20 Years Later: The Eric Lindros Draft Kills Quebec and Changes The NHL forever
Perhaps no player infuriates Canadians and NHL fans alike than the London, ON native who once spurned not just an entire team but a province and culture as well.
June 22 marks the 20th anniversary of the dubious 1991 NHL draft that changed the face of the NHL forever. It ended so badly, that the team for which he never played ultimately got relocated to the United States.
Hence I write this article with a heavy heart in memorial.
Lindros, labeled "the Next One" was supposed to be exactly that. Only before he ever played a shift in the league, he made it quite CLEAR that he wanted no part of the NHL's smallest market. Nor would he ever embrace the overwhelming French culture that understandably was prevalent in the French province of Quebec.
And thus, on the team, the Quebec Nordiques.
Nordiques-pronounced in the singular as in the male first name, 'Jacques', and not 'Jac-que-S' is the very epitome of the French Nationalism that the province still tries to hold so dear even today amidst a changing Canadian landscape. It clashes with 'English Canada' that goes back to the very inception and thus, necessity of the province itself that many fought so hard to establish.
The name "Nordiques" means "Northmen" and given the NHL and its founding in Montreal, QC in 1917, or the countless players Canada has contributed to the game, it doesn't get more Northern oriented than that.
Now keep in mind that Lindros was only 18 at the time but he still should have known better.
Bad records lead to good draft picks
After being a very successful WHA team, after their inclusion in the NHL in 1979, the team continued to win until 1987-88. There, after a 32-43-5 record, the team that had made the playoffs each of the previous seven seasons finished last in the Adams division.
For their trouble, and a record they truly earned, they had two first round draft picks. Only it wasn't #9 overall, Bryan Fogarty that everyone remembers which started the turnaround, it was the second, #15, Joe Sakic, an 18 year old playing for the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL.
Typical of the era, and the scoring prowess that it inspired, Sakic did not disappoint scoring 78 goals and 82 assists in only 64 games for a total of 160 points. Given Fogarty's mediocre stats , especially compared to Sakic's, its a wonder how he ever got drafted over Sakic in the first place. It is likely Nationalism once again played a role as Fogarty was a Montreal native.
Consider Sakic to be the loyal Nordique, one that was everything Lindros could have been, and was supposed to be, had he not forced his way out of town before it ever began.
If 1987 was the beginning, the team only continued to build through the next draft, selecting value picks all across the board. From 7th round steal Valeri Kamensky, 200 career goals, 301 assists, to 12th round find Claude Lapointe, 127G, 178A, who went on to have a typical NHL career of 16 years. Finally, the team capped it off with 1st round pick (3rd overall) Curtis Leschyshyn who turned out to be a respectable veteran with a long career.
1989 continued the trend as top overall pick and future Hall of Famer, Mats Sundin, of Sweden (who's still in the league is a testament to his greatness) was selected as a result of the team's franchise-low 12-61-7 record. Keep in mind that all these years the team had finished dead last in the Adam's division.
While Sundin lasted only a few years in Quebec, an eventual trade with Toronto landed Wendell Clark who would be flipped prior to the 1995 season for tough guy Claude Lemieux who would go on to win a Cup in the team's first year in Colorado after the move.
Their second round pick, Adam Foote, still plays in the NHL and in fact, returned to the team after spending a few years in Columbus before realizing the error of his ways.
1990 was another turning point for the franchise as the team added #1 overall draft pick Owen Nolan to the roster (a testament to their ineptitude).
While this border-line Hall of Famer (late career journeyman) panned out, it wasn't until the 1995 trade, just before their final season in Quebec, to San Jose for one of the best names in hockey, Sandis Ozolinch, that the team was able to acquire depth that would propel them to their forthcoming Cup run.
1991: The Lindros Trade sets it all up
After a 16-50-14 season set them up, once again-notice a trend?) for the top overall pick, the team selected Lindros who had just scored 149 points (71G, 78A) for the Oshawa Generals of the OHL. While this number certainly is impressive, it should have served as a warning for crazed Nordique (and later Philadelphia fans).
Consider that model, comparable athletes at the time Mike Modano-the highest-scoring United States player ever, scored 105 points (39G, 66A) the year before the Minnesota North Stars made him the top overall pick of the 1988 draft and that he topped out at 131 for his junior career.
Or how Mario Lemieux—the player Lindros was supposed to be, and more—scored a ridiculous 282 points (133G, 149A) in 1983-84 for the Laval Voisins in World Juniors. How could Lindros be "the Next One" when his standards were set ridiculously too high?
Still, on June 22, 1991 the Nords drafted Lindros who made due on his word and sat out and entire season before being dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers in a complicated deal that saw the Nordiques-soon-to-become-Colorado Avalanche receive (among the notables) Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, two first round picks, and $15 million dollars.
Why was this significant? Not only would Forsberg go on and become a solid, top-line player for many years but he also was a two-time Hart trophy (and eventual Stanley Cup) winner. Additionally, this trade was just the beginning as it should be seen as the trade the kept on giving.
One of the picks, 1993, #10 overall (from Philadelphia) landed goalie Jocelyn Thibault in Quebec who would later be flipped on December 6, 1995 in a package for disgruntled and (ineffective) goalie Patrick Roy of the Montreal Canadiens, who would go on to have a legendary Hall of Fame career as arguably the best goalie of all time.
