Nobody can ever accuse Ed Snider of not doing everything he can to try and get the Flyers, his baby and lasting legacy, another Stanley Cup.
There are many out there who experience Snider as he is now, Uncle Ed living in Malibu, in his later years at turns avuncular and apoplectic in the public eye, now that the Orange and Black have succeeded in keeping up the veneer of a winning club that sometimes gets a fleeting whiff of glory.
You’d think he really swung his manhood around by influencing the madness of last June, but there was a time when the desire to return the franchise to its winning ways — not just to send it over the ever-present hump — was a desperate pursuit.
In the Summer of 1992, the Flyers had missed out on the postseason for the third campaign in succession. Thanks to the steadying Bill Dineen, the team righted itself from an early slump under Paul Holmgren but nevertheless finished at the bottom of the Patrick Division, 12 points out of a playoff berth, and sported the sixth-worst offense in the NHL.
Snider was two years removed from a bitter front office battle between his biological son, team president Jay Snider and his adopted son in general manager Bob Clarke. He lost out on both accounts, not intervening when he could while his son fired Clarke outright.
His successor was Russ Farwell. By all accounts a decent man, he’d come from Canadian juniors, the Western Hockey League, where he put together winning clubs with Seattle and Medicine Hat. By all accounts, Farwell was a man overmatched by the minds in charge at the NHL level, and it showed.
Philadelphia went from a veteran-laden team struggling through the pains of growing younger and developing, into one which couldn’t seem to get out of its own way and faltering at the first sign of adversity.
As a result, pressure to return to elite status was increasing. With a prize dangling just out of reach, the younger Snider and Farwell (with plenty of guidance from the elder Snider) teamed up to guide the franchise through one of the most trying and tense periods in team history: the acquisition of Eric Lindros.
Problems arose in that the team Lindros refused to play for — and who selected him first overall the year before — the Quebec Nordiques, were the dreck of the NHL during that period. In 1991-92, the Nords finished last in the Adams Division for the fifth straight season, but for the first time since 1989 was not the worst club in the NHL thanks to expansion San Jose.
Once a proud franchise boasting the likes of the Stastny brothers, Michel Goulet, Dale
Hunter, Dan Bouchard, Clint Malarchuk, Mario Marois and Pat Price, the French-Canadian bellwethers were stripped down to Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin, Owen Nolan and nothing else.
A rarity in the business, both clubs had everything to gain and little to lose by working out a compromise.
The intrigue surrounding the actual process of the deal is worthy of its own eight-hour basic-cable miniseries, so I’ve whittled it down to its primary actions, from the Philadelphia perspective, thanks to Jay Greenberg’s Full Spectrum, the Inquirer, Daily News, and apocryphal sources:
1) Farwell had dinner with Nordiques GM Marcel Aubut in early June at Le Colisee in Quebec City, during which the latter laid out several trade possibilities both with and without Lindros as the chip. Aubut’s solid proposal included Mike Ricci, Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, first-round picks in 1992, ’93 and ’94 and either Peter Forsberg or Vyacheslav Butsayev.
2) Despite the cordial atmosphere and work both sides accomplished in drawing up possible scenarios. Aubut forbade Flyers representatives from speaking directly to Lindros until both sides had consummated a trade.
3) Lindros’ agent, Rick Curran, was instructed by Lindros’ family to keep Eric from going to the Flyers, owing to the family’s distrust of Curran for moving from Toronto to Philadelphia and the possibility that Curran might become too comfortable with the organization.
4) Aubut also made it clear that the Flyers were not the only team in the running for a potential trade, naming at least 10 other NHL clubs who had a line on discussions with Quebec — including the New York Rangers — leading up to the draft just over one week later taking place in Montreal.
5) Negotiations began between the Flyers and Nordiques four days before the draft, continuing right through draft day.
6) At 1 a.m. (et) the morning of the draft, June 20, Aubut presented Flyers president Jay Snider with a card listing the asking price, in take-it-or-leave-it fashion: Ricci, Hextall, Duchesne, Huffman, Forsberg, Philly’s seventh overall pick, a first-round selection in 1993 and $15 million.
7) Aubut accepted Snider’s acceptance later that morning, then instructed Curran to call the Lindros family, who were vacationing in a house cut off from technology in Northern Ontario. Once reached, Carl Lindros then spoke to Snider, agreeing to let Eric play for the Flyers, provided he make as much as Mark Messier per season right off the bat.
