Buried deep within the Philadelphia Flyers archives for the better part of the last 30 years is a plain, manila file folder. Unless you’re looking for this one in particular, it’s indistinguishable at a passing glance. Only a keen, focused eye would notice the words, lightly scrawled in pencil across the front. Even fewer would understand the meaning behind those words.
“Jay Snider’s File 1992.”
Inside the folder is a hockey historian’s dream.
In the early summer of 1992, Snider, the son of founder and owner Ed Snider and president of the Flyers at the time, found himself as the point man for one of the biggest trades in NHL history, a deal that affected the league and several franchises for decades to come. Eric Lindros, a teenager viewed by scouts across hockey as the next Wayne Gretzky but with more size and snarl, was declining to sign with the Quebec Nordiques, the team that drafted him first overall one year earlier.
A bidding war was set to begin. And Snider wanted in.
“Everybody in hockey was aware that this phenom was coming along,” Snider said. “And then it became a target for us once he said he wouldn’t play for Quebec.”
Jay was on the scene for the events that unfolded over several days in Montreal, where the 1992 NHL Draft was set. He went back and forth with Nordiques president Marcel Aubut before Aubut controversially and remarkably traded Lindros to both the Flyers and New York Rangers. But Ed, who had expressed a desire to take a step back while moving to the elite community of Montecito, Calif., was still in the loop. He wasn’t going to pass up a chance to play a major part in a huge move for the franchise that was his brainchild and baby since before its first game in 1967.
There were complications, though. Just before serious trade discussions got underway between the Flyers and Nordiques, Ed was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It wasn’t thought to be overly serious, but it was still cancer. He would need immediate surgery.
The whirlwind of the cancer diagnosis and his hospital stay, coupled with the drama unfolding in Montreal, remain vivid in the mind of Ed’s wife at the time, Martha McGeary Snider.
“He lived and breathed the team,” Martha recalled. “It was everything. So he thought, well, I’ll be out in California. It’s time. Jay can run the team. But it’s tough. Jay was being second-guessed all the time. And Jay is one of the brightest people I know. He’s a wonderful, hard-working guy. But how can you step into those shoes?”
Step into them, he did. Jay’s now 30-year-old file is evidence of just how much the desire to land the NHL’s “Next One” overtook his life for that brief moment. From the trade negotiations to the trade itself, to the 10-day period between the trade and an independent arbitrator awarding Lindros to the Flyers rather than the Rangers, Jay’s considerable file shows just how all-consuming it was.
There are hotel phone records that show when the Flyers contacted Lindros for the first time, a conversation between then-general manager Russ Farwell and the Lindros household, which was a key bit of evidence in the ultimate decision. There are stream-of-consciousness notes messily scrawled out on hotel room stationary. There are official documents from the league, including the trade agreement between the Rangers and Nordiques, something that the Flyers never had on paper. Hand-written charts with various trade proposals and projections of what other teams might offer, including names that even a casual hockey fan would instantly recognize.
The Flyers organization, and Jay Snider in particular, wanted to get this done.
“Here comes a guy who could be a generational player, and you just have to be involved,” Snider said. “It was too big of an opportunity.”
Ed Snider was defined by his competitiveness. It was that particular personality trait, more than anything else, that endeared him to the fans of Philadelphia. A pair of Stanley Cup championships by the aptly named Broad Street Bullies in 1974 and 1975 helped, too, of course, and the controversial way they played the game was essentially viewed by the locals as an extension of their fiery owner’s win-at-all-costs attitude.
Jay had some of that in him, too. When it became evident that Lindros was going to be moved, Jay recalled something that his mother, Myrna, had said to him years earlier.
“She had said that when Gretzky was (being talked about as the league’s next star), and the NHL wouldn’t draft players that young, she urged my father to do it anyway,” Jay said, alluding to the fact that the NHL’s minimum age to get drafted in 1979 was 19 years old, making Gretzky ineligible. “She said, just go through the legal battle with the league, if that’s what it took. She said she really pushed him, and he wouldn’t go against the league rules to do it.
“That was in my mind. This wasn’t against the league rules, but it was about, do you let an opportunity like this go by?”
That the Flyers were willing to part with significant assets to land Lindros was never in question. Perhaps the most intriguing page from Snider’s file, though, is how just one or two tweaks to the eventual deal could have changed everything.
“Quebec’s 1st Offer,” it reads, underlined, in Jay’s handwriting.
Among the original players that the Nordiques wanted, were Mike Ricci, Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Hextall, Steve Duchesne, Kerry Huffman, three first-round picks, and one of two prospects — either Peter Forsberg or Vyacheslav Butsayev.
