Adding truculence to the lineup was a thing that enamoured executives of the Toronto Maple Leafs long before Brian Burke infamously popularized the term in Toronto. The worst example of swapping skill for muscle in franchise history came back in the late-1980s.
As the Leafs slipped into the Harold Ballard-led purgatory days in the early 80s, they were frequently landing picks towards the top of the NHL entry draft each summer. One of those picks was used on a speedy winger from British Columbia named Russ Courtnall, who the Leafs grabbed with the seventh-overall pick in 1983.
After using three-consecutive top picks on defencemen (Gary Nyland in 1983, Jim Benning in 1982, and Craig Muni in 1981), the Leafs needed an influx of high-end talent up front, so they went with Courtnall. He was coming off of a season in which he posted 97 points in 60 games for the Victoria Cougars of the WHL and appeared to be close to NHL ready.
The following season, Courtnall posted 66 points in 32 games for the Cougars, 13 points in seven games for Canada at the World Juniors, and 12 points in 14 games for the Leafs. Courtnall quickly established himself as a quality offensive talent, breaking the 20-goal plateau in back-to-back-to-back seasons between 1985-86 and 1987-88.
But, but this time, Toronto’s roster had become too one-dimensional. They had a bunch of young forwards who could score like Vincent Damphousse, Ed Olczyk, Gary Leeman, and Daniel Marois, but they didn’t have any toughness on their roster. In the summer of 1988, the Leafs parted ways with bruisers Dave Semenko and Al Secord, leaving them with a soft-as-butter lineup.
In today’s NHL, that isn’t a problem. But this was the 1980s when hockey was the wild, wild West and teams without goons would get their asses kicked. The Leafs were also in the tough-as-nails Norris Division, which featured enforcers like Bob Probert, Dave Manson, and Basil McRae.
In order to address this issue, general manager Gord Stellick went out and acquired one of the toughest guys around — Montreal’s John Kordic. The Habs, who had an abundance of muscle on their roster, were fine to let Kordic go. But, in return, they wanted Courtnall. Stellick obliged.
While there was some logic behind the deal, the Leafs got totally hosed in this swap. Though Kordic was certainly the fighter the team was looking for, he would play just 104 games for the Leafs over parts of three seasons. The Leafs would trade Kordic to the Capitals in 1991 for a fifth-round draft pick.
Meanwhile, Courtnall continued to be an effective player in Montreal. He played parts of four seasons with the Habs, putting up 82 goals and 195 points. His biggest role for the franchise, though, came just ahead of the 1992-93 season when he was traded to the North Stars in a one-for-one swap for Brian Bellows.
Bellows would put up 88 points for the Habs that season and 15 more points in the playoffs, helping lead Montreal to their 23rd Stanley Cup in franchise history. Courtnall would continue to have a successful career after that, playing until the 1998-99 season. All told, he played 1029 games in the NHL, recording 744 points.
In terms of value given up for value received, this was a horrendous deal for Toronto. They gave up a quality offensive talent who would have a very good career in the league for another decade in exchange for a fighter who played just over 100 games with the club. While having enforcers on your roster was certainly important at this time, giving up a player like Courtnall to acquire one was simply poor asset management.
Of course, this shouldn’t be a post to just rag on Kordic. He did everything he was asked by the Leafs in those 104 games. This is on Stellick for leaving a gaping hole on his roster and having to scramble to solve it during the season.
When talking about Kordic, it’s important also to point out the tragic story that cut his life short. Throughout his career, as he battled through the NHL’s gauntlet of toughest players, Kordic also fought an internal battle. He didn’t want to throw fists, but he knew that’s what he had to do to last in the NHL.
Ivan and Regina Kordic [John’s parents] didn’t appreciate the flying fists and the unprovoked attacks that made their son a fixture on the Hockey Night in Canada highlight tapes. “That really got to him,” Perron says. “I remember seeing John crying into the phone after a game that we had won. I asked him what was wrong, and he said, ‘My dad just gave me a hard time because I got into a fight tonight.’ ”
Kordic complained that he didn’t like to fight, yet he was afraid not to. “I know why I’m here,” he would say.
In the fall of 1989, Kordic’s father passed away due to a battle with liver cancer. After that, Kordic completely spiralled. The drug problem he had developed in Montreal got worse in Toronto and by the time he was in Washington, he had fallen off the rails. The Capitals suspended Kordic two different times for substance-related issues.
Kordic was using alcohol, cocaine, and steroids to both dumb the pain of being an enforcer in the NHL while also trying to maintain the physical ability needed to keep up with the bigger, stronger, younger fighters in the league. The spiral resulted in his death in August of 1992 at the age of 27.
Kordic’s tragic passing, along with the premature deaths of other NHL fighters such as Bob Probert, Wade Belak, Derek Boogard, and Rick Rypien, shows the importance of why the league is moving away from its old-school, gladiator style.