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Walker NFL trade led Nordiques to Lindros deal

by Arpon Basu

Many believe the 1992-93 NHL season was among the finest staged in the League's history. From the addition of two teams through expansion, to the sudden prominence of European players, to the heroics of Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, to the crowning of the Montreal Canadiens as Stanley Cup champions, the season was full of memorable moments. At its 20th anniversary, will spend the year looking back at the key moments of that '92-93 campaign to see if it may indeed be the NHL's Greatest Season.

Eric Lindros was a huge presence that loomed over the story arc of this magical season. Last month, looked at his trade to the Philadelphia Flyers -- perhaps the biggest in the history of the League -- through the eyes of the Flyers. Now we look at the deal through the eyes of the Quebec Nordiques, the team that drafted Lindros No. 1, then used him to finish the foundation of a franchise that would grow into a dynasty after relocating to Colorado.

As general manager and coach of the Quebec Nordiques, Pierre Page was well on his way to the team's fifth straight last-place finish in the Adams Division during the 1991-92 NHL season, and the potential solution to that chronic problem was refusing to play for his team.


Lindros trade: The other side

By Adam Kimelman - Staff Writer
In this four-part feature, looks at the Eric Lindros trade -- perhaps the biggest in the history of the League -- through the eyes of the Philadelphia Flyers. READ MORE ›

Page chose Eric Lindros with the No. 1 pick in the 1991 NHL Draft despite the fact the prodigy, playing for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League, had made it abundantly clear he never intended to sign with the Nordiques. With Lindros biding his time in junior, the Nordiques were heading toward a 52-point season, their sixth straight losing campaign.

But Page said the decision to draft Lindros wasn't difficult, even though he knew the chances of him ever wearing a Nordiques jersey were slim. So slim, in fact, Lindros refused to put one on after he was taken with the first pick.

"I think it was easy, because he was by far the best player available," Page told in a phone interview from Salzburg, Austria, where he has coached FC Red Bull Salzburg for the past six years. "He was like a 6-foot-5 Wayne Gretzky."

Once Lindros was drafted, Page did everything in his power to get him to sign a contract, offering him a 10-year deal worth $50 million -- a veritable fortune in 1991 for a player who had yet to lace up for a single NHL game -- and recruiting legend Guy Lafleur to try to sell Lindros on the idea of playing in Quebec City.

Page also had the nucleus of a good young team in place to try to attract Lindros. Joe Sakic (22 years old at the time), Mats Sundin (20), Adam Foote (20), Martin Rucinsky (20), Owen Nolan (19) and Valeri Kamensky (25) were on the roster, suggesting a brighter future.

Adding Lindros to this group likely would have turned the Nordiques into instant contenders, but Lindros -- and his parents Bonnie and Carl -- wasn't the least bit interested and turned down Page’s overtures.

"His parents were pretty hands on," Page said with a chuckle. "But [Lindros] never broke any rules, and the rules said we had two years to sign him."

Lindros decided to wait it out, and Page was left to watch his young team struggle through the 1991-92 season.

He also was looking to the National Football League for a potential solution. Page was intently following the progression of the Dallas Cowboys, who were coming out of a run of futility remarkably similar to the one his Nordiques were going through at the time.

The 1991 Cowboys finished with an 11-5 record, snapping a streak of five straight losing seasons and winning the franchise’s first playoff game since 1982. These Cowboys were two years removed from trading running back Herschel Walker and four draft picks to the Minnesota Vikings for a package that included five players, three first-round draft picks, three second-round picks, a third-round pick and a sixth-round pick.

To Page, it became increasingly obvious that Eric Lindros was his Herschel Walker.

"We all felt like that was our ticket," Page said. "Sometimes, you need inspiration, you need a model. That trade became our model."

Throughout the season, serving as coach and general manager, Page and his staff studied the intricacies of the Walker trade, how Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson and owner Jerry Jones worked the various suitors across the NFL against each other to create a bidding war -- and how that bidding war landed the Cowboys a treasure trove of draft picks they would use to build a team that would go on to become an NFL dynasty by winning three Super Bowls in a four-year span.

The process leading up to the trade of Lindros at the 1992 NHL Draft in Montreal in June began a month earlier at the Memorial Cup in Seattle.