That’s Forsberg, the exceptionally skilled center who collected 885 career points in just 708 games and is viewed as one of the best players of his generation and who was eventually part of the trade, or Butsayev, a sixth-round pick of the Flyers in 1990 who went on to play 132 career NHL games for seven different teams while posting 43 total points.
According to Jay, this was presented to the Flyers early on in the process to spark negotiations. The Flyers were never going to trade Brind’Amour, he recalled. They also preferred to keep Forsberg, particularly after several scouts in the organization convinced him a year earlier that the teenage phenom was perhaps the best player in the 1991 draft after Lindros.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of the eventual deal is that two Hockey Hall of Fame players who are still in the top-20 in league history in points-per-game, were traded for one another before either had played an NHL game.
But this note buried in Snider’s file also begs the question: Could the Flyers have acquired Lindros and kept Forsberg? It’s a tantalizing thought and almost certainly would have resulted in one or two championships in South Philadelphia.
Snider, though, recalls the Nordiques insisting early on that Forsberg be part of any package.
“We wanted to keep Forsberg,” he said. “We were quite convinced that he was going to be a great hockey player.”
Not everyone in the organization was comfortable with losing Forsberg, the sixth pick in the 1991 draft.
Inge Hammarstrom, a Flyers scout from 1990 to 2008 based in Europe, and, like Forsberg, a native of Sweden, was among them. Hammarstrom had been following Forsberg’s career and pushed hard for the Flyers to pick him.
While other scouts around the league viewed Forsberg’s countryman and junior league linemate Marcus Naslund as the better prospect, Hammarstrom figured Forsberg fit more of the Flyers’ mold. He convinced others in the organization of it, too, including longtime scout and former Flyers forward Simon Nolet, who grew just as fond of Forsberg.
“I was debating Marcus or Peter, but Peter was the (more) physical guy,” Hammarstrom recalled, speaking from Sweden where he is now retired after a scouting stint with the Vancouver Canucks. “He was more fit to be a Philadelphia Flyer because of the old tradition in the Flyers organization. … He had all the qualities, and his talent was unbelievable.”
If Lindros was the top prospect available at the 1991 draft, Forsberg was a close second, in Hammarstrom’s mind. The way Forsberg developed as a junior in Sweden in 1991-92 only reinforced his belief that they had a future league star in their system.
“I’d seen Eric, and I’d seen Peter, and I’d seen all the players who were involved (in the trade) and all the players on the team that we gave away,” Hammarstrom said. “I said, if it’s me — I can only say what I think — it is too much. It is way too much. Even if I think Eric is going to be a great player, and he was already becoming a great player, Peter is also a special player. I don’t know if I would do the deal one (for) one.”
The details of what happened next are fairly well known. Aubut and Snider agreed on a deal just before the start of the 1992 draft. The Flyers would send a package of players, draft picks and $15 million in exchange for Lindros. Shortly after that, though, Aubut came back to Snider’s hotel room in Montreal to inform him that he was instead dealing Lindros to the Rangers.
Jay was livid.
Then he called Ed, who was just hours away from cancer surgery.
“At first (Ed) said, ‘Ah, the hell with it,’” Jay recalled. “And he called back like five minutes later and said, ‘You know what? Not the hell with it. We had a deal. Go talk to (then-NHL president) Gil Stein.’ So that was all him, before the surgery.”
The reasons why the Flyers surrendered such a massive package and then went all-out in the ensuing case with an arbitrator to determine whether Lindros would be headed to the Flyers or Rangers are essentially two-fold. First and foremost, they hadn’t made the playoffs in three straight seasons. It was the first time in the history of the more than two-decade-old franchise that they had gone consecutive seasons without qualifying for the postseason.
And while the team was still wildly popular, nearly always selling out the 17,380-seat Spectrum, there was an urgency to turn it around quickly. That’s part of the reason they were willing to let Forsberg go, because if they insisted on hanging onto him, that likely would have meant established center Brind’Amour would have gone to Quebec instead, prolonging the rebuild. At least in their minds.
“I wouldn’t say we thought we had to do it absolutely no matter what, but I think that we believed that we were willing to pay more than anybody, and that we really needed this,” Snider said.
The other reason is that the Spectrum’s days were already numbered at that point. The Sniders were spearheading an effort to build “Spectrum II” in an adjacent space in a deal that was almost all privately funded. That eventually became what is now called the Wells Fargo Center, which opened its doors in 1996.
According to Martha, Ed wasn’t thinking so much about the new building when the trade was being considered. Jay, though, had it in the back of his mind. The $15 million that was part of the trade was not an insignificant sum back then, particularly in the days before the Flyers were owned by cable giant Comcast.
