I was recently asked, of the many trades I made, which had the most interesting story to it? I answered immediately, “the Tie Domi-Kris King for Ed Olczyk trade I made with Neil Smith in New York while I was in Winnipeg.”
My first NHL job was as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers. The genesis of the Domi-King trade began when I went to a Ken Norton heavyweight fight at Madison Square Garden. The electricity in the air was something I had never experienced before and seldom did after. The building was buzzing.
Flash forward about 15 years. I attended the famed game between the Red Wings and Rangers that featured the return fight between Bob Probert and Tie Domi. Probert, an accomplished player, was the king of NHL heavyweights, and the young Domi was the new guy on the block, looking to challenge for the title.
They had recently fought and Domi was claiming to be the new king, though many doubted that. Probert was a complete player, usually scoring around 20 goals a year. Domi was considered to be a tough guy and Probert was the non-Ranger fan’s favorite. I wanted to see their next game. I was curious if Domi was as tough as he claimed.
They fought at the six-minute mark of the first period. Most thought Domi won by decision – a strong decision. As Domi skated to the penalty box, he snapped on the imagined heavyweight champion’s belt and the Garden went nuts. And I mean nuts! I still remember watching the crowd and being fascinated by the surging electricity in the building. I thought to myself, “Tie Domi can help us in Winnipeg. If the chance comes, I’ll trade for him.”
Flash forward again. I was talking to Ranger GM Neil Smith from a pay phone in the St. Louis airport on Dec. 20, 1992. Rumors were floating around the hockey world that Domi had worn out his welcome in New York. I wanted to find out.
I was equally interested in trading for Kris King. He was a highly regarded, fourth-line winger with an abundance of character; something all teams need. Maybe I could get both. GMs were always asking Neil Smith if King was available. It turned out this time he was.
Neil asked about Ed Olczyk, a goal-scoring winger I had acquired two years before from Toronto. Eddie had scored many big goals as a Jet – including a playoff clincher the previous year against Calgary – but Teemu Selanne, Keith Tkachuk and Alex Zhamnov were now rookies for us. Plus we had Thomas Steen, Darrin Shannon and Nelson Emerson. Scoring goals was not a problem for us, so Olczyk was expendable.
Neil and I spoke daily throughout the Christmas trade freeze. Actually, Neil spoke. I listened and held my breath, hoping he would not change his mind.
He didn’t. We made the trade as soon as the freeze was lifted.
The next day I traveled from Boston to Winnipeg. I quickly got a sense of the response to the trade and it was a big win for Neil and the Rangers. As I traveled across the country I read the Boston, New York, Detroit and Minneapolis papers. It was unanimous: I had made a bad trade. Actually, it was worse than bad, it was, as one critic wrote, “the dumbest trade of the year, maybe the decade.”
I called Mike O’Hearn – the Winnipeg Director of Public Relations – from the Minneapolis airport. I said I had read several newspaper reports, mentioned their responses and asked “how bad is it in Winnipeg?” He answered, “What do they know? This city is in an uproar. I’ve never seen such an immediate response to anything we did. There’ll probably be a marching band at the airport to escort you to the arena. You can get elected mayor.”
This was better than being ‘tarred and feathered.’
We lost that night, the first game Domi and King played for us, but there were no boos in Winnipeg. The Jets went the next 14 games without a loss. This trade made the Jets a much more competitive team.
Later, several GMs told me when they first heard of the trade they thought I had lost my mind. I was asked, “what made you take the risk on such a trade?” I answered, “toughness, real toughness on a team, was a skill every bit as important as scoring goals or having speed.”
The Jets had the traditional hockey skills. What we needed was team toughness and we needed our opponents to know we had it.
And it all started at a Ken Norton fight in the late ’70s.
Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.