It's hard to believe it was 21 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. The Red Wings were coming off winning consecutive Stanley Cups and second year GM Ken Holland was trying to make it 3 in a row. The season wasn't going smoothly as the Red Wings seemed disinterested at times. Lazy, complacent and some bad habits were setting in. The team needed a shake up. There was no Salary Cap in place and Ken Holland had complete autonomy to spend the Ilitch Family's money as he saw fit. Whatever it takes to have another Stanley Cup parade down Woodward Avenue in June.
Now I'll preface this by stating that even though the Red Wings were defending back to back Stanley Cup champions, there was still a huge void on the Red Wings Blueline. I'm talking about the loss of Vladimir Konstantinov in June of 1997 to a terrible limousine accident. Anders Eriksson was a first round pick who seemed to be skilled enough to fill that top 4 defensive role. He was being groomed along slowly. Fetisov retired and Bob Rouse wasn't re-signed. Uwe Krupp was signed as a UFA but hurt himself in a dog sledding incident so he wasn't available. The need for a veteran top 4 defenseman was there.
The weeks leading up before the trade deadline, the hottest rumour was whether or not the Chicago Blackhawks would actually trade the face of the franchise, captain and future Hall of Fame defenseman Chris Chelios. It seemed impossible. I never took it seriously. Even if he were traded it certainly wouldn't be to their hated arch rival Red Wings, right? No way. But with more smoke came more fire. It was Flyers GM Bobby Clarke who seemed the most desperate to trade for Chelios.
Each day I'd read about Bobby Clarke begging Hawks GM Bob Pulford to trade Chelios to his Flyers. But it never materialized. Then the Red Wings rumours began to gain steam but I laughed at them. Chelios seemed torn. He could still play but he was playing too much on a bad Chicago team. Bill Wirtz Senior was still the owner of the Blackhawks. He had a reputation for being cheap. To quote a scene from the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"..."If you stuck a lump of coal up Dollar Bill Wirtz's a$$, in 2 weeks you'd have a diamond." He didn't want to pay Chelios top dollar.
So Holland was rumoured to be talking to the Rangers about acquiring veteran defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. This seemed more realistic. But the Chelios rumours just wouldn't go away. So the trade deadline Day finally arrived and I was excited. Red Wings fans were spoiled back in those days. The Wings always did something before or at the trade deadline to bolster the team for a playoff run. "Papa Bear" Slava Fetisov came in 1995. Kirk Maltby arrived in 1996. Larry Murphy, Joey Kocur and Tomas Sandstrom came in 1997. Dimitri Mironov and Jamie Macoun came in 1998. So I knew Holland would add another player or 2.
Holland struck early. Trading for backup goalie Bill Ranford and hated former Leaf Wendel Clark in separate deals. Backup goalie Kevin Hodson was sent to Tampa. Draft picks were traded for Wendel Clark. Clark was a pure rental. He scored 30 goals for Tampa that season. He was a shell of his former self but he could still fire the puck. Ok I was happy. I could never get used to Wendel Clark wearing a Red Wings uniform. It just looked and felt wrong. I actually wanted to vomit. 🤮
So a couple hours go by and Holland pulls off the Ulf Samuelsson trade for a couple more draft picks. This was expected and I figured Holland was done. I just assumed Chelios would be a Flyer. I'd finally get to stop hearing Bobby Clarke begging Bob Pulford to trade Chelios to his Flyers. But then I recall hearing the Red Wings had a deal in place to acquire Chelios and that both Holland and Pulford were waiting on Chelios to green light it. What?! Is this actually happening? Will Bobby Clarke cry? Is he on suicide watch now? Flyers owner Ed Snider can't be happy!
Yes it is happening! Holland trades Anders Eriksson and 2 first round draft picks for Chelios. Chelios OK's the deal and now he's a Detroit Red Wing! I'm in total shock! Red Wings fans are elated! All other fans are pi$$ed! "The Red Wings are buying another Cup!" I recall seeing Oilers GM Glen Sather on TV with that sarcastic look on his face mocking Holland for acquiring Ranford, Clark, Samuelsson and Chelios in a few hours. Quite hypocritical of ol' Slats! He was always the king of loading up at the trade deadline. Adam Graves and Joe Murphy anyone? Adding Reijo Reutsalainen for each playoff run?
So Chelios is interviewed and I could tell he was torn. He's a Chicago Blackhawk in his heart. He didn't want to leave. But he knew it was time to go. The look on his face said it all. I hated Chris Chelios. He single handedly shortened the great Sergei Fedorov's career with his dirty play. It took me 3 years to finally accept Chelios being a Red Wing. I was torn. On one hand I was excited. I knew this made the Red Wings better. A 3-peat was actually possible. On the other hand I hated it because I just hated Chris Chelios. I respected him. But I hated him!
So I recall being in awe of Ken Holland that day. He went all in to give his team the best possible chance of winning a third consecutive Stanley Cup. Now as we all know it didn't happen. While the Red Wings won their first 6 playoff games they were steamrolled by their arch nemesis the equally star studded Colorado Avalanche in 6 games. Billy Ranford replaced an injured Chris Osgood and won the first 2 games in Colorado.
But the AVS were just better that season. Holland's deadline moves turned out to be Fools Gold. Samuelsson, Clark and Ranford left. But Chelios did get his 2 year contract extension at 5.5 million AAV. Chelios went on to miss a number of games to injury the next 2 seasons. The two first round picks Chicago received for Chelios turned out to be busts (Steve McCarthy and Adam Munro). Anders Eriksson faded away into hockey oblivion. Chelios did have something left in the tank though.
In 2002 both he and teammate Nick Lidstrom finished #1 and #2 in Norris trophy votes. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup that season and Chelios was a big part of it. So while deadline day '99 didn't pay off immediately it wasn't a total loss. Holland certainly did have the luxury of outspending most of his rival GMs. He had the advantage of having no Salary Cap. But he had a great Day that day and I always appreciated that.
I've been one of Holland's biggest critics during the post Lidstrom era. But on that particular trade deadline day in 1999, Ken Holland shook up the hockey world. He didn't knock out Sonny Liston. But he certainly made Red Wings fans at Joe Louis arena smile. 😊