Jonathan Drouin can learn from NHL’s most famous contract holdouts
Jonathan Drouin’s decision to walk away from his assignment with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch on Wednesday night was a bold move, but hardly unusual. Staging a holdout is a tried and true path to achieving a career goal, whether it’s a new contract or a fresh start with another team. Maple Leafs defender Tim Horton, a Hall of Famer, held out more than once, claiming he’d rather retire to work on his burgeoning donut business than deal with one slight or another. Carl Brewer forced a trade from Detroit to St. Louis in 1971 after bolting from the Red Wings over a bonus clause.
But while the player usually gets his way, there’s no guarantee that his desired result will come any time soon. It all comes down to which side has the most leverage in a battle of wills.
Consider the case of Ken Dryden. A remarkably accomplished player, he already had two Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe and a Calder trophy on his shelf after two full NHL seasons and a memorable rookie playoff run. But when the Montreal Canadiens lowballed him after the 1973 season, he announced he would walk away from the team. That tactic wasn’t uncommon in those parts—teammates like Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson had made similar threats in the recent past—but Dryden’s case was unique. An avid student, he held the leverage of educational opportunity ... and he was willing to prove his commitment. When the team stood firm, he returned to Montreal’s McGill University to complete his law degree, then spent the rest of the year articling at a Toronto firm for $135 a week. In his spare time, he suited up on defense for a local beer league team.
After failing to defend their Cup championship, the Canadiens recognized that they needed Dryden more than he needed them and acquiesced to his demands. Dryden then went on to lead the team to four Cups during the next five seasons, before retiring on his own terms at 32.
Paul Coffey refused to report to the Edmonton Oilers for the start of the 1987-88 season, hoping to renegotiate the final two years of a five-year deal that was paying him $300,000, half what he thought he was worth. He had more sway than most players, having won two of the previous three Norris Trophies and three Stanley Cups with the Oilers, but as the ordeal dragged on it became clear that Coffey was more likely to be dealt than rewarded for his actions. “It’s not fair to the players who are working hard now if I can ice a better team by trading Paul,” Oilers GM Glen Sather said.
The Red Wings reportedly offered Adam Oates (coming off a solid rookie season), two first-round picks and cash in exchange for Coffey, a player Detroit eventually acquired six years later in a deal with the Los Angeles Kings. But Sather had his sights set on the Penguins, targeting Doug Bodger, Craig Simpson and a first-round pick in exchange for Coffey.
After 70 days, Sather finally pulled the trigger with the Pens, settling for Simpson, 18-year-old prospect Chris Joseph and veterans Dave Hannan and Moe Mantha in exchange for Coffey, Wayne Van Dorp and Dave Hunter. Coffey got his money, and another Cup, with the Pens but ended his career as a wandering mercenary ... something he might have avoided had he honored that deal in Edmonton.
Despite having two years remaining on his deal, Mark Messier, Coffey’s teammate, staged a holdout of his own four years later to orchestrate his departure from Edmonton. Sather, a little weary of taking a principled stand after a string of these events (Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr had also used this bargaining tactic), moved Messier quickly to the Rangers for Bernie Nicholls, Steven Rice and Louie DeBrusk.
In 1993, Steve Larmer gave up a shot at history to stage his holdout. The veteran winger had played in 884 consecutive games, second all-time to Doug Jarvis’s record of 964, but was willing to sacrifice his run at the mark in order to get a fresh start—and a bigger contract-—away from Chicago. The consensus was that Larmer was bluffing, but when he skipped the season opener on Oct. 6, it was clear he wouldn’t back down. The dispute lasted four weeks before the Hawks agreed to a three-team trade that sent him to Hartford and then on to New York, where he was reunited with former coach Mike Keenan and won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers just a few months later.
In 1998, Pavel Bure’s relationship with the Vancouver Canucks had deteriorated to the point that the Russian Rocket told the team he would not report for the final year of his deal. Canucks GM Brian Burke, not one to be pushed around with a contract in place, let his best player rot at home until January before finally sending the three-time 50-goal scorer to Florida for a package that featured former No. 1 pick Ed Jovanovski, goalie Kevin Weekes and a first round pick.
Like Bure, Alexei Yashin decided he had no interest in honoring the final year of his contract with the Ottawa Senators. He announced that he was willing to sit out the 1999-2000 season, assuming that he would become a free agent and could then choose to sign wherever he chose. He was wrong. While he stayed at home, the Sens got an arbitrator to rule that the player owed them another year, no matter when it was played. Yashin ended up sitting out that year, then was forced to return to Ottawa for a final season before he was swapped to the New York Islanders. That deal worked out pretty well for the Sens, netting them Zdeno Chara and the pick that became Jason Spezza. Yashin later got a now infamous long-term deal from the Isles, but his tenure was frustratingly hit-or-miss and he was ultimately bought out.
Others went on to draw their own lines in the sand, including Keith Primeau, Mike Peca, Jason Allison and Paul Kariya. And while all of those left their mark, none matched the infamy of Eric Lindros.
Prior to 1991 draft, Lindros made it clear that he would never play for Quebec and told the Nordiques not to select him with the top pick. The team disregarded those warnings, kicking off a lengthy process that eventually destroyed his reputation and altered the course of three franchises.
Though clearly ready to turn pro—he’d already starred against the world’s top players in the 1991 Canada Cup—Lindros stuck to his guns, choosing to spend the entire 1991-92 season with the OHL’s Oshawa Generals and later, the Canadian National Team, rather than sign with the Nords. After a full year of acrimonious bickering, his rights were finally dealt at the 1992 draft. Amazingly, members of Quebec’s management sealed deals with both the Philadelphia Flyers and the New York Rangers, forcing an arbitrator to step in and decide who had the rightful claim. He sided with the Flyers, finalizing a swap that sent Peter Forsberg, Mike Ricci, Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman and a first-round pick (Jocelyn Thibault) to the Nordiques. It was a deal that helped the Quebec/Colorado franchise win the 1996 Stanley Cup.
Drouin’s eventual trade and deal likely won't have that kind of impact, but given how little leverage he holds as an unproven player on an entry-level contract it might have one thing in common with the Lindros holdout.
The numbers game
• The Flyers, who battle the Penguins tonight, have won eight consecutive head-to-head meetings since Nov. 13, 2013 and are 11-1-1 in regular season action at Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center since the barn opened for the 2010-11 season.
• Colorado’s 10 straight wins over Buffalo is tied for the NHL’s longest such active streak against one opponent. Dallas has vanquished Vancouver in 10 straight dating back to April 18, 2013.
• For those of you keeping score at home, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg has tied Thomas Steen for eighth place on the NHL’s all-time points list among Swedish-born players, with 817.
• John Tortorella looks back at the most memorable moment of his coaching career and marvels at his “absolute stupidity.”
• Justin Abdelkader gives a first-person account about the honor of playing college hockey for Michigan State.