Why we hate Kirk Muller

NHL 96

In the myopic and narcissistic world of sports fandom, each team has its own set of problems and issues, many of which will never be experienced by another team's fanbase.

The Montreal Canadiens are in no danger of moving anywhere. Sure, maybe in 20 or 30 years, the Bell Centre will be replaced by something bigger and better, but the historic team isn't likely to become the Seattle Canadiens in the coming seasons. The Habs' maligned "barber pole" jerseys are merely a blip on the fashion radar for a team that's worn the same uniforms since Woodrow Wilson was in office. And between the Molson family and the millions and millions of paying customers, the team isn't looking at any potential money problems in the future.

Unfortunately, my favo(u)rite team - the New York Islanders - have experienced all of these scenarios and more. So many more that one might wonder how they have any fans left at all. I wonder this sometimes myself, and I'm one of them.

One of the Islanders' most demoralizing episodes came as a direct result of a trade with the Canadiens, and it's one that haunts the team to this day almost 20 years later. John Tavares was three years old and could probably barely stand on skates when one of the ghosts he is meant to exorcise first crossed his future employer.

He's Not Coming

The 1995 Islanders weren't very good. Seen as a team on the rise after a run to the Wales Conference Finals in 1993 (where they lost to Montreal), they stumbled their way through the next season, culminating in a humiliating and impotent sweep at the hands of their bitterest rivals, the New York Rangers. Coming out of the lockout, no one really knew what to expect from the Islanders, and after four months and a 10-20-4 record, general manager Don Maloney was tired of wondering.

Maloney pulled the trigger on a shocking deal, sending his team's best player, center Pierre Turgeon, who had scored 58 goals and 132 points in 1992-93, and offensive-minded defenseman Vladimir Malakhov to Montreal for defenseman Mathieu Schnieder, prospect Craig Darby and, as the centerpiece, Canadiens captain Kirk Muller.

To his credit, Maloney knew that moving his team's brightest star wasn't going to sit well with an already restless fanbase. But that didn't matter.

"From a casual fan's point of view, they're probably wondering how the heck we could ever trade Pierre Turgeon," Maloney said tonight, after returning from a three-day trip to Montreal and one day after his team had lost for the 10th time in its last 12 games. "But you know, we're trying to set a new course here."

That course? The always nebulous, "tougher to play against."

The major reasons given for trading Turgeon and Malakhov were inconsistency and lack of leadership. The term "attitude adjustment" was frequently used by Maloney.

"I think it was as much that we have to demand that all our players play," he said. "If you let your top players off the hook, then what kind of message does that send?"

But the trade itself was only the start of the problems. It turns out Muller, who helped the Habs to the Stanley Cup in 1993, wasn't happy with the deal to say the least. In fact, he was so unhappy that he initially didn't report at all.

Maloney smiled and said they were happy to oblige their new player with whatever "personal time" he needed. But the real story was that Muller felt betrayed by Canadiens GM Serge Savard, who had assured him that he wouldn't be traded. So how did he end up an Islander then?

Muller said earlier in the week that he had been promised by Serge Savard, general manager of the Canadiens, that he wouldn't be traded. During one television interview in Montreal, Muller became tearful, his voice cracked and he walked away from the camera and the interviewer.

Savard told reporters in Montreal that he reversed his plans about keeping Muller when Turgeon was made available. "At some point, you can change your mind," Savard said. "I couldn't let Turgeon go. I have to think about the franchise."

Maloney acknowledged that Muller was upset with the trade but not upset with "being traded to the Islanders." Except, that's exactly why he was upset.

Muller wasn't interested in being part of rebuilding a broken team. He had done hard time establishing the New Jersey Devils as a viable franchise before being traded to the Canadiens in the first place. He was given the honor of being captain, made that team of the best of its era and helped deliver a Stanley Cup. He was as good as gold in Montreal and probably would never have had to pay for a meal for the rest of his life in the entire province of Quebec (unless the waiter was a Nordiques fan).

Now, he was being dumped off on, almost literally, a deserted island. And he was going to fight against the waves with every breath.

Muller eventually showed up on Long Island but not before some convincing from Maloney, which included assurances that he would try to move Muller to another team over the summer. Think about that for a minute. "Come play for us and we'll trade you again." How's that for a sales pitch?

The Shunning

The summer of 1995 came and went and Maloney found no takers for his disgruntled forward. When the team unveiled the new uniform for the next season featuring a bearded bayman in fishing gear, Muller wasn't the only one who wanted no part of the Islanders anymore.

