Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Surprising Answer to the NHL's Most Title-Starved City

Consider the averages of the seven-year apexes for these two players:

Player A: 38 goals, 48 assists, 86 points, +25, 1 Hart trophy, 5x All-Star, 1x All-NHL
Player B: 26 goals, 65 assists, 91 points, +27, 1 Hart trophy, 7x All-Star, 3x All-NHL

Player B was traded along with five other players, two draft picks, and $15,000,00 cash for Player A.

Player B is two-time Stanley Cup champion Peter Forsberg, and Player A is the much-maligned Eric Lindros.


It happens every year at this time; honestly, it happens almost every time a champion is crowned in one of the major sports, but during the rush of the NHL/NBA playoffs, it is a guarantee.

“What is the most title-starved city out there?” a coworker says to me.

I think for a moment and realize many logical and fitting candidates exist (I’m looking at you Cleveland), but since hockey is the closest to crowning a new champion, I wanted to plant my flag right in the middle of that sport’s draught argument. So, I quickly give back my answer, and before I was able to elaborate why, we both remember we get paid by the hour. Seeing as our company’s president was in town for a visit, we decided it would be ideal if we returned to work instead of taking the time for this column to be spoken rather than written. However, this conversation led to a great distraction piece in my head for the rest of the day, which, as usual, was more than welcome.

On paper, the large Canadian metropolises of Toronto and Vancouver look like the logical candidates. Forty-three seasons have elapsed since the Maple Leafs last brought home Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the Canucks have played 40 seasons without ever seeing their captain hoist the sport’s ultimate prize. The Leafs have not even returned to a Cup Final since upsetting Jean Beliveau and the high-flying Montreal Canadiens at the height of their powers in 1967 (the Habs responded by winning eight out of the next twelve Cups in the midst of a 15 out of 24 run from 1956-79). Vancouver on the other hand has appeared in three Cup Finals, and aside from being blown out by the New York Islanders’ dynasty in 1982; they let two winnable Cups slip through their grasp. In 1994, the Canucks took the New York Rangers to a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden where the fell by one goal in a 3-2 Rangers win, and their 2011’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning squad could not beat the Boston Bruins in a Game 7, on home-ice nonetheless.

Trust me; both of these draughts are substantial in length and have plenty of pain hanging over the heads of the two fan bases, but fans of hockey in Toronto and Vancouver have plenty of positives to push themselves back towards positivity: Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and Vancouver just watched Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner against Team USA in the Olympic Gold Medal Game on their ice.

In my mind, two other cities jump out right away and both for a totally different reason, but one mega-trade will eternally link these two together: Quebec City and Philadelphia.

The Flyers Cup-drought of 35 seasons places them seventh overall on the waiting list, but to make matters worse, Philly has appeared in six Cup Finals since captain Bobby Clarke last lifted the Cup in both 1974 and 1975. No other team even comes close to six losses in the Cup Finals in that span (Vancouver and the St. Louis Blues have each lost three to place them in a tie for second place). A three-peat was on the line for the Flyers in 1976, but they were promptly swept by the aforementioned juggernaut from Montreal. Philly made two more appearance in the 1980s, both against the NHL’s new powerhouse, the Edmonton Oilers. Wayne Gretzky and Co. plowed through Philadelphia to take the series 4-1 in 1985, but Flyers’ net-minder Ron Hextall managed to single-handedly keep Philly afloat in a 1987 rematch that went seven games before the Oilers clinched the Cup. The Flyers returned to the Cup Finals in 1997 (we will get to that one later), and also made a fluke appearances as a seven seed in the 2010 Cup Final.

Six Cup losses and a thirty-five season Cup-less streak is a rather depressing notion to dwell on, but unfortunately we must go to the one place darker and more depressing than Philadelphia—Quebec City, which saw no championships from the Nordiques in their sixteen NHL years playing in the Colisee de Quebec. And then in 1995, it was bye-bye Quebec City and hello Denver, Colorado.

It has been almost 20 years since the fateful trade of Eric Lindros for Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1st round selection (Jocelyn Thibault) in 1993, a 1st round selection (later traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, later traded to the Washington Capitals—Nolan Baumgartner) in 1994, and $15,000,000 cash between the Philadelphia Fylers and the Quebec Nordiques—20 years that had the trade never happened, would have surely resulted in a Cup for each city.

Eric Lindros was the most talented player of his generation, and also the biggest enigma. He dominated opponents in every sense of the word on the ice. Listed on draft day at 6’5” and 228 pounds, he simply was bigger, stronger, and, amazingly, faster than everyone else. The team that ended up securing Lindros’s services would be viewed as an immediate contender in the NHL and a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Of course, there was a catch—the general manager that selected Lindros would then have to figure out how to get him to put pen to paper and sign a contract offer.