8. The deal would still not be official until Eric, at the Flyers’ behest, actually signed the contract — something which Aubut and the Nordiques brain trust apparently did not want.
9) Despite plans for Nords head coach Pierre Page and Farwell to exchange secret signs once the seventh pick came up, tipping off the final unknown piece to the agreed-upon deal, Aubut backed out at the last minute, claiming the board would not accept the terms with the signing condition intact.
10) Aubut then told Snider and president Ron Ryan that he accepted a deal with the New York Rangers.
11) Ryan, Snider and minority partners Fran and Sylvan Tobin confronted outgoing NHL president John Ziegler about the issue on the draft floor, and Ziegler pushed the decision off on soon-to-be-president Gil Stein, who suggested arbitration.
12) Snider then angrily confronted Smith, Rangers governor Stanley Jaffe and Aubut at the draft, telling each the deal was, in fact, with the Flyers and not the Rangers.
All concerned parties met away from draft activities, where Ziegler recommended arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi (Todd’s uncle). Bertuzzi, who chose to gather all the evidence and information through face-to-face testimony in Montreal over a six-day period, spoke to more than a dozen people involved, Eric Lindros included.
After a torturous further 72 hours of consulting legal precedent, writing, editing and having the decision officially transcribed, he passed down his ultimate decision on June 30, a Tuesday morning.
Below are excerpts of Bertuzzi’s ruling, taken from Full Spectrum:
It is important at this point to emphasize that this is not a dispute over whether an oral deal has more or less weight in the NHL than one which possesses all the trappings of a legal document. It is simply a determination of whether two clubs made a ‘deal’ in the way clubs in the NHL have been making ‘deals’ for 75 years…it is common knowledge that the [Rangers-Nordiques] deal was concluded on Saturday, June 20, during a telephone conversation between Aubut in Montreal and Jaffe in New York…there was no written agreement between Aubut and Jaffe…nor was there a handshake.
There is no indication [Jaffe] had any knowledge of Quebec’s dealings with Philadelphia, save the fact that Philadelphia was also a ‘bidder’ and had a draft choice in its offer. There is no evidence to suggest Jaffe ever knew what the complete Philadelphia terms were…Philadelphia asked Aubut early and often for an opportunity to speak to Lindros to determine his attitude about reporting. Aubut’s response was quite clear: ‘not until we have a deal.‘ Secondly, Philadelphia insisted that any deal was subject to a condition that Lindros sign a contract with it. Philadelphia would have a short period of time, a matter of days, to satisfy that condition…New York went so far as to put this condition in writing three weeks earlier, but Philadelphia and Quebec also operated on that clear understanding.
Quebec suggests no deal was made with Philadelphia in that there was no meeting of the minds…Philadelphia on the other hand, says that Jay Snider accepted Aubut’s position as written and that the condition regarding Lindros was understood and agreed…New York agreed with Quebec’s submissions and suggested the absence of a time frame on the contract condition was the key to finding that no Philadelphia-Quebec deal existed…
Having considered the matter carefully and having reviewed and assessed the evidence of all witnesses, I find that Philadelphia made an enforceable deal with Quebec…
Nothing more needed to be said. Eric Lindros was finally ours.
The price for a shot at a superstar who could lead the team to multiple championships ended up being Hextall, Ricci, Huffman, Duchesne, prospects Forsberg and Chris Simon, a first-round draft pick in 1993 (which turned into goaltender Jocelyn Thibault), a first-round pick in 1994 (which, after two subsequent trades, became Nolan Baumgartner) along with $15,000,000.
The issue of who was wise and who was foolish for all the effort is still hotly debated.
Ultimately, the Rangers did just fine despite the subterfuge, winning the Cup just two years later. Aubut received a Pyrrhic victory as the deal essentially re-stocked the Nordiques and allowed the franchise a record-setting rebirth, but the Nordiques were sold and wound up in Denver, where, in 1996 as the Avalanche, the dream of a Stanley Cup was realized thanks to the three remaining players included in the trade.
As for the Flyers, the biggest gamble in their history aside from being able to bring professional hockey to Philadelphia may be considered a short-term coup but long-term dud.
To finish, a special report aired on Channel 6 some time during Lindros’ rookie season: