Spector on Canucks: Anatomy of a steal

VANCOUVER – "OK, you smart Irish bastard. But it’s going to cost you."

The author of that quote is then Chicago Blackhawks GM Bob Murray.

On the receiving end was Brian Burke, the then first-year general manager of a Vancouver Canucks team that was in Year 3 of a four-year playoff drought.

The two were sharing another cab to the old Winnipeg Arena. It wasn’t the first time Burke had hopped in with Murray, who had something Burke wanted, and it wasn’t a coincidence.

It was the 1999 world junior tournament. Burke had the No. 3 pick in the upcoming NHL entry draft in his pocket and a keen eye for the Sedin twins from Sweden and a great-looking Czech centre named Patrik Stefan, who was already playing in the International Hockey League for Long Beach.

Murray’s Blackhawks had the No. 4 pick.

The concept of getting both Sedins was talked about in hockey circles, but what nobody knew was, Burke was greedier than that: "We were trying to get all three."

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Of course, we know how it all turned out in the end.

Burke only landed two of his three desired players, but today they are the two most recent Art Ross Trophy winners.

One is the reigning Hart Trophy winner, while the other is a finalist this year.

And one is the captain and the other is the assistant captain of a Vancouver Canucks team that opens the Stanley Cup final Wednesday night at Rogers Arena against the Boston Bruins.

Concussions cost Stefan any chance at a lengthy NHL career. His playing days are over.

But would the Sedins have been anywhere near as successful had they arrived at the 1999 draft in Boston, and left wearing two different uniforms?

"We make each other better, but that’s a good point," Henrik said over the weekend. "You could put Daniel with (Joe) Thornton, and he’s going to score his share of goals. But, we’ve never done it, really. So it’s hard to answer that question."

The Canucks, through an old Sedin family friend named Thomas Gradin – the former Canucks great turned scout – were the first to tell Daniel and Henrik that they could play together in the National Hockey League.

"We were the only team talking to the Sedins and telling them ‘We want to take both of you,’" Gradin recalled. "They even told other teams that they would like to come together and play in Vancouver. But the problem was, we only had one pick."

"I remember it," Henrik said of Gradin’s invitation. "But we didn’t really think it was going to happen. Even though we were in Sweden, we knew what the draft was about and what needed to happen for us to be picked together. We didn’t really think they would be able to pull it off."

But this was the great Thomas Gradin talking. "Our Dad was working with Thomas’ mom for a long time," Henrik explained. "Our family has known Thomas from when he was a little boy. Myself, I met him when I was 12, 13."

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While Gradin was at the Sedin home talking with parents Tommy and Tora Sedin, Burke was working his colleagues back in North America. He finally secured that No. 4 pick from Chicago, but admits it came at "a frightful price. Bob Murray conducted a hostage taking there."

On the Sunday before the draft, Murray and Burke finally reached an agreement: Vancouver would send defenceman Bryan McCabe and a first rounder in 2000 for the No. 4 selection in ’99. But Burke wouldn’t register that deal until draft day, so as not to tip off the other GMs on his plan to hijack the 1999 draft.

He then flipped that No. 4 pick and a pair of third-rounders for Tampa’s No. 1 overall pick and then – with the 1st and 3rd overall picks now in hand – Burke convinced Atlanta GM Don Waddell to accept the first overall selection for Vancouver’s No. 2, with Atlanta giving up a conditional third-rounder with the promise to lay off either of the Sedins.

And so, the top four picks in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft played out like this:

No. 1 Patrik Stefan (Atlanta)

No. 2 Daniel Sedin (Vancouver)

No. 3 Henrik Sedin (Vancouver)

No. 4 Pavel Brendl (Philadelphia)

It was the beginning of better times for the Canucks, in more ways than one.

"When we announced that trade on national television," Burke said, "it gave us a lot of credibility in that market. For the first time, the fans and media in Vancouver said, ‘These guys might actually know what they’re doing.’"

That was nearly 12 years ago. Today, Burke has started down that same rebuilding road in Toronto, while a visit by the Canucks has become a chance for NHL fans to come to the rink and witness these highly skilled Swedish brothers, whose uncanny level of teamwork literally dates all the way back to the womb.

Together they could – if Daniel wins the Hart Trophy this June – win back-to-back Art Ross and Hart Trophies, with a Stanley Cup in between.

Said Burke: "I think that was even beyond out expectations."

And what if he’d not been able to pull all those strings back on June 26, 1999?

"If you have Markus Naslund, you might need a Todd Bertuzzi. If you have a Wayne Gretzky, you might need a Jari Kurri," began Gradin, the distinguished associate chief scout of the Canucks. "Here we had two guys who REALLY knew each other."

Yet, Gradin allows, "They might have been better (apart). Who knows?

"Maybe Henrik would get a little bit better of a shooter than Daniel. Or Daniel could find a better centreman. If you say Daniel could play with (Vincent) Lecavalier, or with (Joe) Thornton, that’s pretty good too. Maybe Henrik is playing (Marian) Gaborik and Alex Burrows. That wouldn’t have been that bad either."

Or maybe, as so many thought over the years, the Sedins–"The Sisters" their detractors called them over the years-wouldn’t have turned out at all.

First, you couldn’t win with them. Then, when they started getting the Canucks to the playoffs every year, theirs was a game that worked in the regular season, but not in the playoffs.

Now?

Well, as the Stanley Cup Final opens with Henrik atop the playoff scoring race (2-19-21), and Daniel’s eight goals good for second players still playing this spring, it has become near impossible to find a hole in the twins’ game.

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It’s taken a decade, but the Sedins have become as good – or better – than anybody thought they could be.

"There are two guys who never get mentioned when we talk about the Sedins: Thomas Gradin and Marc Crawford," said Burke. "Thomas did all the work on these kids. He pushed, and pushed and pushed. When I came back and said I’d made those deals, I’d never seen a smile on a guy’s face bigger than that. It’s like he’d won the lottery.

"And Crawford," he said of the Canucks head coach when the Sedins arrived. "Before these kids developed into what they are now offensively, he still played ’em big minutes. They deserved those minutes, because they didn’t get scored on, and they tired people out.

"But the twins contributed long before they put up numbers, and Marc Crawford recognized that," Burke said. "They have a magic between them that I haven’t seen in my lifetime between two players."

Today, those two young red-heads from Ornskoldsvik have somehow become the two longest-serving Canucks. A captain, his assistant, and together, the undeniable shared face of this franchise.

"Vancouverized, you can say that," said Henrik. "This is home for us. We pretty much grew up here. We were 20 when we came over, you look at pictures from back then, we were different guys. So it’s been a long journey and it’s very special. Ninety per cent of our time we spend here. We have friends here, we had our kids here, they’re Canadians. So of course it’s a big part of your life.

"This is what everyone was dreaming of, a few years ago," he recognized. "For this team to come together this year … it’s been a lot of hard work behind the scenes, that’s for sure. To see it all come together like this?

"It’s a great thing we’re going through right now."