished dead last in 1990-91, which would have given the Devils the first overall pick. And they would have used that pick on arguably the most heavily hyped prospect the league had ever seen: Eric Lindros, a junior powerhouse who was considered a sure thing to become the next Gretzky or Lemieux.
Once they realized how badly they’d screwed up, the Leafs went into scramble mode to make sure they didn’t finish last. At one point, they even made a laughable deal with last-place Quebec, acquiring several veterans in exchange for picks and prospects in a transparent attempt to try to help the Nordiques tank. It worked — barely. The two teams were tied for last overall as late as February, before the Leafs finally strung together just enough wins to escape infamy.
It all worked out wonderfully for the Devils; in hindsight, Niedermayer went on to have the better career, largely because of Lindros’s injuries and disputes with various teams’ management. But the fact remains that if they hadn’t made the Kurvers trade, there’s an excellent chance the Maple Leafs would have out-tanked the Nordiques, finished last in 1991, and drafted Lindros.
Like most Maple Leafs fans, I’ve spent far too much time imagining an alternate reality in which this horrible trade had never taken place. And it turns out that doing so can be an interesting exercise, because if you leave Kurvers in New Jersey and accept that doing so means the Leafs end up finishing last, a surprisingly big chunk of NHL history starts to unravel.
So just for fun (and maybe a little bit of psychotherapy for Leafs fans), here’s an alternate history of the NHL, offering up a lesson on how one awful trade can change just about everything.
October 16, 1989, in Newark, New Jersey: Tom Kurvers had heard the rumors that a deal was close, and today, the phone call he’d been waiting for finally came: The 27-year-old defenseman is on the move.
After speaking to his realtor and confirming that his offer on a new apartment had been accepted, Kurvers said a quick good-bye to teammates before heading home to start packing. He won’t have much time, since he’s expected to be back in time for practice tomorrow.
Nothing else interesting happened to Kurvers today.
June 22, 1991, in Buffalo, New York: In a moment that came as no surprise to anyone, Eric Lindros was chosen with the first overall pick of today’s NHL entry draft. The heavily hyped prospect was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs, who held the top pick by virtue of their last-place finish during the 1990-91 season.
While Lindros had made headlines by refusing to play for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds after being taken with the first overall pick of the junior league OHL draft in 1989, there would be no such controversy this time. “I’m thrilled to be joining my hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs,” a beaming Lindros told reporters. “Besides, this is the NHL. Who wouldn’t want to play for the team that drafted them?”
The expansion San Jose Sharks took Pat Falloon with the second overall pick. The first defenseman taken was Kamloops Blazers blueliner Scott Niedermayer, who went to the Quebec Nordiques third overall.
January 2, 1992, in Calgary, Alberta: Doug Gilmour’s midseason holdout dragged on today, with no trade in sight for the disgruntled Flames center.
The former All-Star is unhappy with his contract and recently walked out on the team in an attempt to force a trade. The rumor mill has speculated he’d prefer to go to a big-market team. However, that could be easier said than done, since many of the league’s larger markets already have clearly established first-line centers, including Los Angeles (Wayne Gretzky), New York (Mark Messier), and Toronto (Lindros).
One team that could be a fit is the Philadelphia Flyers, who have been known to be on the market for a top center, and are said to be willing to make a blockbuster deal under the right circumstances. However, one scout suggested that the team may be better off filling that void by convincing last year’s first-round pick, Swedish prospect Peter Forsberg, to head to North America and put on the orange and black.
Meanwhile, tempers are rising in Calgary as fans wait for the team to pull the trigger on a Gilmour deal. “Just trade the guy if he doesn’t want to be here. It’s not like you could screw that up,” said one Flames fan. “I bet if we play our cards right we could probably even get a former 50-goal scorer!”
June 3, 1993, in Toronto, Ontario: The NHL awards will be handed out tonight as the league honors the best individual performances from the past season. Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux is expected to take home the Hart Trophy, while Chicago teammates Ed Belfour and Chris Chelios are the favorites for the Vezina and Norris, respectively.
The Calder Trophy will be a tight race between a pair of record-breaking freshmen, with many expecting the award to go to flashy Winnipeg Jets forward Teemu Selanne. His main competition will come from Niedermayer, who joined the Nordiques this year after finishing his junior career and quickly established himself as a perfect fit on a young team that’s quickly developing into an offensive powerhouse.
May 5, 1995, in Newark, New Jersey: The Devils announced the firing of general manager Lou Lamoriello today. The move comes on the heels of yet another season in which the team failed to develop into a legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
Lamoriello had been in the role since 1987, and he helped turn the Devils from league laughingstock into a solid playoff team. However, despite a strong core of young players, the team had failed to take the next step and challenge for a championship. This year’s team, led by standout defenseman Scott Stevens and young goaltender Martin Brodeur, had been excellent defensively. But it struggled to create offense, especially from the blue line.
“It’s like they were just one piece away from really having something here, but they couldn’t quite find it,” said one scout from a rival team. “Then again, those kinds of guys don’t just fall in your lap.”