“You can’t really separate those benefits,” Snider said. “If you have a chance competitively to have a generational hockey player the way he looked like he was going to be, you have to be crazy not to pull out all the stops. We were sitting there without a superstar, not clear what was going to lead us back. With our competitive nature, we were going to go all out for that. This was a once in a 30-year opportunity.
“At the same point, you’re also thinking, what’s the return look like? That’s where the cash part comes in. You’ve got to say, well, will we make that back? In this particular case, we did. We had the new arena and that whole project underway, and as soon as that deal was done the phone never stopped ringing. We sold suites, season tickets, premium seats, everything. It added rocket fuel to that.”
To Ed and Martha, though, the new building was about generating enough revenue to keep up financially and remaining competitive with the NHL teams with the deepest pockets. Despite his initial impulse to simply allow the trade to go through between Quebec and New York, Ed apparently refocused all of his energy into ensuring Lindros would end up in Philadelphia.
And after he made that decision, he was determined to come out victorious.
“I remember the nights up,” Martha said. “I remember the pacing of the floor. I remember the anxiety about it all. The excitement, and the anxiety — and then the fury. The fury that somebody was trying to basically take this away from him.”
Meanwhile, Snider had his impeding thyroid cancer surgery.
“They told me the operation would be a couple of hours, and (then) he’d be recovering,” Martha said. “So when it came to be four hours, I became really concerned, like there is something wrong. Ed’s daughter Lindy came into the waiting room, as well. She saw me crying and thought something had gone wrong, (like) they’ve found something else. It was awful.
“We try to get in touch with the doctor, and someone said, ‘Your husband is in recovery. Everything is fine.’ … I thought he should be out of recovery by now, so I decide that I’m going to sneak into the recovery room, like I’m nuts. And I hear … this is a man who just had his throat cut open. I hear him saying in a raspy voice, ‘I don’t care who the fuck they are, this deal is going through!’
“I said, holy shit. He had snuck his cell phone — and this is when cell phones were not what they are now — he snuck his freakin’ cell phone into the operation.”
Martha wasn’t sure who was on the other end of that call, but Jay figures it was probably him.
“At that point, he’s not giving strategy or anything,” Snider said. “Maybe encouragement.”
Jay continued: “He wasn’t coherent all the time because of the medications from surgery, or whatever. But he was amazingly coherent at other times. It was more like, how can he be talking to us right now? But that’s how he was built.”
The trade agreement between the Flyers and Nordiques happened on June 20, 1992, but it wasn’t until 10 days later that Lindros’ rights were awarded to Philadelphia. Snider credits Phil Weinberg, the longtime lawyer for the organization who died last December at age 66, as the key to convincing arbitrator Larry Bertuzzi to rule in favor of the Flyers.
Jay’s file folder exists because of the preparation involved for that arbitration hearing, which took place just a few days after the confusion at the draft.
“They wanted everything,” he said.
“(Weinberg) separated all of the wheat from the chaff, and there was a lot. He narrowed it down to the critical issue, a basic law issue of offer, counteroffer and acceptance. He just built a case and had all the facts that led to that. I walked out of (the hearing) not necessarily confident, but I do believe Phil made a compelling argument that no one could deny.”
While they might have been disappointed at the time, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup just two years later. And the decision benefited the Nordiques organization too, of course, as they relocated to Colorado in 1995 and won Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001. Forsberg was a major cog on those teams (although he missed the 2001 Stanley Cup Final due to spleen removal surgery). Simon and Ricci contributed to the first championship, as well. The Avalanche also had other important pieces in place like Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Sandis Ozolinsh, but the trade accelerated their ascent.
Those results didn’t bother Snider, who ended up leaving the Flyers organization in 1994. He regrets the Flyers never won it all with Lindros, but he sees the move as a net positive for the organization.
“If you look back at this, we’ve only had two guys win an MVP, and he’s one of them,” Snider said (Bobby Clarke is the other). “Look at points per game, he’s in the top 20 in NHL history (18th, 1.14). He got to a Final (in 1997).
“When he was playing for us for most of the years other than maybe the end with injuries, he was a hell of a player. He was dominant on the ice, he was exciting, there was the Legion of Doom. Would we have been better off long term (not doing it)? You never know, especially looking back. All we know is that we had a great run with him. There was a lot of excitement with the Flyers. I don’t regret it. I think it was the right move. I don’t think he reached the place he could have reached. But he still reached pretty high.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic. Photos of Eric Lindros: Denis Brodeur; Ron Hextall: B. Bennett; Peter Forsberg: Tim DeFrisco; Rod Brind’Amour: Jamie Squire / Getty Images)