How a series of backroom deals 40 years ago robbed the Quebec Nordiques of a future superstar — and gave the Chicago Blackhawks one of their all-time greats
Forty years ago today, on June 11, 1980, the NHL held its annual draft in Montreal. With the third overall pick, the Chicago Blackhawks selected Denis Savard, a skillful and speedy center who became the face of the franchise during the 1980s. Savard dazzled fans with his moves and was part of the team’s rebuild towards respectability. Any media guide or team-written biography will tell you of Savard’s offensive prowess. What is almost never mentioned is that Chicago’s selection of Savard was a perfect storm of backroom negotiations by the Blackhawks, a poor decision by the Quebec Nordiques, unfair rules against expansion teams – and the stellar play of a fellow Quebecor named Réal Cloutier.
The Réal Deal
Our story begins in 1974. Teenage sensation Réal Cloutier completed his second year of junior hockey for the Quebec Remparts (QMJHL). Cloutier led his team to two Memorial Cup appearances and scored 315 points during his two seasons. At 18, he was still two years shy of being eligible to play in the NHL. Players had to be at least 20 years old to compete in the NHL during the 1970s. This rule benefited the junior clubs, who got to hang on to their best players until 20. It also benefitted the NHL teams, who did not have to develop 18- and 19-year-old players.
“The NHL loved that players had to stay with their junior teams until they were 20,” said Ed Willes, a columnist for The Province and the Vancouver Sun, and author of the book The Rebel League: The Short and Unruly Life of the World Hockey Association. “But then you had those ridiculous situations, like Denis Potvin playing with the Ottawa 67’s for five years. The situation was good for the junior teams, and it was good for the NHL.”
But it wasn’t good for players like Cloutier, who was old enough to serve in the military, but too young to make a living as a professional hockey player. Meanwhile, the World Hockey Association – the other top-level pro hockey league at the time – allowed anyone 18 and older to compete. This gave the upstart league access to a pool of talented players that were off-limits to NHL teams. So, the Quebec Nordiques drafted the local junior star in the league’s amateur draft in 1974. Instead of slogging through another two seasons in junior hockey, Cloutier turned pro with the Nordiques that fall. He put up a respectable 53 points his first season, and then exploded with 60 goals and 54 assists the next year.
By then, it was 1976. Cloutier was 20 and finally eligible to be drafted into the NHL. The Blackhawks selected him 9th overall in the NHL draft, but Cloutier had no plans to join the middling team. “Cloutier was loved by the population of Quebec,” said Benoit Clarioux, hockey historian and author of the book Les Nordiques de Québec. “He had no reason to go anywhere else.”
As expected, Cloutier continued to play for the Nordiques, always finishing first or second in team scoring. When the NHL and WHA merged in 1979, Cloutier accumulated 283 goals — the third highest goal total in the WHA’s seven-year history.
Meanwhile, a young Denis Savard was making waves in junior hockey, scoring 309 points in three seasons with the Montreal Junior Canadiens.
The Spoils of War
The WHA had provided a second option for elite hockey players in the 1970s, much to the NHL’s dismay. Their presence led to many NHL players “jumping ship” for higher salaries and better control over their careers, and the NHL having to compete in several markets for fan dollars, while also spending more money to keep players from leaving.
But in 1979 the war was over; the WHA folded and the NHL won. Four of the WHA’s teams — including Quebec — were granted expansion status by the NHL. It was one league now; forgive and forget, right?
Wrong. The NHL owners were not going to make things easy for the new teams. Instead, several rules were put in place to plunder the former WHA teams of their talent. Any player 18 or under had to go back into the draft, with the former WHA teams picking last in each round that year. (Wayne Gretzky was exempt from this measure and remained with the Edmonton Oilers when they joined the NHL.)
Even worse, all former WHA players who were drafted by the NHL during the 1970s or “signed away” by a WHA team would return to their NHL teams. Cloutier was now property of Chicago, even though Quebec drafted him two years prior. Nonetheless, the Nordiques were hellbent on keeping him. “Cloutier was clearly the Nordiques’ franchise player, and one of the most talented players at the time,” said Clairoux.
A Poor Decision
As a concession, the four former WHA teams were allowed to protect two skaters and two goalies on their rosters – known as “priority selections” – regardless of NHL rights. Everyone else would go back to the NHL team who owned their rights. Then, a convoluted expansion draft took place.
“That expansion draft was so crazy,” said Willes. “There were side deals and backroom deals; wink, wink, nudge, nudge.”
Such deals were made by the established NHL clubs so that they would lose as few of their best players as possible, but also by the former WHA teams to keep their rosters competitive.