The season started and, predictably, the Islanders were lousy. Muller was there in name only. For a guy brought in to provide leadership and toughness, Muller sleepwalked through the opening month of the season and brought little to the table but distractions.

New coach Mike Milbury eventually did what he does best and ran out of patience. On November 12, 1995, he and Maloney sent Muller home (with full pay) to await a trade. Removing him from the team not only lowered Muller's already poor value, but it didn't alleviate any of the Islanders other problems.

Maloney wouldn't be around to clean up his own mess. On December 2, the team's management would put Maloney out of his misery and fire him citing his inability to rectify the Muller situation as a main reason. He was replaced by Milbury, who... no, I don't want to get into it now.

Now the GM, Milbury ordered Muller back to the Islanders, but Muller once again balked. He was formally suspended until Milbury finally ended the ordeal in late January. In a three-team trade, Muller went to the Toronto Maple Leafs, defense prospect Wade Redden went to the Ottawa Senators and forwards Martin Straka, Ken Belanger and defenseman Bryan Berard came to Long Island. Muller's final stats line with the Islanders: 27 games played, eight goals, seven assists and about a million evil eyes from fans.

Getting the dynamic Berard for a suspended malcontent could be considered a coup for Milbury, had he not traded the eventual Calder Trophy winner for pennies on the dollar a few years later. Another Islanders-only problem.

Muller wouldn't return to Nassau Coliseum with the Leafs until the following October. Naturally, he was roundly booed every time he touched the puck, as he would for the rest of his career which included short stints with a bunch of teams. In interviews following his trade, Muller was forthright but clueless about the effect his behavior had on the Islanders franchise and fanbase.

"I came to training camp because [Maloney] asked me to. I did agree that it would be best for everybody if I played and got off to a good start rather than play hardball and hold out. ... But Donnie was not able to live up to our agreement, which was to trade me to a team that was playing for today and not rebuilding for tomorrow."

...

"Why didn't Donnie just say, 'No. You know what? You're an Islander. No promises' That would have been a lot easier for everybody," Muller said. "I never walked out. I was there to play even though I was told I would be moved in June.

"If they would have said, 'No, you come to play, do your thing and if the time is right, we'll move you,' so be it. But when you're told, 'Try it, and if you don't like it, we'll move you in the summer,' that's different.

"People forget that I played for the Islanders," Muller added. "There were never any threats on my part. I was told that if I left it would speed up a trade, but 80 percent of the people think I walked away on that team. And I'm looked upon as the bad guy." -- Fishsticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders. By Alan Hahn and Peter Botte, Sports Publishing LLC 2002.

If it makes Kirk feel any better, he wouldn't remain the only bad guy for very long.

Ancient History

Kirk Muller's time with the Islanders included reluctance, indifference, impatience, insults and regret from all parties. It was the kind of situation that pulls back the curtain on what's supposed to be the fun diversion of fandom. It also signaled the start of an era in which distractions would take up as much space in the Islanders locker room as the players would.

This era is, sadly, still going on for many of us still invested in the team.

Whether you side with him or against him, Kirk Muller was the first premier player to stand up publicly and say, "I don't want to be a New York Islander." Since that time, whenever the Islanders have acquired a player of some reputation, there is a hint of "here we go again," that seeps out of the team's pores.

A few years later, Canucks captain Trevor Linden was acquired to bring the same qualities to the Islanders that Muller was expected to. The cost of young forward Todd Bertuzzi and defenseman (and new Islanders captain) Bryan McCabe was equally as high as the Turgeon and Malakhov price tag. Linden said the right things and made the best of a very, very bad situation. But after a standoff with the team's horrid ownership at the time, Linden signed just a one-year contract extension and was eventually traded the next summer to... the Canadiens.

Although he never asked to be traded, everyone felt that Linden was playing on borrowed time. The weight of the team's (and Milbury's) excruciating rebuild was placed on his shoulders and he simply wasn't interested.

About a decade later, and with some success under their belts, the Islanders tried again under new GM Garth Snow. Unrestricted free agent-to-be Ryan Smyth was pried out of Edmonton at the cost of two disappointing first round picks, Ryan O'Marra and Robert Nilsson and a draft pick, and was expected to be the man to lead the Islanders deep into the playoffs. He didn't, although he was very productive over his month-plus as an Islander.

