The trade that changed the Wings – but almost didn’t happen

After coming to Detroit in a trade in 1996, Brendan Shanahan won three Stanley Cup titles with the Red Wings.

The sparkling No. 14 jersey skated across the blue line during home-opening introductions. He came to a stop as a standing ovation unfolded. Joe Louis Arena roared its newest son into Hockeytown, love at first sight.

Brendan Shanahan, whose one-timer could blast a puck through the concrete base of the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, was the medicine for the Wings’ Cup-chasing sickness caused by four straight postseason failures.

Two crushing exits in the first round (1993 and 1994), a sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals (’95), then a magical 62-win season that stalled in the third round? A significant change was needed, and here was a superstar: 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, a player who could check, fight and score. And score in bunches.

Shanahan was acquired from the Hartford Whalers – along with defenseman Brian Glynn – for Paul Coffey, Keith Primeau, and a first-round pick on October 9, 1996, the night of the Wings’ home opener against Edmonton.

The trade exemplified the old idiom: killing two birds (Primeau, Coffey) with one stone (Shanahan). Gone were two players who hindered the Wings previous playoff years, incoming was the lynch pin to a dynasty.

But it almost never happened.

Wings coach Scotty Bowman told Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press that Coffey attempted to nix the deal with two phone calls: one to Primeau, who Coffey instructed to refuse a trade; another to Whalers GM Jim Rutherford, to express his displeasure and reluctance to play in Hartford.

Coffey didn’t wanna leave a Cup-worthy franchise at the end of his stellar career for the lowly Whalers. He was benched by Bowman for the Wings’ 1996 season opener at New Jersey and paid for his own plane ride home. His rage increased upon hearing Bowman say that it was Coffey’s choice to leave the team and fly back to Detroit. “An utter lie,” Coffey told Albom.

Four days later, he was traded – although Bowman never told him. He originally learned his fate from the sad expression of a Wings assistant equipment manager, according to the Hartford Courant.

“He did some things … probably to hurt me or whatever,” Coffey said about Bowman to the Courant. “He made it as difficult as possible.

“But anybody that has ever known me will say that I don’t look to knock people to make myself look better. For me to take shots at anybody would be a very insecure thing, and I’m not like that. It’s just not worth it.

“The way this was handled was very disappointing.”

Obviously, Coffey was in Bowman’s doghouse.

It likely started in Game 2 of the ’95 Finals: Coffey made poor plays on three New Jersey goals, especially the game-winner when he blocked a shot and lay on the ice as New Jersey enjoyed a de facto power play. It was a pivotal moment en route to a humiliating sweep.

Not helping his standing with Bowman was Game 1 of the ’96 Western Conference finals. There was Coffey, sporting a blank stare into the rafters. The red goal light flickered. Colorado Avalanche players celebrated. And Chris Osgood wondered why Coffey just fired the puck into his own net.

Unfortunately, that’s his lasting image in Detroit.

“Luckily for us, Paul had his stick turned the wrong way,” Colorado coach Marc Crawford told the Associated Press after his team’s 3-2 OT victory.

Primeau was an interesting character in the trade, too. His outrageous contract demands nearly killed the deal. But, by the same token, his outrageous contract demands proved to be the impetus to Detroit exploring a trade to get Shanahan.

Entering the ’96-’97 season, Primeau wanted a hefty raise from his $800,000 salary, but it didn’t make sense. He was the poster boy of Wings playoff failures – two measly assists in each first-round exit to Toronto (’93) and San Jose (’94), then a piss-poor ’96 postseason of five points in 17 games.

Primeau, the third-overall selection of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft, was nowhere near the level of Jaromir Jagr, who was chosen two picks later (Pittsburgh). But he still wanted big-time money, didn’t like Igor Larionov’s larger chunk of ice time, and thus, decided to hold out for training camp.

“Mr. Ilitch was really upset at him,” Bowman told the Edmonton Journal. “He saw him as his next cornerstone.”

The next cornerstone turned out to be “Shanny,” who was an instant fan favorite in Motown. On his first shift in Detroit, he fought Edmonton’s Greg de Vries along the penalty box wall and Joe Louis Arena erupted.

Many more riveting moments followed. There was the double-overtime winners against Anaheim (’97) and St. Louis (’98); the empty-net goal that dethroned the Avalanche in Game 6 in ’97; the Statue of Liberty goal that killed the psyche of Patrick Roy; and the empty-netter to clinch the magical 2002 Cup run (and break Steve Yzerman’s nose in the process).

After nine seasons and 716 games, Shanahan finished his Detroit career with 309 goals and 324 assists for 633 points, good for ninth place on the all-time franchise list.

He will always be remembered as a key player in those championship years (’97, ’98, 2002), a run totaling 22 goals (six-gamer winners) and 23 assists.

Thankfully, those ugly wrinkles in the trade were ironed.

“It was a catalyst for our team,” Bowman told the Edmonton Journal. “He was a big-game player.

“In the playoffs, he could get to the stage.”

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About Bruce Mason

Bruce Mason's work has appeared on blogs such as allpuck.com and obnoxiousfan.com. A Detroit native, he worked part-time at the Detroit News in 2006-07, freelanced for Crain's Detroit Business, and is now a five-time award winning writer at a daily paper in Idaho.