Doug Wilson didn’t have to join the expansion San Jose Sharks.
In the summer of 1991, the Chicago Blackhawks asked the 34-year-old where he wanted to be traded. Wilson was still a top defenseman, coming off a 40 points in 51 games campaign. And the year before that, he was a Norris Trophy finalist.
“There was a change,” Wilson said on Friday, in a media availability celebrating his long-awaited induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. He was referring to head coach Mike Keenan’s ascension to Blackhawks GM in June 1990: “My good friend Denis Savard [got traded to Montreal]. There were some things going on between the management and coaching and all that. It was just time.”
Safe to say, Wilson did not see eye to eye with “Iron Mike” Keenan. Memorably, he told Chicago reporters on the day that he got traded to San Jose: “I’m probably the happiest hockey player in Chicago today.”
But instead of the 17-58-5 expansion Sharks, Wilson could’ve chased a Stanley Cup.
There was interest: Wilson revealed that the New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, and Detroit Red Wings were among the teams after him.
Imagine Wilson and his heavy slap shot, author of a 39-goal season from the blueline in 1981-82, firing passes from Mark Messier, Eric Lindros, or Steve Yzerman.
“He was still pretty good because he was such a good skater,” Jack Ferreira, the San Jose Sharks’ first GM, recalled.
“We had a lot of conversations with New York in particular, [GM] Neil Smith at that time,” Wilson said.
It could’ve happened: But Wilson wanted to go to San Jose.
“To me, to be on the ground floor of something brand-new was a unique challenge. It just for some reason, just resonated. It’d be like going and starting a new company, you’re going to a new [newspaper],” Wilson stressed. “There was just something that was intriguing about it.”
That fits with what he offered in 1991: “A lot of people ask me why I didn’t pick a team that might win the Stanley Cup. But you wouldn’t feel a part of it, just picking a team because it was good.” (MacIntyre, Iain. “Cow Palace is no Chicago Stadium for great blueliner.” Vancouver Sun, October 5, 1991.)
“We had so many young guys, he was good for the organization,” Ferreira said.
Wilson chose San Jose and the Bay Area sight unseen. He had never visited up to that point: “Well, [my wife Kathy and I] had done some research. Some very good friends of ours that lived out there, had businesses there. They loved the area, they loved the schools, the opportunities, and the excitement of a new franchise.”
Owner George Gund and general manager Ferreira also sold Wilson on the Sharks.
“Mr. Gund in particular was a big influence. His reputation, his love for the game, how he wanted to do things was a big factor for me,” Wilson said. “[Ferreira and I] knew it was going to be a challenge. You talk about some of the games [we lost] and some of the nights and everything. But as they say, just to be part of that.”
And in no small way, hockey history was changed. While Wilson only played two seasons in teal before injuries caught up to him, he worked his way up to Sharks GM in 2003 and has been at that post since.
30 years since the trade, the 1982 Norris Trophy winner is finally, deservedly a part of the Hockey Hall of Fame. Yes, he’s still without a ring. The closest he’s been to the Stanley Cup was 2016 when the San Jose Sharks squad that he built lost in the Final to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But the 64-year-old doesn’t have any regrets about not chasing the Cup in the summer of 1991: “It was a very difficult decision. Where I was at with the kids, with the family, where we wanted to move to, and what we wanted to be part of, we talked a lot about that.
“But it was just the excitement of being in something new. It was exciting. It was exhilarating. I don’t think there was any hesitation once we made that decision.”
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