With the National Hockey League trade deadline approaching, most teams are laying the groundwork for deals that will be executed up to and including March 3.
Then again, sometimes a trade can occur on a whim.
The latter is how the Vancouver Canucks obtained a franchise player.
Markus Naslund was acquired by Vancouver from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for Alek Stojanov on March 20, 1996 in one of the most lopsided trades not only in Canucks history but in league history.
And it all happened in a matter of minutes.
That’s what Frank Provenzano told us in an interview on TSN 1040 a few years ago while he was a contributor with The Athletic. We caught up with him recently to revisit that story.
Provenzano was a front office executive with the Canucks, Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars for 17 years before leaving the NHL in 2013.
In 1994, Provenzano was hired by Pat Quinn and joined the Canucks scouting department. As Hockey Operations Coordinator, he was hired to implement the Canucks first-ever computerized scouting database. In 1996, he was part of the ‘War Room’ in what was then GM Place as the deadline approached.
The Canucks War Room featured Quinn and his front office staff which included Vice President of Hockey Operations George McPhee, Director of Pro Scouting Murray ‘Muzz’ Oliver, and several pro scouts one of which was former NHL defenceman Noel Price.
“I just remember there were about eight or nine of us that had been in that War Room for two days. That was back in the day when Pat would smoke those huge cigars and Murray would smoke cigars and Noel would smoke cigars. I was young and wasn’t making really good money. I only had a couple of good dress shirts. Pat was like a ‘shirt and tie guy in the office’. I just remember thinking how I’d be able to afford all of the dry cleaning,” Provenzano recalled with a laugh.
It was what Provenzano would later learn through years of experience what a typical NHL War Room was like – minus the cigars.
“We were talking about a multitude of trade ideas, ongoing discussions, what you were hearing around the league, what you were hearing from people in the media. At the trade deadline, information is currency,” recalled Provenzano, who would follow McPhee to Washington in 1997 to become the Capitals Assistant General Manager and later would hold the same title with the Dallas Stars.
Most deadline deals take hours, days or even weeks to come to fruition.
The Naslund trade happened in a matter of minutes according to Provenzano.
With a few minutes left before the deadline, Pittsburgh Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick called the Canucks.
“Craig called Pat and they briefly chatted. I don’t even know if Pat put Craig on hold because Pat then held the phone to his chest. He told the room that Craig was calling and wanted to add some toughness and was asking about Stojanov. He told us Craig was offering Naslund,” said Provenzano, theorising that the Penguins had struck out on other targets and now were desperately looking for any solution to their toughness issues.
With Naslund being sprung on the Canucks so late in the proceedings, Quinn had to rely on Oliver’s opinion.
“He asked Muzz, “What do you think?” Murray had his glasses down his nose, started looking at his notes and gave his take that he was a skill guy that was good with the puck,” stated Provenzano, who also added that Oliver expressed some concerns regarding Naslund being able to showcase his skills in what was a much more clutch-and-grab game at the time.
So was it Oliver who had the final say on whether or not Naslund would become a Canuck?
“At that point of the trade deadline, and without any pretext to make a decision, yes. Normally you would be able to do a little more due diligence because you would have more time, but in this case, I would say yes. It almost entirely rested on Murray Oliver’s opinion. It’s not like Murray was adamant that we had to make this deal but he agreed to it,” answered Provenzano.
The trade, which would have a huge impact on the franchise moving forward, was registered with the league office with seconds to spare.
At the time, it was an exchange of two former first round picks who were trying to establish themselves as NHL regulars.
Naslund’s game would flourish in Vancouver, as he racked up 346 goals and 410 assists to eventually become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer before being surpassed by Henrik Sedin. His number 19 would be retired by the Canucks in 2010.
Stojanov would only play in 45 games for the Penguins over the next two seasons, scoring two goals and adding four assists, then would spend the next five seasons in the minors before retiring. In fairness, his career was derailed after suffering a serious shoulder injury in his first stint as a pro with Hamilton in the American Hockey League. The injury would require major surgery and Stojanov would never fulfill his potential.
In almost two decades as an NHL executive, Provenzano said he never was part of deal that had happened so quickly and have such a dramatic impact.
“That’s why this particular trade always stood out because it was so quick and I certainly can’t remember a last-minute trade that had the gravity that the Naslund deal would have for Vancouver. I can recall trades that went down with minutes to spare but usually at that point they’re for spare parts. It was usually for insurance for the bottom end of the lineup – that type of player - for picks or a prospect. Vancouver wound up getting a franchise icon,” explained Provenzano, who is now based in Dallas and is involved in real estate as well as doing some work with the Power Play Sports Agency.
Though the Naslund-Stojanov trade was literally was done in minutes, Vancouver would reap the rewards of the transaction for the next twelve years.
Canuck fans can only hope for such luck this upcoming Friday.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.