Glen Wesley was such a steady defensive force on the ice, such a calming influence in the locker room for so many years with the Carolina Hurricanes few fans remember just how controversial his trade to the franchise was back in 1994.
“There was a lot more to that trade than probably just the player,” general manager Jim Rutherford said.
The dynamics of the trade for Wesley was felt on many fronts, its validity and value questioned from numerous hockey experts, by crazed hockey fans from two neighboring New England states – even in the political arena. Rutherford was at a party soon after trading for Wesley when Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker approached the Hartford Whalers’ GM with his own two cents about the deal.
“The governor was a huge hockey fan and I remember him saying to me at his house one night that, ‘We are going to find out if that old, experienced guy in Boston is going to teach you a lesson.’ It started to make me a little bit nervous. I actually thought about that statement for a long time.”
The “old experienced guy” Weicker was referring to was longtime Boston general manager Harry Sinden, known across the hockey world for his tight wallet and keen mind for talent.
Peter Karmanos had just purchased the Hartford Whalers -- the bitter backyard rival of the Bruins – and the freshly-hired Rutherford selected Jeff O’Neill with his initial first-round draft pick. Soon thereafter, he traded for Wesley, who cost the Whalers three No. 1 draft picks (1995-97) – at the time a high price to pay for a defenseman whose major claim to fame was playing alongside future Hall of Famer Raymond Bourque.
Sure, Wesley had scored 19 goals in a season and posted two 50-plus point years in seven seasons in Beantown, but many questioned whether the Red Deer native was worth three top picks.
“The Whalers were the rival team of the Bruins and to be able to make a trade and sign a young defenseman who had a full career ahead of him was important to make a statement in the Hartford market,” Rutherford said. “But we knew we were getting a true professional, a good player -- on the ice and off the ice – with character who we expected to have a long time, which we did.”
The first-round draft picks Boston selected in the Wesley trade were Kyle McLaren, Jonathan Aitken and Sergei Samsonov.
McLaren played seven seasons for the Bruins and made the NHL All-Rookie team in 1996, but was injury prone and traded to San Jose after a contract dispute with Boston in the 2002-03 season.
Aitken played just three games with Boston and 44 NHL games total, netting one career assist, while Samsonov won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 1998 as the NHL rookie of the year, had four 20-goal seasons for the Bruins and was later traded to Edmonton in 2005. In a bit of irony, Samsonov was picked up by Carolina last season and now plays on the team’s top line.
“People talked about it at the time that it was a high price to pay, but it was funny that the year he retired one of the pieces that we traded for we end up getting,” Rutherford said of Samsonov. “I would admit that 5-6 years after that trade the scale was probably tipped Boston’s way. The fact that we won a Stanley Cup with Glen and he played a big role in it, once that happened that trade was justified over and over again. The scales tipped our way a little bit.”
Despite being dealt from a team he broke into the league with as a 19-year-old, Wesley welcomed the trade to the Whalers, who at the time were a struggling franchise in search of a winning formula.
“The frustration for me (in Boston) was just fighting tooth-and-nail contract-wise and then coming to an organization that appreciated you and wasn’t going to be a fight every year,” Wesley said. “That was the best thing for myself and what I wanted at the time, and it was a new challenge. It was something I looked forward to. I thought long and hard about it. I was ready for a fresh start.”
Wesley’s role changed once with the Whalers and later with the Carolina Hurricanes, becoming a shut-down defender and top-notch penalty killer. He never reached lofty offensive numbers with the Canes, but won a Stanley Cup in 2006 and played in another one in ’02.
“When we got him we thought he would be a little more offensive then he ended up being, but the role he was put into year-after-year with us probably was more suited for him, to be that defensive guy,” Rutherford said. “Playing with Ray Bourque is going to help your offensive totals, but we factored that in when we got him.”
“He scored 19 goals in a season in Boston. That’s a statement more to how he learned to change his game when he came to us,” added coach Paul Maurice. “Playing with Ray Bourque you are going to get some good looks, but he did a little bit of both. He may not have gotten the points for us, but his ability to move the puck up the ice had a lot to do with other guys getting points. And he played against the other’s team best every night and he was pretty darn good.”
In the end, if you’re judging the blockbuster trade, the edge goes to Rutherford, considering Wesley played 20 NHL seasons, logged 1,457 games, scored 537 points and has a possible Hall of Fame election waiting in the wings.
“The Hartford days weren’t easy for him because he came over for three first-round picks, and the years in Greensboro weren’t easy at all – all the things that went to building this team to what it was – he was there from day one,” Maurice said. “He was really an important piece to that.”
“Mr. Karmanos and Jimmy have been great to me from day one,” added Wesley, who now works with Carolina’s young defensemen. “There has never been a fight over what we had to work out. It has been mutual. They have been terrific to me and I’m thankful I have been able to stay with this organization. I just tried night-in and night-out to play as consistent as possible, and Jim rewarded me for my hard work and determination, and all the things that come with that.”