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A fine Mess



A week late and at least a couple million dollars short, I thought I should comment on David Staples' fine report on the trade SALE of Mark Messier. Here's a link, although the basics are right in the title: Secret cash payment to Pocklington in Mark Messier deal finally comes to light. In it Pocklington admits "There was a couple of million with it."

Well, isn't that a surprise.

First of all, a short lesson in Pocklingtonese for those new to the form. "There was a couple of million with it."

  • " a couple " means somewhere on the number line between (conservatively) ½ and 10.
  • " million " could mean cash, promissory note, shares, jewellery, (highly-leveraged) property value, a piece of art (insured value, not real value), a few other things I've forgotten and any combination thereof, and was much more likely to be calculated in "future market value" than "current market value".
  • And " it " could mean anything. Anything at all.

The persistent rumour of the day - 1991 October 1 to be specific - was $5 MM US. For sure the only way the deal made any sense whatsoever was for there to be at least 30 pieces of silver changing hands, because as a hockey deal it stank to high heaven. It stank even before the little-remembered future considerations kicked in, in which the Oilers sent another once-and-future Stanley Cup champion Manhatten's way for a pinch of coon shit.

Moreover, this wasn't even the first time the Oilers got the short end of the stick in what was a series of transactions between the two clubs over the next 3 or so years ...

Trivia question #1: Who is the Only player in NHL history to be named to the end-of-season First All-Star Team at two different positions?
Trivia question #2: Who is the Only player in NHL history to captain two different franchises to the Stanley Cup?

When the Rangers won the Stanley Cup for the only time in even my lifetime in 1994, they were stocked with no fewer than 7 players who had won the Cup with Edmonton in 1990. The Rangers acquired all but one, Glenn Anderson, directly from the Oilers. The Oilers fared alright in the last two of those six deals, but up 'til then it was a massacre.

  • 1991 September 3: Rangers sign Adam Graves as a restricted free agent. NHL-appointed arbitrator assigns Troy Mallette to the Oilers as "equal" compensation. This wasn't exactly a trade: because the Oilers were too stupid/cheap to offer Graves a fair contract he got offer sheeted. "Gravey" would go on to play 772 regular season games for the Rangers, scoring 280 goals including 52 in the Stanley Cup season, and getting his number 9 retired (alongside Andy Bathgate) in MSG. Mallette would play all of 15 games for the Oil, bulging the twine once. His number 12 remains in circulation.
  • 1991 October 1: Oilers trade Mark Messier to Rangers for Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice, Louie DeBrusk and "a couple of million with it". Unlike Brian Burke and Darcy Regehr, Glen Sather wasn't one to bear a grudge about offer sheets judging by this league-changing deal. Actually it's entirely unfair to tar and feather Sather for this one, which has Pocklington's fingerprints all over the unmarked bills. The diminishing asset Messier would only play 698 regular season games for the Rangers (taking a three-year hiatus in Vancouver), score 691 points, captain the Rangers to two President's Trophies and one Stanley Cup, and of course get his own number 11 retired for a second time. The three guys coming our way would play just a combined 417 games, with the worst player of the three, DeBrusk, playing the lion's share (228) of those. Nicholls would play 95 games in Edmonton, Rice 94. Nicholls was pretty much a spent force by then, though he did have a nice run in the '92 playoffs. Rice on the other hand, was a supposed can't-miss prospect who officially became a Slug while in Edmonton. He was Brad Isbister, Brad Winchester, Josh Green, and J-F Jacques rolled into one.
  • 1991 November 12: It gets worse. The future considerations of the Messier deal are announced. Oilers trade Jeff Beukeboom to Rangers for David Shaw. Beukeboom would go on to play 520 games as a Ranger, most of them as Brian Leetch's responsible stay-at-home partner, and would have played many more if not for suffering a career-ending concussion in a senseless assault by Kings' goon Matt Johnson. Shaw would play 12 games of -8 hockey for the Oilers.
  • 1992 December 11: Oilers trade Kevin Lowe to Rangers for Roman Oksiuta and NY Rangers' 3rd round choice (Alexander Kerch) in 1993 Entry Draft, December 11, 1992. Lowe would play 217 regular season games as a Ranger, Oksiuta 36 with the Oilers (-15) and Kerch just 5 (in which he posted a memorable 0-0-0, -8). This was the only one of all these deals where any sort of draft pick was involved.
  • 1993 March 17: Oilers trade Esa Tikkanen to Rangers for Doug Weight. Finally, a deal that worked out for the Oil, although it also delivered what the Rangers needed in another playoff-savvy vet who would help them win that Cup. Tikkanen would play 144 games as a Ranger, Weight 588 as an Oiler, scoring 577 points. Finally, after Mallette, Rice, DeBrusk, Shaw, Oksiuta, and Kerch, the Oilers got a real player in return.
  • 1994 March 21: Oilers trade Craig MacTavish to Rangers for Todd Marchant. MacTavish would play just 12 regular season games as a Ranger, but importantly, 23 more in the playoffs as a defensive/PK/faceoff specialist. Marchant would play 678 games for the Oilers. A clear win for the Oilers, but the fact that Toddy played >50X as many regular season games for his new club as MacT but less than 2X the number of playoff games puts the deal in a little different perspective. Rangers were close enough at that point that they were willing to give up real prospects to win.

Finally, after being raped in four previous deals, the Oilers actually got excellent return in the last two, acquiring their core centres for The Little Team That Could. From a Rangers perspective, NYR got decent value for those trades acquiring useful, experienced parts, while winning outright the first four transactions. It's surely inarguable that without that series of transactions, or indeed the Messier one alone, the Rangers wouldn't have even the one Stanley Cup from these last 70 years. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

Of all the players who changed hands over that unprecedented sequence of transactions, the one with by far the most present market value and future market value was undeniably Mark Messier. Far more than a couple of million worth. He was immediately named captain of the Rangers, brought instant credibility to a struggling team, and proved his playing chops and leadership mettle by winning the Hart Trophy and leading the Broadway Blues to the President's Trophy. Two years later he would lead them to the regular season-playoff "double" including the Grail, scoring the Cup-winning goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

* * *

While trading activity between the two slowed down to something approaching normal after 1994, the two teams continued to have a strangely incestuous inter-relationship, essentially training each other's management and coaching staffs. Glen Sather himself moved on to the Rangers in 2000, and hired ex-Oiler coach Ron Low as his new head man. In Edmonton, Kevin Lowe had first replaced Low as coach, then replaced Sather as GM, hiring ex-Rangers assistant Craig MacTavish as his own head man. Today, Sather and Lowe remain in key upper management positions, while things have settled down on the coaching front other than the Oilers hire of ex-Ranger coach Tom Renney.

Peter Pocklington, meanwhile, claims to be misunderstood.

Trivia answerS: Mark Messier