There stood Winnipeg Jets coach Barry Long one morning last week, a look of bewilderment all over his face. The Jets had just finished practicing, and Long, leaning on the butt of his stick, was staring off into the vastness of the Byrne Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., as if hoping to find the object of his suffering in one of the 19,040 vacant seats. "Right now we have a hole as big as this building," he said.
That hole was cut the previous week when Jets general manager John Bowie (as in knife) Ferguson, in one of the most baffling trades of this or any other NHL season, sent defenseman Dave Babych, 24, a two-time Campbell Conference All-Star and a cornerstone of the franchise, to Hartford for right wing Ray Neufeld. Ray WHOfeld? Neufeld is a run-of-the-Zamboni grinder who scored 26, 27 and 27 goals in the last three years. That production was more the result of playing on a line with slick center Ron Francis than anything else.
Ferguson did trade from depth (of defensemen) for need (a winger), but it's difficult to argue that he received equal value. Worse, he appears to have underestimated the effect that the loss of the 6'1", 210-pound Babych would have on his team, a curious oversight considering that goalie Brian Hayward said last season that "players on this team would revolt if they ever traded Babych."
The ice revolt was evident as Winnipeg suffered humiliating 8-1 losses to Pittsburgh and Babych's new team, Hartford. Next came a 4-3 loss to New Jersey, and the Jets, No. 4 overall in the NHL last season, had lost three straight by the combined score of 20-5 to three of the five teams that failed to make the '85 Stanley Cup playoffs. Losses to Philadelphia and the Islanders and, finally, a win over the Flyers on Sunday left the post-Babych Jets 1-5. "Something here is snowballing," says Jets forward Doug Smail. "We haven't played well since the trade."
Question, Barry Long. Does your team miss Babych? "Definitely," says Long, clearly mystified by the trade. Though he says he knew of the deal in advance, Long did not agree with it and had tears in his eyes as he left the rink after Winnipeg's 3-1 home win over St. Louis on Nov. 20, the night the trade was announced. "When I told the team, there was absolute silence in the room," he says. "Babs was one of the most popular players."
The deal stunned Babych. "I'd heard rumors I might be traded, but I didn't think it would happen," he says. "I thought I'd always be a Jet."
If the trade was a blow to Winnipeg, it was a boon to Hartford, which followed its 8-1 pasting of the Jets (Babych had an assist) with a 9-0 blowout of Los Angeles (another assist) and a 5-4 win at Vancouver (Babych scored the winning goal) and is playing like a team that might make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
"Babych is one of the pieces we needed. He hit us where we needed hitting," says Hartford general manager Emile (Cat) Francis.
"Cat looks sweet after that deal. He stole him," says Babych's older brother, Wayne, a Quebec forward.
"I was surprised it was one for one," says Edmonton scout Bucky Kane, bending if not breaking the taboo against commenting on another team's deals.
So what's the story, John Ferguson? Isn't this the same Babych you and the Jets were calling the "franchise" after you drafted him second overall in 1980? The player who prompted you to persuade ex-Montreal defenseman Serge Savard to play his last two years in Winnipeg to give the young defenseman a little tutoring? THAT Dave Babych?
"We needed a strong wing," says Ferguson, through teeth that would be clenched even if he didn't have a cigar in his mouth. "That plus the seriousness of our goals-allowed situation [the Jets are averaging a dismal 4.68 goals-against per game] and the nonsupport of our goaltender necessitated the trade."
Huh? You need a goalie so you get a right wing? You say you're hurting defensively so you trade a defenseman? What's in those cigars?
The word is that Ferguson felt Babych lacked a mean streak on ice. Also, it's true that Babych never measured up to the superstar tag he owned when he came out of junior hockey with the Portland Winter Hawks and into the NHL at age 19. So what's new? Portland is to the NHL what Nebraska is to the NFL, a team whose players are often not as great at the next level. "Portland does a good job selling its players," says Ferguson. But if Babych wasn't the Orr apparent, he was undeniably a solid defenseman for Winnipeg, someone Long could count on to get the puck out of the zone.
"He wasn't playing badly," says Long. "Dave played megaminutes. Power play, penalty killing, regular shift."
Indeed, could Babych ever look as inept as the Jets' defensemen did in giving up a breakaway goal to Hartford's Paul Lawless in the one-sided loss to the Whalers? That one caused Ferguson to moan, "If I live another 20 years, I'll never see another play like [they] pulled off. We were beaten by a full zone."
And while the Jets struggled on and off the ice, Babych had problems of his own coming to grips with what he thought would never happen. It probably didn't help that his first game as a Whaler was against the Jets. Babych was on the bench (located beside the Jets' bench) when Winnipeg defenseman Tim Watters came rushing off the ice yelling for a change. "I stood up ready to jump into play, when I remembered I was on the other team," says Babych. "I decided it wouldn't be a good move."
But Babych also says, "It hurts to leave, but I guess it's true what Gordie Howe used to tell guys who got traded: 'There are 19 good guys there, but there are 19 good guys here, too.' "
Which is a far cry from Babych's teary-eyed reaction the night Ferguson told him of the trade. "He was very broken by it," says Ferguson.
But not as broken as the Jets' defense and, worse, their spirit.