But when the time came to re-up, Smyth decided to sign with Colorado for personal reasons I still don't think anyone but him truly understands. Everyone agrees the Islanders made him a good offer, but it didn't work. Smyth eventually ended up back in Edmonton, which he really should have never left in the first place.

In 2011, Snow traded for the rights to Vancouver defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, hoping to make the German a rock on the Islanders blueline. But Snow and Ehrhoff couldn't agree to terms and the player was sent to Buffalo, where he signed a ridiculous 10-year contract with a massive signing bonus.

Some of their high-end acquisitions do end up staying although, as with most things Islander, not without some difficulty. In desperate need of a goalie in 2011, the Islanders picked up Evgeni Nabokov off waivers after he signed a contract with the Red Wings hoping to get out of the KHL and back to the NHL. Nabokov was not pleased with a rule he either didn't know about or didn't think anyone would invoke.

He stayed home and was suspended by Snow, but was eventually convinced and arrived at training camp the next year. He's since re-signed twice more and has become, for good or for ill, a fixture for the Islanders, especially in the locker room. Unfortunately for the erudite Russian, his play since the end of last season has made many Islanders fans wonder if the Red Wings are still interested...

And then there is the Strange Case of Lubomir Visnovsky and The Disappearing No Trade Clause. Snow sent a second round pick to Anaheim for Visnovsky in the hopes of creating a deadly powerplay along with captain Mark Streit. But since signing a contract extension with the Los Angeles Kings that included a no-trade clause, Visnovsky had been traded three times - once to the Oilers, then to the Ducks. He was cool escaping Edmonton, but not so cool being sent across the country from California to Long Island.

To make a long, bizarre story short, Visnovsky said he felt his contract had not been honored and filed a grievance with the league. The trade was upheld by an arbiter, but after spending the lockout playing in the KHL for a team in his hometown, no one was sure if Visnovsky would want to leave. When the NHL season finally started, Visnovsky's son was going through a medical issue and the defenseman announced he would stay at home until he felt comfortable playing again.

He was clear that his issue was a personal one and wasn't with the Islanders, but that didn't matter. We had seen this movie before (while having a lot of fun with Visnovsky's absence), and just assumed he would be the next guy to opt out of the Islanders. That it involved a sick kid made the whole thing feel like the team had hit a new low no one could possibly have expected (or wanted to).

But a month into the half-season, Visnovsky did cross the Atlantic and has played magnificently for the Islanders ever since. He signed a two-year extension with the club before the end of last season. If you want an answer to the team's struggles so far this current season, look no further than Visnovsky being out of the line-up with a concussion.

And a new season brings a new candidate for the "Thanks But No Thanks" Club. Thomas Vanek was acquired at the price of a lovable fan-favorite, winger Matt Moulson and first and second round draft picks. Vanek is an excellent player and brings skills that Moulson doesn't, but he's also a UFA and most likely going to demand a lot of dough this off-season. By acquiring him in October, Snow is hoping the next chapter reads more like Nabokov's or Visnovsky's stories than it does Smyth's or, god forbid, Muller's.

Most will see The Kirk Muller Fiasco as ancient history, irrelevant to today's NHL or the New York Islanders. Besides coaching their division rival Carolina Hurricanes, Muller has no connection with the Islanders any more, right?

But with little success since the time of the trade and with other players showing signs of, if not the same exact sequence of events, the trace vapors of that ugly incident, longtime Islanders fans will not soon forget. We'll still hate Kirk Muller forever for setting a precedent that hasn't been corrected yet whether that's his fault or not. Despite signing Tavares, Travis Hamonic, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, Michael Grabner and others to good, lengthy deals, the specter of Muller's unwillingness is always there because we lived the whole thing in real time.

We've heard about French Canadian players avoiding signing with the Habs because of the pressure their fans will put on them. Take my word for it, that's a good problem to have. It means the players understand exactly what will be expected of them and, if they're not up to the challenge, you probably wouldn't want them anyway.

Players avoiding the Islanders is a horse of a different colo(u)r, though. They're usually borne from not understanding, or wanting to understand, what the hell's even going on over there on Long Island. This is a much larger problem to have. And until it's fixed for good, every big-time player could potentially fill Kirk Muller's old unwanted jersey.

Which was number 9. Which was Clark Gillies' number. Who is still a god on Long Island. Which is yet another reason to hate the piece of shit prick Muller.

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