Gretzky and Leafs – The “Other” Reason

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Aug. 9) – Just before noon today, I was a guest on Bill Kelly’s radio talk show in Hamilton (AM-900 CHML), discussing the Wayne Gretzky trade anniversary. As part of our 15-minute gab-fest, I related to Bill the “hidden” reason Gretzky did not sign as a free agent with Toronto Maple Leafs in the summer of 1996 – an explanation provided to me by the late Steve Stavro, who owned the hockey club.

I have told his story before, but not often. It has never been corroborated, so I can only take it at face value, as relayed to me.

The prevailing yarn is that Gretzky – an unrestricted free agent – wanted to finish his career with the team he idolized while growing up in nearby Brantford, Ont. Having been dealt by Los Angeles Kings to St. Louis in February 1996, Gretzky did not enjoy playing for Blues’ coach Mike Keenan and never considered remaining in Missouri. Instead, No. 99 instructed his agent, Mike Barnett, to approach the Leafs about potentially obtaining him on the open market.

According to most accounts, Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher liked the idea and quickly agreed with Gretzky and Barnett on the parameters of a contract. Stavro, at the time, was struggling – his family business, Knob Hill Farms, apparently drowning in red ink. As such, the Leafs owner had ordered a significant payroll reduction and it prompted Fletcher to make several cost-cutting moves, including a trade of veteran Mike Gartner to Phoenix that nearly caused an international incident. The normally taciturn Gartner was irate, claiming in a hastily called press conference the Leafs GM had reneged on a no-movement promise.

When Fletcher then approached Stavro about Gretzky, the owner allegedly replied, “Will he sell another ticket to our games?”

It was a sophomoric question, given the licensing gold mine Gretzky would have engendered in this city, but Fletcher – knowing Maple Leaf Gardens routinely swelled to capacity – became tongue-tied and the deal was nixed. Gretzky – though disappointed – found solace in New York alongside running mate Mark Messier, and he signed as a free agent with the Rangers, legendarily ending his career, three years later, on a Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

STEVE STAVRO (LEFT) WELCOMES KEN DRYDEN TO THE MAPLE LEAFS’ FOLD AS PRESIDENT AND GENERAL MANAGER IN MAY 1997.

Stavro was an easy target – viewed as being cheap, and proprietor of a hockey club that missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons after the Gretzky flirtation. Famously reclusive, he took a merciless pounding over the Gretzky snub from media wags (myself included) here in town, and became embittered with those that followed the Leafs for print and radio. It took me more than half-a-decade to earn his respect and develop a professional working relationship.

Such was the case in May 2005, after the World Hockey Championships in Austria. With no NHL that season, The Fan-590 acquired broadcast rights to the tournament and I was dispatched to Innsbruck and Vienna as part of the radio crew with play-by-play man Peter Maher and analyst Darren Dreger (who was still at Sportsnet). The preliminaries were conducted in splendorous Innsbruck – at the foot of the Austrian Alps and one of the most breathtaking places on Earth. The playoff round shifted to Vienna, where Czech Republic won the gold medal.

The following day, while at Vienna International Airport, I was thrilled to learn that Air Canada had upgraded me to Executive Class for the seven-hour journey to Toronto. I had an exclusive, reclining couch on the starboard side of an Airbus-330 – one row in front, and to the right, of Steve and Sally Stavro, also returning from the hockey event. We exchanged pleasant nods and I read during the early part of the flight.

Some time later, I heard a man shout, “Hey, Berger.” It was the unmistakable, nasal inflection of the Maple Leafs owner, who waved me to his seat (he always called me by my surname).

“Hi Mr. Stavro; Mrs. Stavro,” I said, upon arriving, at which point the former began to engage me in a general discussion of the World tournament. We covered several other hockey-related topics during a 40-minute palaver – the one and only time I ever found myself exclusively in Stavro’s company. So, I decided to take a chance.

Nearly a decade had passed since the Gretzky-Leafs courtship and no further explanation had surfaced about why Stavro rebuffed No. 99. The entire scenario – as reported – had never made a lot of sense to me; Gretzky in Blue and White seemed like a perfectly logical alliance. At one point in my conversation with the Leafs owner, when I felt him relaxed and of undivided attention, I asked, “Mr. Stavro: What really happened in 1996 with Wayne Gretzky? It’s true he wouldn’t have augmented ticket sales at Maple Leaf Gardens but I still have trouble believing you didn’t want the greatest player in the game.”

I braced myself for either admonishment or evasiveness; Stavro, to my recollection, had never spoken intimately about hockey business to any person with a media badge. Instead, and to my astonishment, he leaned forward and looked me directly in the eye.

“You want to know what happened, Berger?” he said, as if annoyed in perpetuity over the long-established reason. “It’s very simple. Gretzky and Michael Barnett wanted equity in the team… to own a part of the hockey club. Though I had taken Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. private, I didn’t have sole authority over such a request, but I knew it would never fly. Not for a second. All of these years, I’ve gotten hell for not wanting Wayne Gretzky. That was never the case.”

This was shocking, first-hand information, but I understood the futility of questioning whether or not our discussion was “on the record.” Nothing Mr. Stavro ever said about the Maple Leafs was for attribution – particularly by chance during a long, trans-Atlantic flight. So, I kept it to myself; painfully holding back every reporting instinct in my DNA. Not until Gretzky’s bitter annulment with the Phoenix Coyotes and the NHL, half-a-decade later, did I tell the story on The FAN-590. As mentioned, I was never able to corroborate Stavro’s claim of equity. I did run it past Barnett some time later and was brusquely dismissed.

ACCORDING TO STEVE STAVRO, WAYNE GRETZKY’S DESIRE TO OWN PART OF THE LEAFS ENDED NEGOTIATION WITH THE HOCKEY CLUB IN THE SUMMER OF ’96. GRETZKY JOINED NEW YORK RANGERS AND RETIRED THREE YEARS LATER.

Mr. Stavro died less than a year after our airplane chat – Apr. 24, 2006 – having suffered a heart attack in his Toronto home. My instinct told me he wasn’t offering a fabrication on that Vienna-to-Toronto flight and I can assure you – to this day – his account made a hell of a lot more sense than the prevailing story. From a financial perspective, Leafs could easily have signed Gretzky and made a killing on jersey sales alone. Moreover, perhaps the club would not have missed consecutive playoff appearances in 1997 and ’98 with The Great One in uniform.

On this quarter-century anniversary of “The Trade”, it seemed like the right moment to remind hockey fans of the “alternate” theory regarding Gretzky’s failed flirtation with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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