The Devils did not immediately name a replacement GM, although after plucking Lamoriello from the college ranks, it’s expected the team will focus its search on candidates with an extensive NHL background. One candidate to keep an eye on could be former Bruins coach Mike Milbury, who is said to be interested in pursuing a job in the New York area and would no doubt do a great job in New Jersey.
December 6, 1995, in Montreal, Quebec: Patrick Roy returned to practice with the Canadiens today, defusing a volatile situation that at one point had seen him demand a trade.
Roy had been unhappy after being left in for nine goals during a loss to the Red Wings earlier this week, and he had initially told team president Ronald Corey he was done in Montreal. Sources have indicated that Roy now realizes his relationship with the team shouldn’t crumble after one bad game, especially one that came against the Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Roy had time to cool off after the team’s initial efforts to trade him were stymied by a lukewarm market for goaltenders. “There just aren’t that many contenders looking for a goalie right now,” said a source within Montreal’s front office. “And hey, we’re not going to just give him away. I mean, that would be stupid.”
A reconciliation would make for some rare good news for a Canadiens franchise that’s struggled in recent years. It’s even lost ground in public sentiment to its provincial rival, the Quebec Nordiques, who’ve been surging in popularity ever since eliminating the Canadiens in the first round of the 1993 playoffs. With a talented young roster built around All-Stars Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, and Niedermayer, the Nordiques have recently emerged as one of the league’s most popular and profitable teams.
In fact, the Nordiques’ only real weakness is in goal, leading to some speculation they could be a destination for Roy. But those rumors were quickly shot down.
“Trading Patrick Roy to the Nordiques? You’re out of your mind,” said our Canadiens source. “Besides, look at their roster. If we ever gave them Roy, we’d basically be handing them the Stanley Cup.”
May 11, 1997, in Detroit, Michigan: There were plenty of unhappy faces in the Detroit dressing room today, as the team went through the motions of packing up its gear. The Red Wings face a long summer after their second consecutive early playoff exit. The loss comes as a bitter disappointment to a team that seemed to be on the verge of a mini-dynasty just a few years ago.
“When we won the Cup back in 1995, everyone thought it was going to be the first of many,” said Wings captain Steve Yzerman. “I don’t know what happened. I guess we got complacent and stopped looking to get better.”
The team has been criticized for not being more aggressive in adding talent. Some critics have argued that the team could be just one star player away from becoming a powerhouse that could win multiple Stanley Cups, but team management has apparently not felt any pressure to make such an aggressive move.
In unrelated news around the league, the Hartford Whalers advanced to the conference finals on a game-winning goal from team captain Brendan Shanahan. It’s the deepest playoff run in the franchise’s 18-year history and is earning Shanahan some early Conn Smythe buzz.
While the veteran winger had requested a change of scenery earlier in the season, a willing trade partner never materialized, and he returned to the team in time to lead the best season in franchise history. With this year’s success driving season-ticket sales to record levels, there are even rumors that the once-troubled franchise may be on the verge of announcing a new arena deal.
June 14, 2001, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Tensions appear to be boiling over between Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke and the team’s longtime franchise player, with Clarke expressing frustration over what he calls a pattern of injury problems.
“This Forsberg kid is a great player, but he’s always hurt,” Clarke told reporters. “Bruised thighs, hip pointers, foot problems … even a ruptured spleen. Who can’t play through a ruptured spleen?”
Forsberg has been the Flyers’ best player for almost a decade, most notably as part of one of the best lines in hockey, The Legion of Two Huge Guys With One Smaller Guy in the Middle. But Flyers fans have at times been slow to embrace him, and Clarke has occasionally lamented that the team would be better off with a bigger top-line center, since a guy like that would never get hurt.
For his part, Forsberg seemed exhausted by yet another round of criticism from his boss.
“It’s days like this that make me wish I could just pack up and head for Colorado,” he said, before adding, “Which would be a nice break, since as we all know, there’s no NHL team there.”
July 23, 2009, in Toronto, Ontario: Lindros announced his retirement today, ending an 18-year career with the Maple Leafs that saw him win multiple MVP awards while shattering every franchise scoring record.
Lindros made the announcement at a packed press conference in Toronto, during which he thanked the various people who’d helped make his career such an unparalleled success.
“I don’t think I could have achieved everything that I did if I hadn’t had so much support around me. I’d like to thank my parents,” he said, gesturing to his mother and father. “I’d also like to thank my longtime Maple Leafs coach and general manager,” he continued, once again gesturing to his mother and father.
He is expected to be a slam dunk selection for the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2012, as part of a strong first-year class that will also include Quebec Nordiques legends Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin, as well as Hartford Whalers franchise savior Brendan Shanahan.
Despite a career filled with awards, All-Star selections, and fan admiration, Lindros admitted he does leave with one regret: He’ll be remembered alongside Marcel Dionne, Mike Gartner, and Ray Bourque as Hall of Famers who never won a Stanley Cup.
“My entire career in Toronto has felt like it was some sort of fantasy come true,” he told reporters, “but it would have been nice to finally bring a championship to the Maple Leafs.”
“Then again, I suppose not winning a Cup in Toronto was kind of inevitable,” he added. “After all, even the most ridiculous fantasy still has to have some element of realism.”