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Kluzak and Gilmour: A tale of Two Knee Injuries

Gord Kluzak, the No. 1 pick in 1982, saw his career completely derailed, while seventh-rounder Doug Gilmour skated into the Hall. This is a story of two players with wildly different careers.
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As it turns out, Gord Kluzak wasn’t the only player who went into the 1982 NHL draft with a suspect left knee. But the risk-reward is a lot more tilted toward risk when you take a player recovering from reconstructive knee surgery first overall than if you take a flyer in the seventh round on a guy who required day surgery after getting in a fight in a ball- hockey tournament the day before the draft.

When the Bruins took Kluzak with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft 40 years ago this summer – which they had acquired in a trade with the Colorado Rockies – they did so with their eyes wide open when it came to Kluzak’s knee. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound defenseman for the WHL’s Billings Bighorns was a top prospect for the draft until a knee injury in a February game required reconstructive surgery and caused him to miss the final 34 games as well as the playoffs. The Bruins could have instead selected Brian Bellows, who was coming off a 97-point season with the OHL’s Kitchener Rangers, which was followed by a 29-point playoff effort to help the Rangers win the Memorial Cup. Bruins GM Harry Sinden instead leveraged the Minnesota North Stars’ love for Bellows into a trade for Dave Donnelly and Brad Palmer in exchange for agreeing not to select Bellows first overall.

“Until he got hurt, Kluzak had been rated No. 1 by our scouts, albeit a slight edge over Bellows,” said Sinden at the time. “But the edge was negligible. When (Kluzak) got hurt, we kind of dropped him right out of it. I didn’t think I could have taken a player No. 1 with a torn-up knee.”

But the Bruins had consulted doctors, and Sinden said their opinion was that “the healing process was very conclusive.” And for the first two years of Kluzak’s career, things went along just fine. But after colliding with New Jersey’s Dave Lewis in a pre-season game prior to 1984-85, which led to the second of 11 surgeries he would have on the knee, Kluzak was never the same. He missed the entire ’84-85 and ’86-87 seasons, then came back and was terrific in 1987-88, then played a total of just 13 games over the next three seasons before retiring at 26.

Around the time Kluzak was being taken by the Bruins, Doug Gilmour was sitting on a train between Cornwall and Kingston. Gilmour had been playing in a ball-hockey tournament in Cornwall the day before the draft and got into a fight, during which he felt something strange in his left knee. Gilmour’s mother picked him up at the train station that day, and he listened to the first four rounds of the draft on the radio. Frustrated that he hadn’t been chosen – and, remember, he had already endured 211 selections without being chosen the year before – he tuned out, only to find out later he had been drafted by the St. Louis Blues in the seventh round, 134th overall.

But there was still this slight knee problem nobody knew about that needed attention. So, shortly after the draft, Gilmour went in for day surgery on his knee in Kingston and was walking around like there was nothing wrong within days. It was only once his career ended – with a far more devastating knee injury – that Gilmour learned the entire cartilage and meniscus had been removed from the knee in that initial procedure. “That’s what they did back in the day,” he said. “You’re young and you get through it and don’t think about it. It was a quick surgery. I drove myself home the same day. I’m walking around and there are no issues whatsoever.” The lack of a cartilage and meniscus obviously didn’t hinder Gilmour, who went on to a Hall of Fame career and became one of the best players from the 1982 draft.

Actually, being chosen by the Blues was a blessing in disguise for Gilmour, an undersized, tenacious center who was thought to be too small and skinny to play in the world’s best league. Coming off a 119-point season with the Cornwall Royals, Gilmour went back to Cornwall for his final season of major junior and led the OHL in goals (70) and points (177), but that still wasn’t enough to get the Blues to sign him.

Doug Gilmour

Then something very fortuitous happened for Gilmour. The Blues were owned by Ralston-Purina at the time, and the company was desperate to sell the team. It begged for local ownership to step up, but when that didn’t happen, it agreed to sell the team to Bill Hunter, who planned to relocate it to Saskatoon. The NHL’s board of governors voted overwhelmingly against the sale and relocation of the Blues, which prompted Ralston-Purina to launch a $60-million antitrust lawsuit against the league, then tender the franchise back to the NHL. During this time, Ralston-Purina shuttered the Blues’ office and dismissed the staff, then made the decision to not take part in the 1983 draft as a form of protest.

What did this have to do with Gilmour? Well, he was in Germany preparing to start his pro career there when he got a call from the Blues, by then having been saved by Harry Ornest, who wanted to talk to him about a contract.

It turned out their decision to skip the 1983 draft left them so bereft of prospects that they needed somebody, anybody, to come and play for them. So began a 20-year NHL career in which Gilmour established himself as one of the top two-way centers of his generation and, despite playing only five-plus seasons there, one of the all-time great Toronto Maple Leafs. “So, I’m like a first-rounder now,” said Gilmour of his situation with the Blues. “It was crazy.”

It turns out Gilmour was a first-round talent to be sure. He should have gone in the first round in 1981 when he was first eligible and definitely in 1982 when he was coming off a 119-point season and a mind-boggling six goals and 15 points in five playoff games. The fact 344 players were taken in the two NHL drafts for which he was eligible before Gilmour was selected is the kind of thing that keeps scouts up at night. What could they have been missing? It wasn’t as though Gilmour was not a productive player, he was certainly that. And there was nothing to suggest he didn’t belong, right from the beginning. Gilmour produced for the Blues immediately and, by his fourth year, he was a 100-point scorer.

As the Blues’ fourth-line center in his rookie season, Gilmour earned the nickname ‘Killer’ from Blues captain Brian Sutter for his intensity and take-no-prisoners approach to the game. Sutter was definitely onto something, since Gilmour proved from the first day of his career that he would overcome his size deficiency through a lethal combination of talent and hard work. And in doing so, he became a Hall of Famer and one of the shrewdest draft picks of all-time. 

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