That time the Leafs let Sakic slip by

Imagine this, but with a Leafs sweater. Sakic was nearly handed one on draft day.

This time of year hockey fans love to hear stories about what really happens at the NHL Draft Tables. Personally, I’ve told the story many times about the best verbal battle I witnessed at the Leaf Draft table—though it unfortunately doesn’t have a pleasant ending for Leaf fans.

It happened when we were sitting at the Toronto table in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit in 1987, preparing to make our first-round pick, seventh overall. The first six selections contained no surprises as Pierre Turgeon (Buffalo), Brendan Shanahan (New Jersey), Glen Wesley (Boston), Wayne McBean (Los Angeles), Chris Joseph (Pittsburgh) and Dave Archibald (Minnesota) were ticked off the board. Our “target” for seventh overall was still available, defenceman Luke Richardson from Peterborough.

It seemed like it would be quick and easy—until our Chief Scout, Floyd Smith, derailed us at the last second. Smith felt strongly that a young centre named Joe Sakic from the Swift Current Broncos was far and away the best player available and Smith was making a very strong and vocal case on Sakic’s behalf.

Our head coach, John Brophy, was apoplectic. He wanted size and toughness, and Richardson could provide that to his defence corps. Brophy wanted no part of another smallish centre when the Leafs already had Russ Courtnall, Dan Daoust, Ed Olczyk, and Tom Fergus—none of whom was known for being physically intimidating. Besides, Brophy felt the pick had already been decided and that no further debate was warranted.

The conversation between Smith and Brophy, who at the time weren’t on the best of terms anyway, grew louder and even a bit mean-spirited. A defiant Floyd Smith was adamant in his opinion about Sakic. John Brophy’s face turned beet red with anger. It seemed as if he was going to explode. Brophy knew he had a trump card in his favour: he was a favourite of Leafs owner Harold Ballard, which carried clout as the Leafs owner watched the escalating argument with interest. We used our time out as the heated debate continued. After a few minutes, General Manager Gerry McNamara made the final decision, sticking with the original plan: Luke Richardson was drafted by the Leafs.

One might wonder why Floyd Smith waited until what seemed like the last second to make his passionate argument. Well, Smith had made his case in scouts’ meetings before the draft, but we had opted to focus on a defenceman, and Richardson was the consensus pick. Smith waited at the draft table, hoping that Richardson would be picked by one of the six other teams ahead of us, which would have given him a stronger case for drafting Sakic.

As it was, Joe Sakic was selected by the Quebec Nordiques with their second of two first-round picks (15th overall). They had used their ninth overall pick to choose Bryan Fogarty from Kingston. The rest is history.

I always give Floyd Smith credit for sticking to his convictions and fighting the good fight. Unfortunately for Leafs fans that year, he didn’t win the argument.