I realized I was getting older (not "old"; I'm not there yet...) when I started pining for the good old days when there were but 21 teams in the NHL. Sure, it wasn't the glory days of the Original Six, but I am a child of the 80's, and for me, there was a certain stability in seeing the same 21 teams re-emerge from their summer slumber every October.
It seems like a lifetime ago when my Dad would come home from work and ask, "Did you hear about the big trade today?" This was long before the Internet, so I would never hear news about a trade until hours after it had been consummated. I miss the big name transactions and blockbuster deals that used to be commonplace. I miss those six and seven player deals that would completely change a team's fortunes around. Now, when I hear any kind of rumour, I just turn my head to my laptop some 45 degrees to my right and check Tsn.ca to get the latest dirt. While it may be more convenient, it just isn't the same. I miss the excitement and the anticipation of finding out exactly what happened. Trades used to happen seemingly out of the blue. Now, they are rumoured for weeks. When was the last time we were truly flabbergasted by a trade? Go on, think about it...
I remember back in the early nineties when my beloved Habs made a slew of shocking trades that completely transformed the personality of the team. First, on September 20, 1991, general manager Serge Savard sent slick, but enigmatic two-time 50-goal scorer Stéphane Richer and little-used Tom Chorske to New Jersey for the grittier and more dependable Kirk Muller and back-up goaltender Roland Melanson. Richer had upset Montreal management as a result of numerous questionable decisions during his stay. At the 1991 Canada Cup, Richer turned down, for personal reasons, an invitation to join Team Canada, on which Montreal head coach Pat Burns was an assistant coach. Richer was then seen playing in a softball tournament in Vancouver (1). Burns was disappointed Richer didn't want to play for Team Canada because he didn't get to speak with Mark Messier. "That's why I wish Steph had played the Canada Cup – so Mark Messier could have told him to shut up." (2) Richer further ticked off Burns before the 1991 playoffs by openly admitting he wouldn't mind playing for the expansion Ottawa Senators, close to his hometown Ripon, Quebec. Many believed the polarizing Richer could not handle the pressure of playing in a pressure cooker like Montreal. "I got myself into difficult situations sometimes," Richer said. "In Montreal, you can't say just anything because it all comes back on you" (3).
Muller, on the other hand, was a training camp holdout. While he was not as flashy as Richer, he was consistent, usually falling somewhere in the 70-80 point range. He was also tougher and not afraid to go into the corners. Muller did well his first year in Montreal, leading the tight, defensive squad in scoring with 77 points. Unfortunately, the Habs struggled to beat the mediocre Hartford Whalers in the first round and then took it on the chin in a four-game sweep to Boston in round two.
Serge Savard was determined to make amends for the disappointing season and bring firewagon hockey back to Montreal for the first time in years. On August 27, Savard acquired the Edmonton Oilers' leading scorer, 89-point man Vincent Damphousse and a 4th-round pick in exchange for Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist and Vladimir Vujtek. Damphousse had just separated from his wife, so he turned down a 3-year, $2.1 million offer from GM Glen Sather and asked for a trade. (4)
Just four days after acquiring Damphousse, Savard dealt the speedy Russ Courtnall to Minnesota for former 50-goal scorer Brian Bellows. "Fasten your seat belts because it should be a pretty good ride," exclaimed new coach Jacques Demers, and he wasn't kidding! "Brian Bellows is quite a hockey player," Demers said. "He can play the game physically and he can score goals. Nothing against Russ Courtnall, but Brian has the reputation of coming to play every night, a guy who gives maximum effort." Stars' GM Bob Gainey had a different opinion, stating the team's record during Bellows' tenure "wasn't very good. He has to be held accountable." (5) Gainey made Bellows seem like a selfish player. "Brian tried to direct his career in the way he thought was best for him," said Gainey. Savard made it seem as though he stole Bellows from Minnesota: "It was a delicate situation and sometimes that can force a team to make errors," he said. (6)
These three transactions made a huge impact on the Habs. The 1992-93 Canadiens suddenly had a powerful offense, scoring 326 goals, their most since 1985-86. Damphousse, Muller and Bellows were Montreal's top 3 scorers in both the regular season and playoffs. Damphousse's 97 regular-season and 23 playoff points were both career highs, as were Muller's 94 regular-season and 17 playoff points. Bellows led the team with 40 goals in the regular season, including a team-high 16 on the power play. He also chipped in another 15 points in the playoffs. There was also a certain Patrick Roy who made the occasional save that year, but the impact of Serge Savard's trading savvy should not be overlooked.
