Revisiting the first Winnipeg-Buffalo blockbuster in 1990

For fans of a certain age, today’s blockbuster trade between the Winnipeg Jets and the Buffalo Sabres is reminiscent of a pre-salary cap era when such transactions were the NHL norm.

But in the 21st century, the cap presents the biggest obstacle from such whirlwind deals.

Today’s trade comes nearly a quarter-century after the same two cities pulled off a monster swap that involved a future Hall of Famer.

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Of course the Winnipeg team isn’t the same franchise that dealt talented, but problematic, forward Evander Kane today. While those Jets have long since been relocated to Arizona, this edition for which Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford will play are the former Atlanta Thrashers.

While it remains to be seen which franchise will come out the eventual winner, both teams seem satisfied. Winnipeg gets a boost to help fend off playoff spot challengers, and also sees some salary relief, while Buffalo shaves a couple of years from their rebuild, in the best-case scenario.

In the meantime, here’s a look back at that other huge Winnipeg-Buffalo trade.

Jets Trade All-Time Scorer in Package Deal

The Date June 16, 1990

The Deal Winnipeg Jets trade Dale Hawerchuk and a 1st-round draft choice in 1990, and future considerations to Buffalo for Phil Housley, Scott Arniel, Jeff Parker, and a 1st-round draft choice in 1990.

The Dirt

As a second-year team in the NHL in 1980-81, the Winnipeg Jets were the laughing stock of the league, posting an embarrassing 9-57-14 record. However, their poor showing secured the team the first overall pick in the 1981 draft. Their selection was very easy. Winnipeg chose Hawerchuk, the Canadian Major Junior Player of the Year and Memorial Cup most valuable player with the Cornwall Royals.

Hawerchuk evolved into the Jets’ franchise player. In his rookie year 1981-82, he scored 45 goals and 103 points on the way to winning the Calder Trophy. Over his first seven seasons in the NHL, Hawerchuk topped the 100-point mark six times. His career-best output was during the 1984-85 campaign when he netted 53 goals and collected 130 points, earning a berth as a Second Team All-Star. In 1987 Hawerchuk earned his greatest international achievement by playing on the Canada Cup championship team that defeated the Soviet Union on Mario Lemieux’s famous goal.

But when Mike Smith replaced John Ferguson as Jets general manger in the 1988-89 season, Hawerchuk was not enthused. “In my era there were two Winnipegs,” Hawerchuck told the Toronto Sun several years later. ”There was the John Ferguson era, which was positive, upbeat, a really community driven team. And then the Mike Smith era, which was negative and pessimistic. That ran through the media. I thought I’d be a Winnipeg Jet forever, but at the end Mike pretty much made it impossible for me to really push forward with my career there. ”

Hawerchuk officially asked for a trade on May 16, 1990 and Smith granted his wish at the draft, one month later. Hawerchuk’s only regret was that he would not be playing with his good friend Arniel, who was a late inclusion into the trade talks between Smith and Sabres general manager Gerry Meehan. The two men were once Jets teammates, and also linemates on the Memorial Cup-winning Royals, once co-owning a minority share in the Cornwall team. “I’m a little disappointed that my buddy Scotty is coming back to Winnipeg,” said Hawerchuk. “I know how much he liked Buffalo and I know he had talked to Gerry about getting me. But I’m happy to go to Buffalo. I’m glad it’s done. ”

The Debate

The Sabres needed depth at centre. The deficiency became evident during the 1990 playoffs as Buffalo was eliminated in six games by the Montreal Canadiens with their top line pivot Pierre Turgeon stifled throughout the series by Guy Carbonneau. Hawerchuk led the team in scoring in 1990-91 with 89 points. The following year, the Sabres traded Turgeon as part of a blockbuster trade with the Islanders to get Pat LaFontaine. As LaFontaine formed a lethal combination with Alex Mogilny, Hawerchuk was slotted as the team’s number two centre, but still produced at over a point-per-game clip.

Hawerchuk never cracked the 100-point mark in any season after leaving Winnipeg. But in his five seasons in Buffalo he compiled 385 points in 342 regular season games. He signed as a free agent with St. Louis on September 8, 1995.

The Sabres selected Brad May with their 14th overall pick obtained from the Jets at the 1990 draft. Cast in an enforcer’s role, May spent six-and-a-half seasons with Buffalo collecting 1,323 penalty minutes in 425 games. Throughout all of the fisticuffs, May’s shining moment with the team was his overtime series-winning goal in the 1993 Adams Division semi-finals. The Sabres completed a sweep of the Bruins with broadcaster Rick Jeanneret screaming “May Day!” into the microphone. May was dealt along with a draft pick to Vancouver on February 4, 1998 for Geoff Sanderson.

From the Jets’ perspective, their acquisition of Housley complemented a fast-skating team that already had players like Dave Ellett, Randy Carlyle, and Teppo Numminen on the blueline. “I don’t think people realize how good a player Phil Housley is,” said Hawerchuk after the trade. “The Winnipeg system suits him so well.”

Housley posted excellent numbers over three seasons in Winnipeg being utilized as a power-play specialist. He earned 64 goals and 259 points in 232 games while playing for the Jets. Prior to the 1993-94 season he was traded to St. Louis for Nelson Emerson and Stephane Quintal.

Arniel’s second tour of duty in Winnipeg lasted just one season, 1990-91, in which he registered 22 points in 75 games. Parker never played for the Jets, signing as a free agent with Hartford in February 1991.

The prize for the Jets in the trade was selecting Keith Tkachuk at 19th overall in 1990 with the pick previously belonging to Buffalo. A power forward from Boston University, Tkachuk was a force at left wing, scoring 50 goals in 1995-96, the Jets’ final season win Winnipeg, and then following up with a 52-goal campaign in the team’s first season following their transfer to Phoenix. By the time he was traded to St. Louis in 2001, Tkachuk had posted 623 points and 1,508 penalty minutes in 640 games played with the Winnipeg/Phoenix franchise.

The Result

While both teams were able to fill their immediate needs, neither was able to garner much – if any – post-season success. The 1993 Sabres win, sealed by May’s goal, was the only playoff victory for Buffalo during either Hawerchuk’s or May’s tenure.

The trade couldn’t stop Winnipeg’s run of post-season futility. Despite the later arrival of superstar Teemu Selanne, the Jets franchise didn’t win a playoff round until the 2012 when Phoenix defeated Chicago, ending a drought of 25 years.

Drafting Tkachuk earns the Jets a slight victory.


Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, and is a regular columnist at TMLfans.ca

He is also the co-author of “The Best, Worst And Biggest NHL Trades of All-Time!“, available at Indigo

Follow TMLfans.ca on Twitter: @Rob_DelMundo

Photo credit: SignedHockeyJerseys.com