Oh, what could have been.
The 1990s was a strange, wacky, and wild roller coaster for the Vancouver Canucks. After starting the first half of the decade with such promise, the latter half was an utter disaster.
If the Canucks signed superstar Wayne Gretzky in the summer of 1996, could they have avoided the ensuing chaos?
Scott Rintoul documented the Canucks post-1994 fall from grace during the first episode of UNREEL: West Coast Express.
However, one of the most fascinating pieces of insight from the episode was an interview with “The Great One” himself, who told the story of how he almost became a member of the Canucks.
"Is there anyone you interviewed for the podcast that surprised you?"
Yes, in fact, there is… and he's in Episode 1.https://t.co/w0QmlQq37j pic.twitter.com/V2VLVhTVg1
— Scott Rintoul (@ScottRintoul) January 31, 2023
Gretzky flew to Seattle in 1996 to sign with Canucks
After chatting with “three of four teams” as a free agent in 1996, Gretzky said that the Canucks were the main team that was willing to meet in person. So, he flew to Seattle, along with his lawyer and agent, to meet with Canucks management.
After meeting for lunch, Canucks general manager Pat Quinn made something abundantly clear to Gretzky.
“Pat was really adamant that Trevor Linden was his captain,” Gretzky said. “I assured him that my aspirations weren’t to take somebody’s captaincy away. If he was the captain, that was fine by me.”
At that point, Gretzky and McCaw decided to exit the negotiation.
“I think it was [Canucks owner] John McCaw who stood up and went ‘you know what? I’m not good at negotiating, I’m gonna leave.’ And I looked at John and said ‘I’m not great at it either, I’ll come with you.’
“So John and I spent the day at his office in Seattle, we walked around the boardwalk and went to dinner. By 11 o’clock, there wasn’t really a deal in place.
“I was teasing John that if him and I did the deal, we would’ve gotten it done in 20 minutes.”
“We just felt like it wasn’t going to happen”
As the negotiation entered the evening, the odds of getting a deal done began to drop.
“It got to about 11 o clock, and we couldn’t seem to wrap it up,” George McPhee, then Canucks Director of Hockey Operations, said on the podcast. “Mike [Barnett, Gretzky’s agent] wanted to go back to the hotel and think about it.
“We thought, geez, if he leaves now, [it’s] probably not going to get done. We encouraged him to stay but he went back to the hotel, and we just felt like it wasn’t going to happen.
“John McCaw had basically said [to Gretzky’s camp] ‘if you come to Seattle and meet us, work hard for the day and evening, and by the end of the night, we believe we’ll have a deal that works for you. But that will be it. We’re not going to go on for days and days.'”
Based on McPhee’s story about McCaw, and a previous story about Canucks CEO Stan McCammon, it was that mentality of needing to get the deal done that night which drove Gretzky away.
“When I went to bed, I had no idea what was going to happen,” Gretzky said. “I got a call around 1:45 in the morning and [they] said that we’d probably reached a deal. At that time, I just said ‘you know what? I need to call my family.’
“And that’s when, you know, the delegation really wanted an answer by the time I got the phone call. and I just wasn’t comfortable making that decision. I really wanted to talk to my family before I made this drastic change in my life and it kind of just went off the rails at that point in time.”
And just like that, it was over.
“John [McCaw] just pulled the plug and said ‘okay, we tried, they’re not interested in doing it,'” McPhee said. “So, Stan McCammon called Mike and said ‘were out.'”
Gretzky refutes rumour of Rangers matching Canucks offer
After the deal fell through, McPhee said he heard that the chances of actually signing Gretzky weren’t so great after all.
“I found out the next day that the [New York] Rangers had a deal with Mike that they would have a right to match whatever we did,” he admitted.
Gretzky poured ice-cold water on that story.
“That’s not true at all,” Gretzky said. “In fact, I hadn’t even really spoken to the New York Rangers before I went to Seattle. As a matter of fact, to be honest with you, all cards on the table, my first offer was from Bob Gainey and the Dallas Stars.
“I told Dallas and I told Vancouver I wasn’t going to negotiate against each other. It was just more of okay, what opportunity do we have here to win a Stanley Cup, and that was more of my focus than anything. I knew I was nearing the end of my career and I wanted one more chance to win a Stanley Cup.”
“The Rangers weren’t even really in the mix at one point.”
Eventually, Gretzky said he believes it was then-Rangers GM Neil Smith, who ended up convincing New York ownership to make an offer to the greatest NHLer of all time. Gretzky did eventually sign with the Rangers where he spent the last three seasons of his career.
However, Gretzky said he has reflected on almost becoming a member of the Canucks over the years with Quinn.
“I got to have a great relationship with Pat after I retired and we had some wonderful great days, great moments, and great memories,” Gretzky said.
“We kind of used to look at each other and giggle and think ‘what could have been.'”