“The WHA clubs used any means possible to keep as many players as possible,” said Timothy Gassen, Founder and Director of the WHA Hall of Fame. “They used trades, draft picks, money and other negotiations to keep more players than the merger terms guaranteed. All kinds of wacky deals went on behind closed doors once the merger was official.”
The Nordiques used their two priority player selections to protect defensemen Garry Lariviere and Paul Baxter during the expansion draft, because their rights holders – the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively – refused to negotiate a deal.
Four days before the expansion draft, the Nordiques and Blackhawks worked out a side deal: Chicago agreed to not reclaim Cloutier in exchange for Quebec’s first-round pick in next year’s draft.
“How could the Nordiques give away their first pick in the 1980 draft for Cloutier’s rights?,” said Clairoux. “Looking at it today, it doesn’t make sense. But in 1979, it did. The Nordiques won the [WHA Championship] Avco Cup in 1977. They had almost the same roster in 1979 and thought that the transition to the NHL would go smoothly. At the time, keeping all these players was considered a victory for the Nordiques, compared to what happened to the Jets, who lost almost all of their players.”
Still, trading a first-round pick to keep Cloutier may have been the worst deal made by the Nordiques during the team’s 16 years in the NHL.
Why didn’t the team just use a priority selection for Cloutier and cede the rights to either Lariviere or Baxter instead? Maybe that wasn’t an option. The Blackhawks wanted Cloutier. Owner Bill Wirtz was the NHL Chairman of the Board of Governors and close friends with NHL President John Ziegler. Perhaps the rules didn’t apply to the Blackhawks in this case.
“It could be that the ‘Hawks were determined to get Cloutier and he couldn’t be protected by the Nords through the agreed-upon priority selection process,” said Gassen, who has also directed three documentary films about the WHA. “Rather than have protracted legal cases over individual players, the WHA teams took their medicine and just got on with the long process of rebuilding.”
“Needless to say, Clouter was a very talented player,“ said Clairoux. “He was even compared to Wayne Gretzky. But already, some were questioning Cloutier’s will to win. His numbers were almost too good to be true but had no effect on the Nordiques’ disappointing last two years in the WHA or first year in the NHL.”
Despite keeping many of their great players from their WHA days, the Nordiques faltered during the 1979-80 season, finishing with the third-worst record. That June, the Blackhawks used their pick from the Nordiques to select Denis Savard, and the rest is history.
Cloutier’s play steadily declined over the years — due to an ankle injury and conflicts with his coaches — and he retired in 1985. Savard, meanwhile, went on to score 1,338 points in 1,196 games over a 17-year NHL career and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000.
It is easy to say who a team should have kept, traded or drafted when looking back over 40 years later. But what if the Nordiques had decided to keep their first-round pick, regardless of whether it meant losing Cloutier or another player? Would the Nords have drafted Savard, a native of the Quebec province?
“I’m not so sure,” said Clarioux.
The Montreal Canadiens had the first overall pick in the 1980 draft and the Blackhawks had the third overall pick from their trade with Quebec. If Quebec still had that pick, though, Savard probably would have gone to the Canadiens.
“Letting Savard go to Winnipeg (who drafted second) or Chicago was not a big deal for Montreal but seeing that young French-Canadian play in Quebec [City] would have been quite different,” said Clarioux. “Montreal hockey fans reacted badly when the Canadiens chose Doug Wickenheiser instead of Savard. If Denis had been selected by Quebec, it would have been terrible. So, I don’t think Savard would have been available at third-overall if the Nordiques had kept their first-round pick for 1980.”
But just think a moment about a Nordiques team that could have had Denis Savard and Michel Goulet – two of the best French-Canadian forwards in the league not named Mario – on the same line. Savard, with his slick skating and outgoing personality, undoubtedly would have been a fan favorite.
“Could you imagine a team that had Peter Stastny and Denis Savard as its first two centers?” said Willes. “And then Dale Hunter as the third center? That’s not bad.”
Regardless of whether Savard went to the Canadiens or Nordiques, the result would have been the same for the Blackhawks. Chicago would have missed the opportunity to draft one of the team’s all-time best players. Chicago fans would have been denied the opportunity to witness Savard’s spin-o-rama, five 100-plus point seasons and other amazing on-ice feats.
Even when Savard lost a step, the Blackhawks were able to trade him to the Montreal Canadiens for Chris Chelios — who also went on to become one of the greatest Blackhawks of all time. Obviously, that trade or Savard’s own contributions to the ‘Hawks would never have happened if Chicago management did not take advantage of the situation — and the Nordiques — like they did in 1979. ■