May 3, 2020

The Infamous Eric Lindros Double Deal with the Rangers and Flyers

Eric Lindros (Philadelphia Inquirer)

The other day, as I was partaking in seemingly endless and futile channel surfing, I finally found a program that caught my attention. I came across, on the NHL Network, a series entitled “A Day That Changed The Game.” This particular program was centered around June 22nd, 1991. The event was the NHL draft. The lowly, small market, Quebec Nordiques, with the first overall pick, selected the young hulking prodigy, the phenom named Eric Lindros.

Lindros Refuses to Put On Nordiques Sweater

Lindros was quite clear, in the days and weeks leading up to the draft that, if selected, he would not sign with the French Canadian franchise. The wild sequence from his name being announced and his refusal to put on the Nordiques sweater was a pretty strong indication he was serious. After a tumultuous year filled with controversy and soap opera-like scandal, The Nords came to the conclusion that trading the prized Lindros was the only way out of that mess.

The Lindros Trade Debacle

Once Quebec finally realized they had to trade the steadfast Lindros’ rights, they started fielding offers from teams around the league. The first team to reach out to Quebec owner Marcel Aubut was the Philadelphia Flyers. The bounty offered from the Flyers for Lindros was so extreme that, apparently, Aubut accepted the offer and immediately commenced the trade proceedings.

Lindros 1991 Draft (NHL.com)

However, before the trade was made official, New York Rangers General Manager Neil Smith contacted the Quebec owner and made him what seemed to be an even better offer with more cash. Aubut backed out of the Flyer package to accept what Smith had put on the table. This all happened on the same day, June 20th 1992 the morning of the NHL draft. A little unknown tidbit is that this incident gave birth to the “Trade Phone Call”.

Double Dealing

Now, there are several different versions of what actually went down during this time period of negotiations. As I was doing my research and refreshing my memory for this article, this seems to be the most accurate synopsis of what occurred.

An independent arbitrator named Larry Bertuzzi was brought in to determine who would win the Eric Lindros sweepstakes. The Flyers felt their deal was the one to be accepted, while the Rangers felt their agreement made with Aubut should stand. Each team presented their respective cases to the arbitrator. The Flyers and Rangers had many hotly contested battles before, but none like this. That is for darn sure.

Larry Bertuzzi breakdown decision

Lindros fit the Flyer mold perfectly. The franchise that was once romanticized as the “Broad Street Bullies” was the appropriate home for a player of this magnitude. Not since Gordie Howe entered the league in the 1940s had a player come into the NHL with this type of skill, talent, size and physicality. However, if Lindros wanted to be a megastar and the small market team from Quebec wasn’t suitable for his off-ice needs, then of course playing his home games on the island of Manhattan so close to Madison Avenue would be a nice touch in this ongoing soap opera.

“I received evidence from other clubs about how trades were made, what constitutes a trade,” said Bertuzzi. “What I learned was, it was a relatively informal procedure, usually engaged in by the general managers, who effectively operated, I think, by the rule that said, ‘burn me once, shame on you; burn me twice, shame on me’ and so they knew they had to deal with each other and as a result dealt with each other informally and fairly.”

Larry Bertuzzi via Sportsnet

The Decision

After five excruciating days of deliberations, word came down that a decision had been made and would be broadcast to the world on June 30th, 1992. Even though I was on summer vacation from school, I made sure that I was home to listen to the announcement live. It was carried on our local sports talk radio station here in New York.

As the announcement was being made, I could not understand a single word of the legal mumbo-jumbo that Bertuzzi was saying. When he finally put it all in layman’s terms, he decided the Flyers’ original deal was valid and the trade consummated by the Rangers, some 80 minutes later, was not. Eric Lindros was going to the Flyers and man, was I angry. In the end, Philly gave up Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, Mike Ricci, Chris Simon, two draft picks, $15 million and of course, future superstar Peter Forsberg.

Not only didn’t we land the “E-Train” as he was called, but he was going to our divisional rival which meant he’d torment the Rangers several times per season, plus potential playoff games. Remember folks, the wounds were still fresh from the heartbreaking loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1992 playoffs. Now, just as it seemed as if the pain was starting to diminish and the healing had begun, we’re dealt another, extremely difficult pill to swallow. Talk about kicking a fan base while they’re still down.

Ultimately, the key driving factor as to why Bertuzzi awarded to the Flyers came down to one thing. Quebec owner, Marcel Aubut gave the Flyers owner Ed Snider Eric Lindros’ phone number. For Bertuzzi, that was the act of good faith required in finalizing a deal.

The Aftermath

Neil Smith was the man who built a winner. (AP)

A lot was written in the New York papers following the decision that put the blame on the parent company of the Rangers, Paramount. According to reports, the procrastination and indecision of the media giant is what caused this 80-minute delay in making a trade and that ended up being the deal-breaker, per the arbitrator’s ruling. Again, there have been so many versions of this story told and who knows exactly what the truth is or was. But, the fact remains, once again, the Rangers lost out on the grand prize. They were the bridesmaid and not the bride.

Forever Blueshirts owner, Anthony Scultore went right to the source on this one and spoke with legendary Rangers GM, Neil Smith about that infamous decision. “I’m sure he made the decision that he felt the facts had uncovered during the arbitration,” Smith said. “[Bertuzzi] said that ultimately the Nordiques owner lied about the fact that the Flyers were given permission to talk to Eric and therefore that consummated the trade.” When asked how he felt about what transpired Neil replied, “I’ve never felt we got screwed.” For the Rangers Cup winning GM it was pretty straightforward. “The decision [Bertuzzi] was asked to make was “was there a legitimate trade made between Philadelphia and Quebec” if yes he goes to Philadelphia if no he stays with Quebec and they’re free to then trade him to NYR or wherever.”

On What Could’ve Been

All throughout their 90-plus history, the New York Rangers are synonymous for acquiring legendary players on the back-9 of their illustrious, Hall of Fame careers. Heck, Lindros did finally don the Broadway Blue for the 2001-02 season, but serious head injuries and years of throwing his immense frame around the ice left #88 a shell of what he use to be.

Lindros (Getty Images)

Some ask, and rightfully so, would the Rangers still have won the Cup in 1994 if the arbitrator ruled in the Blueshirt’s favor. After all, 1994 hero Alex Kovalev was part of the potential package heading to Quebec. Other players in the trade were James Patrick, Tony Amonte, Sergei Nemchinov and John Vanbiesbrouck. We’ll never know the answer to that hypothetical question but that is the beauty of sports. Neil Smith did tell Anthony this, “Maybe we don’t win the Stanley Cup, or maybe we would’ve won more. I’m just glad we got the one.”

What we do know is this, on June 30th, 1992 with the stroke of a lawyer’s pen, the Long Suffering Garden Faithful were dealt yet another painful body blow. However, as it turns out and even Neil Smith feels this way, it was the fair decision. The Rangers did go on to win the Stanley Cup two years later and that’s history too. Great history.

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