What was it that Mark Twain said about the Eric Lindros trade? Oh, yes. The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to be credible. And a quarter-century later, Russ Farwell isn't certain that the details and circumstances of the NHL-shaking deal that he helped orchestrate would achieve the threshold of believability that make-believe requires.
Lindros, regarded as the biggest star to hit the league since Mario Lemieux, telling the Quebec Nordiques that he would never, ever play for them? A mercurial owner, the Nordiques' Marcel Aubut, striking separate trade agreements with the Flyers and New York Rangers? An arbitrator, Larry Bertuzzi, desperate for a legal procedure to govern the hearings and finding … no such procedure existed? The press conference — televised across Canada at the NHL's insistence, the entire nation rapt as if Al Cowlings were driving a white Bronco along the Macdonald-Cartier Freeway — at which Bertuzzi revealed that the Flyers had reached a valid and binding agreement with the Nordiques, that in exchange for six players, two first-round draft picks, and $15 million, the player who was supposed to change hockey forever was coming to Philadelphia?
"If I was sitting down, telling it to you for the first time," Farwell, the Flyers' general manager then, said in a phone interview, "you'd think, 'Jeez, did it really happen like that?' "
Bespectacled and with the avuncular demeanor of a Maytag repairman, Farwell is the owner, governor, and general manager of the Seattle Thunderbirds, the franchise in the Western Hockey League that he rejoined in 1995 after the Flyers fired him. The Thunderbirds won the WHL championship this year. Farwell has had 22 years in Seattle, a good run. "I don't get many calls like this anymore," he said. He can look back at the Lindros trade now with the perspective that only time and distance and hindsight can provide, and for all the excitement that Lindros provided to the Flyers, even for the way his mere presence and promise reinvigorated the franchise, Farwell had to admit: If he had to make the trade again, he doubts that he would.
"We felt we were trading for the next generational guy, and we just didn't feel there was a price," he said Wednesday, two days before the 25th anniversary of the trade's official consummation. "But looking back at how it unfolded … would you today, in hindsight, on a pure hockey basis, knowing how it ultimately was going to work out? I don't know if you would. My answer today is looking at it purely from a hockey standpoint, and I don't know if they got the value."
Lindros was the sun of the Flyers' solar system from the moment he arrived until the moment his star-crossed career with them effectively ended: Scott Stevens' bulldozing him during Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals. It's impossible to untangle all the what-ifs and could-have-beens that might have unfurled had they not acquired him, and any historical revisionism of the trade has to account for its context. The modern NHL of 2017 — with a salary cap, with 30 teams instead of 22, with franchises in Raleigh and Las Vegas but not in Hartford and Quebec City, with the deepening and diversification of the player talent pool — would be unfathomable and unrecognizable in the comparatively loosey-goosey summer of 1992. But Aubut's gambit flouted convention even then. "For a guy to think he could do what he did," Farwell said, "try to get a commitment from two teams, it just was unreal, a colossal mess-up."
At the time, the Flyers' thinking was basic. They had missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons, and they were in the early stages of trying to leave the Spectrum and finance a new arena. They wanted, needed, a superstar, and they weren't willing to wait another year or so for Peter Forsberg — their first-round pick in the 1991 draft, a 2014 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame — to come over from Sweden. Forsberg and his agent, Don Baizley, insisted that, given his tenacious style of play, Forsberg needed more time to mature physically before entering the NHL. "It wasn't the normal reaction when you offer a kid a place to come and play in the National Hockey League," Farwell said, failing to note that Lindros' reaction to being drafted by the Nordiques in 1991 had been just as abnormal. "Not often did they turn you down, and we really needed him to come. It was probably good advice developmentally, but it wasn't what we wanted to hear at the time."
So to get Lindros, the Flyers included Forsberg with forwards Mike Ricci and Chris Simon, goaltender Ron Hextall, defensemen Steve Duchesne and Kerry Huffman, the draft picks, and the cash. This is where the 25-year-old second-guessing gets interesting. Lindros made the Flyers the talk of hockey, but they still missed the playoffs in his first two seasons, and it wasn't as if droves of fans abandoned the team during this fallow five-year period. Even with Lindros, average attendance at Flyers home games in 1993-94 (17,020) was actually marginally less than it had been in 1989-90 (17,407).
Now, suppose Farwell and the Flyers of 1992 had adopted a rebuilding approach similar to the one that the Hextall (as a GM) and the Flyers of 2017 have taken. Waiting a year or two for Forsberg might not have been an object. As Farwell said, the Flyers knew what they had in him. He was on his way, as was forward Mikael Renberg, whom the Flyers had drafted in 1990 and who scored 38 goals as a rookie in 1993-94. And already, the Flyers had two all-star-level forwards, Mark Recchi and Rod Brind'Amour.
Consider, then, the core of the team that could have taken the ice for the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season: Forsberg, Recchi, Brind'Amour, Renberg, Ricci, Duchesne, Hextall in goal (which, as it turned out, he was anyway). More, that group doesn't include the players the Flyers might have added with the 1993 and 1994 first-round picks that they surrendered in the Lindros trade.