Why the Maple Leafs abandoned Chris Pronger trade talks

Chris Pronger was incredibly skilled defensively and that was not only because of his enormous reach, but also his physical play, oh and he could score too.

The 2015 Hockey Hall of Fame class of former NHLers is as impressive as one can imagine: Nicklas Lidstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Phil Housley and Chris Pronger.

A Swede, a Russian, an American and a Canadian. It’s a stellar international featuring one direct, and three indirect ties to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The only direct Leaf connection is Phil Housley, who actually retired from the NHL as a member of the Maple Leafs. Yes, it’s hard to remember now, but around the trade deadline in 2003, then Leafs’ general manager John Ferguson gave up two draft picks to acquire Housley during an era when the Leafs saw the likes of other Hall of Famers such as Joe Nieuwendyk, Ron Francis and Brian Leetch also don the blue and white for a brief period.

Housley played just one regular season game for the Leafs and that stands as his final game in a 21-year career that saw him play 1,495 regular season games in total. He played three games in the 2003 playoffs for the Leafs as they were bounced by Philadelphia in seven games.

The Detroit Red Wings’ 1989 Draft haul stands as one of the all-time classics in NHL history. Nicklas Lidstrom was selected in the third round, Sergei Fedorov in the fourth round and Vladimir Konstantinov in the 11th round.

The indirect Leaf connection here goes back three years. Gerry McNamara had been the chief scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1970s when he encouraged the team to be pioneers in tapping into the Swedish hockey market by bringing Borje Salming and Inge Hammarstrom to Toronto. A decade later, McNamara, now the Leafs general manager, was making inroads in getting players from Czechoslovakia to defect. He also had connections behind the Iron Curtain that he felt could help bring players over from the Soviet Union.

Peter Ihnacak and Miroslav Frycer were Czech defectors who had decent runs with the Leafs. It was Peter’s younger brother Miroslav, however, that changed Leaf owner Harold Ballard’s tune. When the Leafs went to great trouble to help Miroslav Ihnacak defect in 1986, Ballard was among those who couldn’t be more pleased to have helped him escape from a Communist country.

When Miroslav Ihnacak soon balked at the original NHL contract that the Leafs felt he had agreed to, Ballard was livid. From that point on, the edict was out by Ballard that no players from countries like Russia and Czechoslovakia would be welcome to play for his Toronto Maple Leafs.

So in the 1989 Draft, while the Leafs selected three players from the Belleville Bulls in the first round (yes, I was the general manager) any player from Russia was not even a consideration. Thus drafting he likes of a Fedorov was forbidden. Now, give the Red Wings credit. Fedorov lasted until the fourth round, so it wasn’t like any other NHL team had him labelled as a future Hall of Famer, otherwise they would have selected him much earlier.

The same goes for Lidstrom being selected in the third round. Lidstrom’s Toronto connection is the simple fact that he was one of thousands of Swedish hockey players who considered Borje Salming their idol when they were playing minor hockey in Sweden. Lidstrom might be the last Hall of Famer to say that, as I can see all future Swedish Hall of Famers listing Lidstrom as that idol for them.

In the case of Chris Pronger, we go back to June, 2006 when the 32-year-old was about to be traded out of Edmonton after his one season as an Oiler after helping lead them to the Stanley Cup final.

Three teams were in the bidding including the Toronto Maple Leafs. Apparently the Oilers would accept a Maple Leafs package that included Tomas Kaberle, Alexander Steen and a first-round draft choice. Apparently then Leafs GM John Ferguson was reluctant to part with Kaberle in the package. Perhaps Ferguson was reluctant to part with Kaberle’s talent or perhaps he felt moving him would have been a sign of bad faith after signing him to a new contract just a month or so earlier.

Kaberle’s new deal included a no-trade clause that did not kick in until July 1. Kaberle would obviously have been livid to have given up a chance to become a free agent in order to sign with the Leafs only to be traded to Edmonton.

While Ferguson stood pat, Anaheim Ducks’ GM (and future Leaf GM) Brian Burke surrendered Ladislav Smid, Joffrey Lupul, two first-round picks and one second-round pick to Edmonton for Pronger. One of those first-round picks did become Jordan Eberle for the Oilers, but Burke and Pronger got their only Stanley Cup rings of their careers the following summer in Anaheim.

So on Monday, the Maple Leafs pay tribute to four players they sort of have a connection to.

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