Lying flat on his belly in a San Jose hotel room one fateful morning 26 years ago, Doug Gilmour knew right then and there his days as a Calgary Flame were essentially over.
Waking up early to go to the washroom, he heard a voice in the next room that mentioned his name, prompting him to immediately drop down to get his ear to the crack of the door.
He needed to hear more.
“My roommate, Tim Sweeney, was looking down at me on the floor at 7:30 in the morning, saying, ‘what the heck are you doing?’”
A quarter century later Gilmour is ready to reveal the truth behind his sensational departure from Calgary, which included deserting the team on New Year’s Eve 1991 to force a hasty trade with the Leafs.
He does so in his new book Killer – My Life in Hockey, which reveals for the first time how one of the biggest trades in hockey history came to pass.
“It was Risebrough, whose room was right next to mine,” writes Gilmour of the Flames coach and GM, whose voice quickly dropped him to the carpet.
“He was on the phone. I heard my name. I lay down on the floor beside the door that connected the two rooms and put my ear to the narrow gap at the floor. That’s when I heard it. ‘I’m going to trade Gilmour.’
“I knew then that I was finished with the Calgary Flames.”
A rocky relationship between the two was further strained weeks earlier when a mid-November arbitration ruling – yes, it was held one day after a game – went horribly wrong in the eyes of the small-market organization.
The Flames offered $400,000, Gilmour asked for $700,000 and the arbitrator awarded the feisty forward $625,000.
“I think more than anything Doug and I competed kind of the same way and whether that was a carryover from the arbitration I don’t know,” said Gilmour when asked if that was the beginning of the end for a man who’d been integral to the Flames Stanley Cup win two years earlier.
“Obviously we felt we did pretty well in the arbitration and obviously he had bitter feelings about it at the end of it. It’s always in the back of your mind that something might come out of this and I might be moved, but you don’t really want to believe it as a player.
“You figure ‘we’re going to get through this. We’ve got a pretty good hockey club here –
let’s move forward.’ But then when I heard that it was, ‘oh boy, things are changing now.’”
Gilmour immediately called his agent, Larry Kelly, who instructed him not to do or say anything. Arrangements were quietly made for Gilmour to skate with the national team, which was based out of Calgary, if it came to that.
“I waited a month and then decided I wasn’t waiting any longer,” wrote Gilmour, then 28.
“After the morning skate on New Year’s Eve I prepared my exit. I had about three dozen sticks in my locker at the arena, so I took about a dozen-and-a-half, snuck out the back door and put them in my car.”
That night, against Montreal, he scored against Patrick Roy and then set up the game-winner in overtime before joining Ron MacLean and Don Cherry on Hockey Night in Canada. Choosing not to reveal his plans on air, he quietly told Cherry – a beloved Kingston connection of his – off air of his situation. He then told a handful of teammates like Al MacInnis and Gary Roberts at a team dinner later that night.
“Guys, if I’m not there tomorrow, I’m done,” he said, drawing responses of disbelief from the lads, who urged him to reconsider. He didn’t.
The next morning he went into the Saddledome early, packed up his equipment, put it in his car and walked upstairs to tell Risebrough he was leaving to play for Team Canada.
“Well, if you walk today I’m going to trade you,” was Risebrough’s response to the man who scored Calgary’s only Stanley Cup-clinching goal.
One day later the phone rang with news from the GM he had been moved.
“Details are coming,” was all Risebrough added.
An hour later Gilmour got a call from Flames teammate Rick Wamsley informing him they were both off to Toronto in a five-for-five deal that was the NHL’s biggest at the time.
Kent Manderville, Ric Nattress and Jamie Macoun were also sent to Toronto in exchange for Gary Leeman, Craig Berube, Alexander Godynyuk, Michel Petit and Jeff Reese.
The deal was made by former Flames GM Cliff Fletcher, who was snagged by the Leafs in the off-season to spearhead a new era. He jumped at the chance to get ol’ Killer back. The trade essentially turned the Leafs around and will long be remembered as one of the most lopsided deals in hockey lore.
Leeman, who was the key to the deal, battled injuries the next two years and never came close to the 51-goal standard he set in Toronto, scoring no more than nine goals in either shortened season as a Flame.
Gilmour was runner-up to the Hart Trophy the next season, won the Selke Trophy as best defensive forward, scored 127 points and posted 35 points in 21 playoff games to lead Toronto to Game 7 of the conference final.
“We’ve seen each other many times over the years and he says, ‘I made a mistake,’” said Gilmour, 54, of his relationship with Risebrough. “We had a reunion three years ago or whatever and we talked. I talked to him before that and he thought it was the right deal. Whether it worked out or not that’s part of a GM’s job – you’re going to have good trades and bad trades. I wanted to let it go and move on.”
He certainly did, taking the Leafs to great heights over the next five years, but never got back to a Stanley Cup final.
“We talked about it all the time at the reunion, and even before that, and Al MacInnis always said, ‘we all should have gotten together and talked about it to work something out, because we were a pretty good hockey club,” said Gilmour.
“It’s not like I wanted to be moved – I was happy where I was at.”
But business is business, even though in those days the salaries involved were relatively small potatoes.
“I don’t have regrets – I’m not going to go back and say I do,” said Gilmour, now GM of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs.
“I was blessed to play that long and enjoyed every minute of it. It just kind of sucks because of how good that (Flames) hockey club was and everybody was coming into their prime.
“In my eyes, with the guys we had there, we had another chance to win and go for it. Unfortunately it didn’t happen and times do change and I guess my movement kicked it off. Next thing you know Joe Nieuwendyk left and Roberts got hurt, then MacInnis and (Gary) Suter and the list goes on.”
None had the impact Gilmour’s decision to desert the team had.