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League initially held Lindros’s rights after drafting him out of Toronto’s prestigious St. Michael’s College School. In what would set a precedent for Lindros, he refused to sign with the Greyhounds and instead took his talents to the Oshawa Generals, also of the OHL, where he blew the league away with an OHL-high 149 points for the 1990-91 season. Lindros’s name was firmly affixed to the top of every draft board prior to the 1991 NHL Draft.

The elite skill set Lindros possessed made the red flags surrounding him easy to ignore before the 1991 NHL Draft. Lindros was not only the top amateur player by a mile (1.6 kilometers for those in the Great White North) that year, but by this point in time, quite possibly the highest regarded hockey prospect ever. Scouts and analysts alike were completely enamored with the man-child of the Oshawa Generals. But there was still the problem of his firm stance of refusing to sign with the Nordiques if they used the top pick on him.

If Lindros was the “can’t miss” prospect in the 1991 NHL Draft; Peter Forsberg was completely under the radar as a fringe second rounder. When the Flyers reached for him with 6th overall pick, General Manager Russ Farwell was heavily criticized in the local and national media. All of this was of course before Forsberg continued to star with Sweden’s Modo Hockey and delivered for his country an Olympic Gold Medal at Lillehammer in 1994. Forsberg would be the centerpiece of Quebec’s haul for Lindros, and a trade that for the city of Quebec should never have been made. As has been the theme with these two intersecting careers, hindsight is always 20/20.

Two cities, two pains, and one trade lives in the middle.

The one large variable that I am going of off here is virtually impossible to change. However, this is sports, and if there is one thing that sports proves over and over again, it is that the “what if” question will always be present.

What if Lindros cared first and foremost about just merely playing hockey and not about the potential lack of marketability, speaking French, and listening to what his mother famously thought he should do? What if Lindros put on the Nordiques sweater that was handed to him by GM Pierre Page on draft day? What if Lindros anchored a second line behind the first line unit led by team captain Joe Sakic? I believe the answer is simple—the NHL would never even have thought to relocate the Nordiques to Denver. The league would have a built in blood-bath rivalry featuring Quebec against the Montreal Canadiens, their most marketable player in Lindros pining his trade in a Canadian city, and have two of the league best centers on one team. If in this parallel universe the Nordiques were still be able to pull of the heist of Patrick Roy from Montreal, the NHL would be looking at a potential dynasty forming in Quebec City of all places.

On the flipside, Philadelphia clearly would not have made out so bad either. As noted in this column’s introduction, Forsberg appeared to have not only an equal statistical career as Lindros, the argument can be made his career was even better. When the Flyers returned to the Cup Finals in 1997, none other than Ron Hextall was back in net wearing the black and orange. They could have just saved his contract and let him play out those years in Philly because Lord knows they could have used a reliable goaltender through the ‘90s. The four other players in the trade were role guys who would have augmented and filled out the remaining roster nicely, and valuable pieces were available in both the 1993 (Saku Koivu and Todd Bertuzzi were still available after the 10th pick) and 1994 NHL Draft if they felt like they did not want to go with Thibault and Baumgartner. The saved money is another interesting aspect. The $15,000,000 in cash they gave Quebec was almost double that of their payroll. After the NHL emerged with a higher salary cap after the next lockout, Philly would be sitting on a pile of cash that owner Ed Snider was willing to spend on Lindros, so why not the free agents that were hitting the open market in the mid to late ‘90s? The dynasty that was built in Colorado would be 1,725 miles (again, that is 2,760 kilometers) away in the City of Brotherly Love.

Instead, the Flyers gutted their franchise giving up more for Lindros than even the Los Angeles Kings gave up for Wayne Gretzky who was in the prime of his career. The Nordiques on the other took the loot and bolted town a few years later. The city of Quebec was forced to sit by and watch their old team raise the Stanly Cup and celebrate in those hideous Colorado Avalanche jerseys. As much pain as been dealt to the Flyers since their last Cup in 1975, there were some excellent years with Lindros when he was healthy and focused to what he could control on the ice instead of feuding with team GM Bobby Clarke. For the Nordiques, there are hardly any positives to take away from this whole debacle—their team is not only gone, but the national pastime of their country no longer exist as a NHL franchise in Quebec. Throw all that in with the Avalanche’s two Stanley Cups, and the choice is an easy one. Despite no longer possessing an NHL franchise, Quebec City gets the nod as hockey’s most title-starved city.

If Eric Lindros had just donned the sweater of the team that drafted him, the whole mess would surely have been prevented. 

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