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1978 audio interview with Hall-of-Famer Ted Lindsay: The Dale McCourt fiasco

Today, we are posting one of our “vintage” interviews. It is from the late summer of 1978 with then Detroit Red Wing General Manager Ted Lindsay. The focus of the interview had to do with Lindsay’s decision to sign a free agent- Rogatien Vachon—and how things turned out.

I was a young guy in broadcasting at the time, and Lindsay was generous in giving his time- though he certainly had a message to deliver, as you will hear in the interview.

The background is that, in the summer of 1978, the notion of “free agency” was just coming into prominence in the NHL. There was no complete free agency like there was in baseball.

A player whose contract had expired could sign with a new team, but at the time, the team losing the player was required to provide “compensation”. That compensation could take the form of players and/or draft choices.

Well, that summer, Lindsay, the former Red Wing great and Hall-of-Famer, was looking to help his team in goal. He signed Vachon, who had been with the LA Kings for several seasons.

Now Rogie was well-known to Leaf fans for a number of reasons. He was the then-young player famously referred to as a “Junior B goalie” by Leaf coach Punch Imlach before the start of the 1967 Stanley Cup finals between Montreal and Toronto. (Vachon was outstanding through much of that series, but Toronto still won in 6 games.) He also helped Montreal win Cups in 1968 and ’69, before losing his job to Ken Dryden in 1971. He was traded to the Kings where he was a standout. (Side note, in the spring of 1975, the Leafs upset Vachon and the Kings in a best-of-three playoff series.)

When Lindsay signed Vachon, everything hit the fan. He couldn’t work out a deal with LA Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke and the Kings. He initially thought the arbitrator, who had handled an earlier case involving the North Stars and their GM Lou Nanne, might issue a fair decision.

The system at the time was that both teams submitted a list of proposed ‘award’ names to the arbitrator, that is, players who would be “compensation” for Vachon. Lo and behold, the Kings asked for and received none other than Dale McCourt, who had been Detroit’s 1st round (and first overall) draft choice the summer before. McCourt had just completed a strong rookie season, with 72 points in 76 games as a 20-year old. (I well remember McCourt as the cornerstone of a tough and talented Memorial Cup-winning Hamilton Fincups team.)

Lindsay was furious at the arbitrator’s decision. While he had no way of fighting the decision, McCourt and his advisors did. Litigation delayed things, and McCourt ended up playing with the Wings in 1978-’79. The NHL dealt with all this by allowing a trade between the two teams the next summer, which saw LA technically “trade” McCourt back to Detroit, though he had never left. The Wings and Lindsay gave up forward Andre St. Laurent and two first-round draft picks—who turned out to be future Hall-of-Famer Larry Murphy and Doug Smith, another solid NHL’er. (Murphy at least helped the Wings win a Cup late in his career, justice for Lindsay, perhaps.)

Interestingly, McCourt’s career never quite came to prominence as Lindsay and many others expected. He was a gifted offensive talent, though not a gritty forward. Whereas, years later, Steve Yzerman was able to make the transition from a mostly offensive player to a strong all-around performer, McCourt never quite made that transition, it seemed. He put up big numbers through 1981-’82, but faded somewhat after being traded to the Sabres along with fellow first round draft choice (and future Leaf, Mike Foligno).

McCourt played his final NHL season with the Leafs in 1983-’84, signing as a free agent (without compensation, that time) before playing several seasons in Europe.

As for Lindsay, the decision to sign Vachon may well have been something he ended up regretting. Team chemistry was likely harmed and the move to bring in an aging goalie (Vachon) cost the Wings valuable draft choices in the years to come. The Wings made an initial surge under Lindsay in his time as GM, but it didn’t last. It wasn’t until former Islanders super scout Jimmy Devellano came on board as the Wings GM in 1982 that the Wings used the draft over time to build a squad that eventually become a contender and then a championship team in the mid-1990s.

I’ll post on Lindsay (pictured left) and his playing days another time, but for now, enjoy the interview, from more than 30 years ago!

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