The Dale McCourt Saga: The Beginning Of The End Of Team Loyalty

Warren ShawCorrespondent IISeptember 9, 2009

Dale McCourt and Steve Yzerman have a lot in common. Both entered the NHL with superb credentials and were dubbed the next NHL superstars. Both were highly sought after by Detroit. McCourt would never achieve those lofty heights but had a solid NHL career followed by a lengthy career in Switzerland. Yzerman went on to greatness spending his entire career with the Red Wings and leading his team to the Stanley Cup while scoring over 1700 points in his illustrious career..

A native of Falconbridge, Ontario, McCourt was a junior superstar in the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA). He was a consistent 50-goal scorer who captained the Hamilton Fincups to the Memorial Cup in 1976. He was also honored as the Stafford Smythe Memorial trophy as Memorial Cup MVP. In 1977 McCourt  represented Canada at the 1977 World Junior Championships where he was tournament all-star and helped Canada win a silver medal. That season he was named the Canadian Major Junior player-of-the-year in 1977. He graduated junior as the all time leader in many scoring categories. McCourt concluded his junior career with 193 goals and 286 assists in 296 games. Yzerman also had a stellar junior career and was drafted by Detroit as a teenager.

The Detroit Red Wings opted to select McCourt with the first overall pick at the 1977 Amateur Draft, passing on the highly rated defenseman Barry Beck and future Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. McCourt contributed immediately and played on a line with Paul Woods and Bill Lochead, scoring 33 goals.

He was a popular fixture in Detroit after helping the Red Wings return to the Stanley Cup playoffs. McCourt was awarded the captain position as a testament to his popularity and perceived potential. Similarly Steve Yzerman was appointed captain at a very young age and led his team to great heights and positioned himself in the NHL Hall of Fame.

McCourt's sophomore year was maligned by a court battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. McCourt became property of the Los Angeles Kings as it was ruled he would be the compensation for Detroit's signing of former Kings goalie Rogie Vachon. McCourt refused to report to Los Angeles, and after a lengthy court battle, McCourt remained in Detroit.

The Kings and Wings continued to spar following the earlier Marcel Dionne free agency grab which resulted in the Hall of Fame center leaving Detroit and signing with the Kings. The Wings received Dan Maloney and Terry Harper as compensation. 

The affair seemed to affect his play as he got off to a slow start. He finished with 28 goals and 71 points. McCourt would later comment that the lengthy court battle and the subsequent blackballing by the NHL and many NHL players cost him his love affair with the NHL. McCourt's refusal to join the Kings and his after-treatment helped change the way many players looked at their team and ushered in what is now free agency.

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McCourt continued to be a solid overall productrion for Detroit, upping his scoring totals to 81 and 86 points in the following years. But the team could not duplicate its 1977-78 success. Different than Yzerman, McCourt did not have a strong enough supporting cast and a mixture of veterans to move to the next level. 

With Detroit unable to make the playoffs, the Red Wings and GM Ted Lindsay became impatient and traded youngsters McCourt and Mike Foligno to the Buffalo Sabres early in the 1981-82 season. The trade would be one of the most famous in Buffalo history, as Foligno became a team leader and fan favorite.

McCourt, meanwhile, was not as popular in Buffalo,the home of speedy center Gilbert Perreault. McCourt had all the skills and hockey sense, but was never a fast skater.  Playing primarily with wingers Tony McKegney and Alan Haworth. McCourt struggled under coach Scotty Bowman,after two seasons of just 20 goals each, McCourt was released.  Bowman was also Steve Yzerman's coach when Detroit established themselves as a league powerhouse winning numerous Stanley Cups. 

McCourt, the nephew of hockey hall of famer George Armstrong, signed as a free agent with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1983-84, but his mediocre play continued as he scored 19 goals.

With his NHL teams often missing the playoffs, McCourt had a more fulfilling experience in international hockey by twice representing Canada at the World Championships. In 1984-85, McCourt decided  to leave the NHL migrating to Europe  joining Ambri Piotta of Switzerland. He would stay in Switzerland for seven seasons before retiring in 1991.

In retirement McCourt remained in Europe, coaching in Italy, including as an assistant coach in the 1994 Olympics. He returned to Canada in 2000 and was reported to have a job as a truck driver.

No one knows what would have happened if McCourt chose a different path accepting the courts ruling and reporting to the Kings. What is clear is McCourt's loyalty to the Wings cost him, but like his uncle he chose the old fashioned approach to his team, that of loyalty. McCourt's outcome helped take Marcel Dionne off the hook with many Wings fans who were initially angry at his decision to bolt the Red Wings for the City of Angels. 

Under new ownership Yzerman, of course stayed with the Wings his entire career and is now a executive with the club.

Ironically, Ii was Rogie Vachon, the original focal point of the court decision, who traded Dionne to the Rangers from the Kings while he served as GM. Things have a way of going full circle. Unfortunately the days when stars stay on one team their entire career is over. The salary cap and free agency assure not many players will retire with the team that drafted them. Steve Yzerman was the exception. Dale McCourt wanted to stay but was denied the opportunity.