Damphousse, Muller and Bellows came up big when the team needed them. During the 1993 playoffs, Damphousse scored one overtime goal and assisted on two others. Muller scored two overtime goals and added another assist. Bellows assisted on three overtime winners (7). None of that would have happened, however, had it not been for Damphousse. It was he who scored the overtime winner in game three of the Adams Division Semi-Final versus Quebec. Had Montreal not won that game, the Nordiques would have led the series 3-0, which would have been an almost insurmountable deficit. Damphousse's overtime goal was the first of ten the Canadiens would score on their amazing Stanley Cup run. It was also the first of 11 straight playoff overtime wins, still an NHL record.
The way in which the Canadiens' overhauled their roster will never be seen again. The day of the blockbuster trade is no more. The way of doing business has drastically changed. Trades used to be a vital means of improving one's team. Free agency in the pre-lockout years was restrictive to everyone; buyers were forced to compensate a player's former team, so players rarely had the opportunity to sign elsewhere. Before that, the reserve clause gave players no other option but to remain with their team until they were traded or sold. To give players a fair shake, it was necessary to change the system. I do miss those blockbuster deals, though. Sure, we still get a flurry of deals at the trade deadline, but these deals mostly involve players with contracts about to expire or contracts so difficult to fit under the salary cap they need to be dumped for draft picks.
Whatever happened to those deals in which general managers had to give up a decent player in order to get a decent player in return? There was a lot of risk involved in a big trade, and that was exciting. Today, there are simply too many factors to consider before two general managers can pull off a huge transaction. Besides, now that players can become unrestricted free agents and switch teams at the drop of a hat, there is less need for a general manager to make a big trade.
Luckily for us, hockey has evolved nicely since the days of the blockbuster deal. Players skate faster, bodychecks are harder, and goaltenders are better. With all of the overtime games and two-goal leads being overcome, the 2014 playoffs have been some of the best ever seen. While I miss the blockbuster deal, I wouldn't trade today's game for the one I grew up watching. There are lots of things we miss from our childhood days; parachute pants, Kris Kross, and Cabbage Patch Kids, but we have to let go of them eventually. For me, the big trade is the childhood memory I've abandoned, but I've since learned that there are other things to appreciate just as much.
(1) "Canadiens trade Richer to New Jersey for Muller," Winnipeg Free Press, September 21, 1991, p. 69.
(2) Canadian Press. "Richer: Dealing with trade," Brandon Sun, September 22, 1991, p. 9.
(3) Canadian Press. "Richer: Dealing with trade," Brandon Sun, September 22, 1991, p. 9.
(4) Cariou, Chris. "Damphousse gets wish through trade to Habs," Winnipeg Free Press, Aug. 28, 1992, p. 46.
(5) "Habs deal Courtnall to Stars for Bellows," Lethbridge Herald, September 1, 1992, p. B1.
(6) "Canadiens-Stars swap veterans they both claim made them worse," Medicine Hat News, September 1, 1992, p. A9.
(7) The information used herein was obtained free of charge from and is copyrighted by The Hockey Summary Project. For more information about the Hockey Summary Project please visit: http://hsp.flyershistory.com or http://sports.groups.yahoo.com/group/hockey_summary_project/