This one singular move perhaps impacted the future of the franchise in Canada (and later the U.S) more than even the Lindros deal did, but it was the latter that made it all possible since the Lindros deal basically netted them a leader and Hart trophy winner in Forsberg and Roy. To a much lesser extent, 1993 also landed Adam Deadmarsh, a serviceable winger with their own draft pick at #14 who would go on to win the Cup in 1996.
Also, don't overlook the $15 million dollars, which was an astronomical sum at the time, when you consider the average team payroll was $8.1 million and Wayne Gretzky led the league with a $3 million salary. Consider that Gretzky himself was traded for that exact same amount in his 1988 deal with the L.A. Kings, setting a prescedent the Flyers would follow for what they clearly expected out of Lindros.
That money alone likely kept untold numbers of players with Quebec that were able to move with the team to the United States when the time came, and thus further continue to set up the team for success.
As with the Gretzky deal, most Canadian teams were cash-strapped so for them to receive that influx of cash would have been both a blessing and sad dose of reality considering how necessary it was, but that's another wedge issue that forced Quebec out and thus, another article entirely.
1994: Draft finishes the deal
1994 wouldn't have mattered without first the 1991 epic trade or the 1993 trade as explained above. Still, it took one final draft for the team to get the incredible depth that would forever change the perception of a team that couldn't draft to one that couldn't miss.
Two first-round picks again (note another trend) ended in mixed results with Wade Belak (12) and Jeff Kealty (22) but 3rd rounder Chris Drury would not only go on to become Rookie of the Year but also one of the most clutch playoff performers of his era. Whenever the team seemed to need a goal, he did it time and time again as would become a trend in his solid career (can you tell he's one of my favorite players?).
Like Quebecer Daniel Briere, success just seem to follow some players for whatever reason whether that be in the form of improbable playoff runs (see his Flyers this year) or Stanley Cup wins (1996 and 2001 with Colorado) some players just win and make team's better. Drury was-and still is-no exception. Where he goes, good things follow.
Next the team drafted another great hockey name, Milan Hejduk, with their 4th round pick (87 overall) and all he's done is average 30 goals a season over his 11 year career all with his original franchise.
1995: the Final Season (foreshadowing greatness)
Perhaps it wouldn't be so hard to write this if we could have said we didn't see it coming. Everything that was to happen in Colorado should have happened here, imagine how the league would have been different? That's an entire separate article in itself.
After years of gutter draft picks and horrible records, time paid off as the plucky Nords finished atop the newly-named Northeast Division with a lockout-shortened 30-13-5 record complete with the top overall seed in the East.
Eight days after the rumors first surfaced of Quebec's new-found interest in 2009, I wrote briefly about that final season here , but suffice to say, even though they were shockingly swept in the first round in six games by the New York Rangers, the best was yet to come.
Lindros trade kills a market, fuels a new one
Had Lindros played nice and signed with the Nordiques he could have been part of a rapidly growing rebuilding process (no one knew yet).
A team of Sakic, Nolan, Sundin and Lindros would have no doubt gelled together quickly and flourished, considering the talent and considering they'd have matured together as a team. Additionally, the same depth that could later be seen with Ozolinch, Drury, and Hejduk could have started here.
Instead, it left a bad taste in the mouth of Quebecers, proved further that the real stars would never play here, and served as a catalyst for their move South to the United States. While their attendance was still stellar, an irreversible impression had already been planted among fans but most notably among the league that had no salary cap and couldn't see its smallest market being held together with proverbial tape much longer.
Lindros, had he signed and actually lived up to the hype, would have no doubt sold out games every single night causing the league to have faith in the team instead of abandoning it. Instead of being a hero, he became a villain.
But most of all, he became a symbol and a reminder of how far the NHL has come in many ways but also how far it really hasn't as rumors persist of a reunion between the forgotten province and the NHL.
One of the few remaining links between the NHL past (Prince of Wales/Campbell vs. East and West format) as well as a lesson for future NHL prodigies like Taylor Hall and Tyer Seguin, the presumed top two picks in next week's draft, not to follow for inspiration.
Twenty years later, the pain is still there but maybe soon it will go away. We can only hope, as the league needs the Nords to return for the good of the game.
For those who wonder why I hype the Montreal Canadiens so much, this is why. They are a reminder of what hockey might have been like in Quebec had their favored team been allowed to survive and thrive.
Until they are allowed to resume, all we have are the memories (most of them bittersweet) and the latest sense of hope.
When I got in to hockey officially in 1996, guess which team was always on television?
The Colorado Avalanche.
So guess who I followed?
While many will argue (and rightfully so) that we'll never know what Lindros could have been due to injuries and concussions, his attitude right from the beginning made him less sympathetic throughout his entire career, as many fans won't and don't likely cut him that much slack. When you are labeled to be the best, you have to deliver. No excuses.
As for the team, it may have ended in Colorado but never forget it all began in Quebec. The same cannot be said for Lindros.
Now is the time for the NHL to return the favor and do the right thing.
Bring 'em back.
Statistics and information from The Hockey Database, Wikipedia, CBC, Andrew'spage.com, and Youtube directly contributed to the content of this article.
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