Gary Nylund can only shake his head at the circumstances that turned him into a pop culture trivia question.
The Surrey Eagles assistant coach played 608 games for three teams over an 11-year National Hockey League career, but his name comes up the most when people gather to play a popular board game.
"I'm the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question - the sports edition I think it was," he says with a laugh. "That's my claim to fame now - I'm in Trivial Pursuit."
For the record, the question that makes Nylund smile concerns the first NHL player to ever change teams as a free agent. The answer, of course, is Nylund, who signed with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1986 following four seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Nylund's bemused laugh is understandable. It's not as if signing a contract is the most significant thing the former bruising blue liner ever accomplished. He was a member of the first Canadian team to win a gold medal at the 1982 World Junior Hockey Championships and was a first round draft choice, third overall, of the Toronto Maple Leafs back when that team still kept their high picks.
After retiring from the NHL, Nylund returned home to British Columbia and joined the Delta Fire Department where he still works today. In 2001, Nylund pulled two other firefighters to safety while fighting a chemical blaze on Annacis Island. In 2004 he was awarded a bravery medal for his actions that day.
Despite all of those accomplishments, however, his most lasting impression came from the simple stroke of a pen on paper in the summer of 1986.
"If that's my place in hockey history... I don't know," Nylund says as he ponders the ramifications of his move. "I really haven't thought much about it. Maybe my situation changed things because it certainly is a lot easier to move as a free agent now. Back then the teams didn't want you to move and they made it very difficult for you to move. The only reason I did move is that I fell into a strange classification and somebody tweaked on it and that was it."
When Nylund joined the Maple Leafs as an underage player in 1982 following a stellar junior career with the Portland Winterhawks, free agency was unheard of in the NHL.
League rules bound players to teams for as long as the team wanted them and the only way to change clubs was through trades. The lone exception was the so called "double eagle" rule that granted restricted free agency to players who had four years in the NHL but played less than 220 games before the age of 23. These parameters were so restrictive that the only way a player could qualify was if he joined the league at a young age and anyone who did that would surly amass more than enough games to spoil their eligibility.
That was the way the game was played until a 19-year-old Gary Nylund cracked the Leafs in the fall of 1982. Nylund injured a knee in a preseason game but rehabbed quickly and was back on the ice in three months. He played 16 games that season before reinjuring the knee, leading to major surgery. Nylund spent almost a year rehabbing the injury and played just 47 games in 1983-84 before settling in as a blue line regular in Toronto for the next two seasons.
Thanks to that early knee injury, however, Nylund was 22 years old in the summer of 1986 with just 218 games played. The "double eagle" clause kicked in and he was suddenly free to make his choice of where to play in the NHL - if any other teams knew he was available.
"It's so much different now than it was then," Nylund recalls. "There was no speculation about potential free agent signings because most of the public didn't know who was a free agent. Now the names are out in the media long before free agency begins and it's almost like a shopping list is set up for the general managers. Players, teams and fans all know who is available so there are no surprises."
One of the teams that was aware of Nylund's abilities and his availability was the Chicago Blackhawks. The Leafs had swept the Blackhawks out of the playoffs in the spring of 1986 and Nylund had played a prominent role in that success.
Edmonton and Philadelphia also kicked the tires but Nylund thought Chicago was the team that best suited his talents. The Blackhawks were a physically intimidating team loaded with tough players such as Steve Larmer, Dave Manson, Al Secord, Troy Murray, Curt Fraser and Doug Wilson. Given the physical nature of his play, Nylund saw Chicago as the best fit for his talents.
"I really liked the way Chicago played," he says. "They were a tough, physical team and they played as a pack. I thought I could slide into that pack and fit in with that style of game. I wasn't known as a fighter but I didn't take any crap out there and I think that was the kind of style of player they were looking for."
Of course, being paid in American dollars didn't hurt either.
"The biggest advantage with Chicago's offer was the difference between the Canadian dollar and the U.S. dollar," Nylund recalls. "It was something like 42 per cent back then so it was quite significant and I don't think Toronto was willing to pay it. Contracts were not all in U.S. dollars then so if you were traded from a Canadian team to a U.S. team it was a real bonus while the other way it cost you. That's why nobody wanted to play in Canada back then."
When Nylund signed with the Blackhawks, the Maple Leafs demanded compensation. The matter was taken to an arbitrator who ruled Chicago had to surrender Jerome Dupont, Ken Yaremchuk and a 1987 fourth-round pick (Joe Sacco) to Toronto. Other teams watched the Nylund saga with interest and when it became clear that neither team was ruined by the transaction, NHL officials became more accepting to free agency.
Nylund's move opened the door for countless other NHL players and today, free agency is a common way of doing business. In fact, free agency has become a force in the sport that television channels dedicate large blocks of airtime to cover the first day of signings every July.
Nylund, however, downplays his role in creating the annual summer free agent frenzy. The circumstances were right for him at the time but he no regrets about his days as a Maple Leaf.
"I was always happy to be a Leaf and I was proud of that," he said. "They were my favourite team when I was growing up and I was thrilled to be drafted by them. My heart still bleeds blue even though Toronto hasn't done so well in recent years. I'm still a Leaf at heart."
© Copyright 2013