Here’s the Eric Lindros trade the Maple Leafs never made with the Nordiques

Here’s the Eric Lindros trade the Maple Leafs never made with the Nordiques

Eric Lindros drew plenty of interest when he refused to play for the Quebec Nordiques, but how serious some of the interest was depends on who you talk to. × Already a Subscriber? Sign in You are logged in  Switch accounts DOUG CRAWFORD / The Canadian Press▲

There’s a whopper of a Maple Leafs story in “Draft Day: How Hockey Teams Pick Winners or Get Left Behind,” the new book by Doug MacLean, the former NHL head coach and general manager and Sportsnet analyst.

It comes in a fascinating chapter devoted to the draft-related drama that surrounded Eric Lindros more than 30 years ago. Lindros’s NHL origin story is a long saga, of course, and most fans probably know at least the broad outlines. The super prospect was drafted first by the Quebec Nordiques in 1991 but insisted he had no intention of playing for the Nordiques. It took most of a year for the Nordiques to come around to the idea that he wasn’t changing his mind. But by the eve of the 1992 draft, Quebec found itself awash in a dizzying whirl of trade talks.

MacLean’s book, written with Hockey Hall of Fame sportswriter Scott Morrison, is a worthy read on a lot of levels. But it’s particularly gobsmacking when it comes to its retelling of the frenzied push for Lindros’s Hall of Fame-bound services. MacLean, the assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings at the time, writes that the Red Wings offered a package for Lindros that included Steve Yzerman, multiple players and $15 million (U.S.), only to have the Nordiques insist Detroit include Sergei Fedorov instead of Yzerman. The book leans heavily on Pierre Pagé, then the general manager of the Nordiques, who is quoted extensively in MacLean’s book based on detailed notes from the period.

“I had actually forgotten about (the Nordiques demanding Fedorov instead of Yzerman),” MacLean said in a recent interview. “But Pierre had every note and I just thought the whole thing was fascinating.”

It’s fascinating from a Toronto perspective. According to Pagé, an offer for Lindros from the Maple Leafs included Doug GilmourWendel ClarkFélix Potvin, Dave Ellett, Ken Baumgartner, Darby Hendrickson, and $15 million — only Toronto’s best player, team captain, No. 1 goaltender, top defencemen, and extras. In return, Pagé says, the Leafs would have received Lindros, the fourth overall pick in the 1992 draft, goaltenders John Tanner and Stéphane Fiset, and winger Andrei Kovalenko.

Pagé tells MacLean that the potential deal was scuttled after Cliff Fletcher, the Maple Leafs GM at the time, got cold feet.

“Cliff had offered so much, all of a sudden he started to sweat and he said, ‘Pierre, there is no way I can do this. I’m nervous. This is too much,’” Pagé is quoted as saying in the book.

That’s Pagé’s version. Fletcher, who is not quoted on the matter in “Draft Day,” has a decidedly different recollection. Speaking over the phone this week, he said the Toronto offer outlined in the book wasn’t an offer at all, but merely a list of Quebec’s demands.

“And their demands were ridiculous,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher said he kicked tires on Lindros at the behest of Leafs owner Steve Stavro, but that he never made a formal offer. And while memories fade over three decades, Fletcher said he remembers dealing directly with Nordiques president Marcel Aubut, and not with Pagé.

There’s similar pushback on another “Draft Day” revelation, specifically Pagé’s headline-making claim the Montreal Canadiens offered star goaltender Patrick Roy in a bid to land Lindros. Reached by phone this week, then-Canadiens GM Serge Savard confirmed he met with Aubut about Lindros; not unlike Fletcher, Savard said he was prodded to do so by his boss, club president Ronald Corey. But Savard said Pagé’s insistence that Montreal offered a package that included Roy and team captain Guy Carbonneau, among other players, is “simply not true.”

“I met with Marcel, not with Pagé. Marcel says, ‘I want $15 million (U.S.) cash. I want three first-round picks. And I want five players,’” Savard said in an interview. “I said, ‘That’s it? That’s all you want?’ I just started to laugh, basically. I never made any counter-offer. I never made any followup to that. I agree, Pagé must have notes. But the only notes he has are from what Marcel Aubut told him.”

Wherever the truth lies, there’s no denying the frenzy around Lindros was real and remarkable. It ended with Lindros going to Philadelphia in exchange for a package that included a young Peter Forsberg, essentially the seeds to what became a two-time Stanley Cup winner for a Nordiques franchise that moved to Colorado a few years later. The way it went down, in a fiasco that saw Aubut essentially agree to trades with both the Flyers and the Rangers before a league-appointed arbitrator had to be called in to settle the matter, made Quebec’s haul look like more of a stroke of luck than a stroke of genius.

There’s plenty more in the book beyond Lindros. Billed by its publisher as a “Moneyball for hockey,” it delves into the occasionally adversarial relationship between analytics departments and executive suites. MacLean said more than 30 NHL executives were interviewed for “Draft Day” with an eye toward documenting that particular point of front-office tension. Scarce were those willing to go on the record.

“There are (executives) in the league who feel a couple of GMs have been fired by the analytics people,” MacLean said. “Some of these financial guys are really into analytics. And there’s a lot of financial guys owning teams today. (Some executives) felt the analytics guys get a little too much rope, and it fractures staff. But at the end of the day, if the guy running the analytics department is a good guy, 90 per cent of the time the information is well received within the organization.”

It’s no wonder there’s tension in organizations around draft picks and trades. Just as one good move can set a franchise on a championship course, one bad one can send everyone to the firing line. MacLean, age 69, accomplished plenty in his career, including coaching the Florida Panthers to the Stanley Cup final in 1996. But as the book makes clear, he’s still haunted by at least a couple of draft-day whiffs, particularly 2005, when he presided over the Columbus draft table that selected Gilbert Brulé with the sixth pick, never mind that the team’s internal scouting list had Anze Kopitar as the best available prospect. Kopitar went 11th to Los Angeles, where he became a linchpin on two Stanley Cup-winning squads. Brulé’s NHL career lasted a respectable if unspectacular 214 games.

“Draft Day” retails for $34.99. MacLean said he figures passing on Kopitar personally cost him about $30 million in lost executive earnings. He was fired as the Blue Jackets president and GM less than two years later and went into media.

Said MacLean: “If I’d taken Kopitar, and had him playing with Rick Nash in Columbus, I’d probably still be a GM.”

As MacLean’s book makes clear, in the world of pro sports, sometimes the line between being immortalized and being unemployed is probably finer than we’d like to think.

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