(Ed. Note: On July 25, 1991, winger Brendan Shanahan signed a 4-year deal with the St. Louis Blues as a restricted free agent, leaving the New Jersey Devils. This eventually led to the Devils being awarded defenseman Scott Stevens as compensation for losing Shanahan. The following is an excerpt from "Hell & Back: A People's History of the New Jersey Devils," which is a long-gestating book project of mine. Happy 20th anniversary, Shanahan signing.)
On Jan. 8, 1991, Brendan Shanahan's career nearly ended.
Shanahan was hit in the right side of his face by a Tommy Albelin shot that had been deflected by St. Louis Blues defender Harold Snepsts. He hit the ice in the Meadowlands, before getting up and leaving the rink to get attention from trainers and physicians.
His eye had swollen shut, but long-term damage to his vision was ruled out upon further examination. Instead, the Devils winger had a broken jaw, displaced teeth and a cheekbone that had been pushed into his skull.
During his recovery, Shanahan cherished the concern Devils fans had shown for his well-being. And there was no doubt that, after four years with the franchise that had drafted him, Shanahan felt a certain loyalty to New Jersey, his teammates, and his fans.
So when the 22-year-old forward hit the open market as a Group I restricted free agent in Summer 1991, there was strong sentiment that Shanahan might remain with the Devils. GM Lou Lamoriello thought so, telling the Bergen Record that "Brendan will be a Devil" the following season.
"No. 1, he'd like to stay in New Jersey, I think. No. 2, we're going to make every effort to keep him," said Lamoriello. "The question is: What is the philosophy of some of the teams out there in reference to equalization, and what do they feel is the right thing to do for their team? I really don't know."
The question was compensation — whoever signed Shanahan would have to offer a player or package of players and draft picks of equal value to the Devils, who would make their own counteroffer. An arbitrator would pick one of the two offers if the teams couldn't agree on compensation.
Would the Rangers sign Shanahan and use burgeoning star Darren Turcotte as compensation? Would the Red Wings ante up Jimmy Carson, a former 100-point center, after inking Shanny?
One team that didn't appear to be in the running was the St. Louis Blues. On July 5, 1990, Scott Stevens signed a four-year, $5.1 million dollar restricted free-agent contract with the Blues, joining established stars Brett Hull and Adam Oates in St. Louis. Stevens was a 26-year-old defenseman who had spent eight seasons pummeling anything with a pulse as a member of the Washington Capitals. He had also averaged 54 points per season, helping the Caps make the playoffs every year he was in Washington.
In Stevens' first season in St. Louis, where he wore the captain's 'C', the Blues improved from 37 to 47 wins and eliminated rival Detroit in the divisional semifinals. The Blues had never won a Stanley Cup, but appeared on their way to building a championship caliber team. It had come at quite a cost: Five first-round draft choices transferred to Washington for Stevens, and a monstrous salary for Hull, who was the seventh highest paid player in the NHL.
Perhaps General Manager Ron Caron felt that money was no object when it came to chasing the Stanley Cup. Perhaps he thought the Blues were a physical, goal-scoring winger away from the Promised Land.
Or perhaps he went temporarily insane.
Whatever the diagnosis, Caron and the Blues blew away the Devils' offer of $700,000 a season with a four-year deal worth an estimated $5 million to Shanahan — making the winger the eighth-highest paid player in hockey at the time and stunning New Jersey's players, fans and ownership.
Now the question was compensation. Having already spent their first-round picks on the Stevens compensation, the Blues would have to ante up a package of picks and players to the Devils, who would make their own compensation pitch.
Lamoriello was swinging for the bleachers. Hull was out of reach, but rumors swirled that Adam Oates would be the target, as the Devils sought to fill the offensive void Shanahan left with a centerman coming off a 25 goal and 115 point season.
Caron was expected to counter with an offer of several players, and appeared willing to part with young goalie Curtis Joseph in a compensation package.
The NHL took long over a month and a half to finally approve Shanahan's deal with the Blues, and the two teams began their compensation talks. Along with Oates, the Devils appeared to be targeting Stevens as well. The Blues steadfastly refused to discuss sending Oates, Stevens or Hull to the Devils. At a stalemate, the case was sent to NHL arbitrator Judge Edward J. Houston of Ottawa.
Each team submitted a proposal. The Blues offered Joseph, two conditional draft picks and, in a surprise move intended to protect the team from losing one of its stars, 21-year-old forward Rod Brind'Amour.
The Devils passed on Oates, and asked for Stevens as compensation.
On September 3, 1991, Houston made his decision. And the Devils, the Blues, and the National Hockey League were never the same again.
Scott Stevens was a Devil.
His initial reaction, to the Canadian Press?
"I want to talk to my lawyer."
Stevens had been quite content to stay in St. Louis, building towards the first Stanley Cup in the franchise's history. Plus, he had recently purchased a house in the area. "I did not think my name should be involved. I was so thrilled we would be getting Shanahan. I never thought I'd be compensation," he said.
Stevens didn't immediately report to the Devils that September because he was playing in the Canada Cup. After that tournament ended, he still hadn't reported to New Jersey. His lawyer was banging the legal drums, threatening to draw out the transfer in courts and forcing the Devils to deal Stevens back to the Blues. There was even the "nuclear option" of sitting out the entire season.
Ah, yes — battling Lou Lamoriello over money and trying to wiggle out of contractual obligations. You'd have a better chance squeezing a glass of Tropicana out of a brick.
Stevens blinked first, and agreed to report to New Jersey. He and his family arrived on Thursday, Sept. 26, 1991, and Lamoriello spent the afternoon showing them around their new home. And, perhaps, asking him what he knew about something called the "neutral zone trap."
The Blues and the NHLPA suspected the ruling might have been retaliation for luring Stevens away from the Caps and throwing the league's salary structure into chaos.
Whatever the reasons, history was made: Stevens would go on to win three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe as Devils captain. Shanahan scored over 50 goals twice in four seasons with the Blues, before being traded for Chris Pronger. His last stop in the NHL before retiring in 2009? New Jersey.
Photo credits: Getty Images