While playing the 1990-91 season for the Oshawa Generals, Lindros racked up 71 goals and 78 assists in just 57 games, making him a hot commodity in the '91 NHL Draft. (Photo: Getty Images)

"The process of the trade was really interesting," Jacques Martin, a Nordiques assistant coach at the time, told "The Memorial Cup was in Seattle that year, and I remember the whole organization was having meetings, and it even included the owner and president Mr. [Marcel] Aubut. All the scouts were there, coaches, management, asking everybody to put down on a piece of paper what the trade should entail.

"We had a real in-depth analysis of our team. We looked at what we had as assets and we looked at where the holes were that we wanted to fill with that trade."

With 10 to 12 teams interested in acquiring Lindros -- roughly half the 24-team NHL -- Page and Nordiques brass rented out an entire floor of Montreal’s Delta Hotel and arrived on June 17, 1992, three days before the draft.

"I'd never seen anything like it," Page said. "We had a receptionist by the elevators, we had our own catering, we had everything we needed to run an office."

One by one, the Nordiques received teams in their "office" to listen to pitches for their prized prospect, but Page said there was one team he was targeting all along.

"The team that had everything we wanted was the Flyers," Page said.

Page was fielding other offers well into the middle of the night prior to the draft. He said he had one offer from Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Cliff Fletcher -- "He was going to trade me practically his entire team" -- but that Fletcher changed his mind and backed out at about 4 a.m. the morning of the draft.

Page was talking to the New York Rangers and general manager Neil Smith at around that time, not knowing that Aubut (who declined a request to be interviewed for this story) had gone to see Philadelphia Flyers president Jay Snider hours earlier.

At about 10 a.m. the day of the draft, Page said the Chicago Blackhawks backed out of a proposed trade that would have sent five players and seven draft picks to the Nordiques for Lindros because they were unwilling to meet the $18 million in cash required to complete the deal. Then, just minutes before the draft was to begin, Page said he closed a deal with the Rangers and Smith for a package that included goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, center Doug Weight, forwards Alexei Kovalev and Tony Amonte, three first-round draft picks and $15 million in cash.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Page, Aubut had closed a deal with the Flyers an hour or two earlier for a package that included forwards center Peter Forsberg, forwards Mike Ricci and Chris Simon, defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman, goaltender Ron Hextall, a first-round draft pick and $15 million -- a trade Page previously coveted, but was led to believe was dead.

With two teams now believing they had traded for Lindros, the case was turned over to an NHL-appointed arbitrator, Larry Bertuzzi, who conducted a long hearing in Montreal to determine who would be the winner of the Lindros sweepstakes.

But all along, the Flyers had someone unexpected pulling for them.

"To be honest, the deal with the Flyers was better," Page said. "So losing the court case was a win."

The influx of talent had an immediate impact on the Nordiques, who were able to surround their budding young stars with legitimate NHL players in 1992-93 and ended a five-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought with a 104-point season, a new franchise record.

"It might not be my place to say it, but I would think the Herschel Walker trade and this one were the two greatest trades in sports history."
-- Pierre Page, former GM and coach of the Quebec Nordiques

After a dip back out of the playoffs in 1993-94, the Nordiques welcomed Forsberg to the NHL in the shortened 1994-95 season and new general manager Pierre Lacroix swung a number of other deals -- most importantly acquiring goaltender Patrick Roy -- that made the franchise a Stanley Cup champion in its first season as the Colorado Avalanche in 1995-96.

"That trade really helped speed up the development of the organization; they won the Stanley Cup shortly afterwards," Martin said. "When Pierre [Page] left, that’s when Pierre Lacroix came in and traded Sundin for Wendel Clark and Sylvain Lefebvre. In Colorado, he made the trade for Roy and traded Wendel in a three-way deal for Claude Lemieux and he sent Owen Nolan to the Sharks for Sandis Ozolinsh. But that Lindros trade was the beginning."

The Avalanche would win another Stanley Cup in 2001, and between 1996 and 2002 the club reached at least the Western Conference Finals in all but one year.

It was a development curve that was ultimately very similar to the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s, which was exactly what Page was hoping for as soon as he realized Lindros would never sign with the Nordiques.

His own Herschel Walker had delivered the same results as the real version.

"It might not be my place to say it," Page said, "but I would think the Herschel Walker trade and this one were the two greatest trades in sports history."

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