NEAR MISS ON YZ­ER­MAN DEAL CRE­ATES SENSE OF ‘ WHAT IF’

Ottawa Citizen - - Sports - HUGH ADAMI

This is a story that still has many hockey fans and pun­dits shak­ing their heads 11 years later. In hind­sight, it is al­most too ab­surd to com­pre­hend that it was even con­tem­plated by the Detroit Red Wings. Then again, the Edmonton Oil­ers traded Wayne Gret­zky, didn’t they?

This story, though, never got around to a trade. Thank­fully for Wings fans, it ended on sev­eral high notes, thanks, in a large part, to the guy the Wings were think­ing of trad­ing to the Ottawa Sen­a­tors: Steve Yz­er­man, one of Detroit’s most revered ath­letes who even­tu­ally led his team to three Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­onships.

Not ac­quir­ing Yz­er­man was prob­a­bly tough luck for the Sen­a­tors and their fans. Had their team been able to ac­quire Yz­er­man way back when, they might have cel­e­brated at least one Stan­ley Cup pa­rade by now. Maybe they would have also seen Yz­er­man’s No. 19 raised to the the rafters of Sco­tia­bank Place rather than the Joe Louis Arena, as was the case last night as the Red Wings re­tired his num­ber af­ter 22 NHL sea­sons, all of them with Detroit.

In try­ing to ac­quire Yz­er­man, the strug­gling Sen­a­tors saw a player whose star power and lo­cal roots would fill a lot of seats at their new arena in Kanata. It was Oc­to­ber 1995, and the Pal­la­dium ( later the Corel Cen­tre and now Sco­tia­bank Place) was three months away from com­ple­tion.

The Sen­a­tors ap­par­ently had more than a few play­ers in whom the Red Wings had in­ter­est: Alexei Yashin, Martin Straka, Alexandre Daigle, Radek Bonk, Bryan Ber­ard and Stan Neckar.

The Wings were es­pe­cially keen on Yashin or Straka, or a com­bi­na­tion of the Ottawa play­ers/ prospects, all of whom are now play­ing else­where or are re­tired. Ac­cord­ing to some re­ports, the Sen­a­tors even­tu­ally told the Red Wings that not one of those play­ers, with pos­si­bly the ex­cep­tion of Straka, was on the ta­ble for Yz­er­man.

Not the spoiled Yashin, who was well into his sec­ond of three AWLs with the team over his greed for money and whose an­tics led di­rec­tor of player per­son­nel John Fer­gu­son to leave the team. When ru­mours be­gan to swirl that the Sen­a­tors had had enough of Yashin and were con­tem­plat­ing a trade, Fer­gu­son said Yashin was too tal­ented to let go. Fer­gu­son was warned by gen­eral man­ager Randy Sex­ton to keep his mouth shut, prompt­ing Fer­gu­son to quit. Yashin, mean­while, be­came so un­pop­u­lar over his bit­ter con­tract dis­putes with the team that he was fi­nally traded, in 2001, to the New York Is­lan­ders.

The Sen­a­tors weren’t let­ting go of first over­all draft pick Daigle, ei­ther, even though he was show­ing signs of be­ing a bust. Daigle — a bust — was traded dur­ing the 1997- 98 sea­son to the Philadel­phia Fly­ers. He now plays in Switzer­land.

The Sen­a­tors felt the same way about Bonk, who was vir­tu­ally chased out of Ottawa at the end of 2003- 04 af­ter too many in­con­sis­tent sea­sons. He plays for the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens. They also weren’t let­ting go of Ber­ard, who had al­ready ex­pressed cold feet about play­ing for the sad- sack Sen­a­tors, and was traded months later to the Is­lan­ders in a deal that brought Wade Red­den to Ottawa.

And cer­tainly not Neckar, a jour­ney­man de­fence­man at best whom the Sen­a­tors even­tu­ally dumped in 1998- 99 for that other stud, Bill Berg.

True, Straka was an ex­cit­ing young player when the Sen­a­tors ac­quired him from the Pitts­burgh Pen­guins in 1994- 95, and he even­tu­ally went on to have a stel­lar NHL ca­reer, but to say he was ever in the same class as Yz­er­man would be a stretch. The Red Wings were in­ter­ested in him just the same, maybe be­cause he was mak­ing less than one- quar­ter of Yz­er­man’s $ 3.7 mil­lion U. S. salary. One re­port said that if the Red Wings couldn’t ac­quire Straka in a trade for Yz­er­man, then they wanted the Sen­a­tors to ar­range a three- way trade to get Detroit a sim­i­larly skilled player and some draft picks.

There was also a the­ory that the Wings weren’t at all in­ter­ested in trad­ing Yz­er­man, that the trade talk with Ottawa and other teams was a ruse by coach Scotty Bow­man to get Yz­er­man to im­prove his de­fen­sive game in­stead of just re­ly­ing on his of­fen­sive prow­ess. Still, that was a pretty strange way of treat­ing a pop­u­lar star player and the team cap­tain who had al­ready bro­ken var­i­ous Red Wings scor­ing records and had been with the team for 12 sea­sons.

To some, Bow­man seemed more in­ter­ested in build­ing the Wings around his Rus­sian stars such as the speedy Sergei Fe­dorov. With Yz­er­man al­ready 30 — one re­port called him an “ ag­ing gun” — his rich salary and still no Stan­ley Cup, some felt he was ex­pend­able. Yz­er­man, who at one point wasn’t speak­ing pub­licly to Bow­man, was con­vinced a deal was go­ing down and asked his team to trade him to a “ com­pet­i­tive” club. Al­though he never men­tioned Ottawa by name, ev­ery­one knew what he meant be­cause the Sen­a­tors stunk at the time.

No mat­ter. As Sen­a­tors fans found out, those trade talks sur­round­ing Yz­er­man turned out to be noth­ing more than a tease. Yz­er­man stayed put, end­ing his ca­reer af­ter 10 more sea­sons with Detroit. Yz­er­man, a 10- time all- star, had 692 goals and 1,063 as­sists for 1,755 points in his 22 sea­sons, leav­ing him No. 6 on the all- time NHL scor­ing list. He also played a ma­jor role in Detroit’s 1997, 1998 and 2002 Cup cham­pi­onships, won the Conn Smythe Tro­phy as the most valu­able player in the 1998 play­offs and was a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor to Canada’s gold medal win at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games.

At least Sen­a­tors fans can say the guy once lived in Ne­pean, even if he never wanted to play here as a pro. Can you blame him?

JERRY S. MEN­DOZA, THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Steve Yz­er­man’s No. 19 is raised to the rafters dur­ing last night’s cer­e­mony in Detroit.

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