Last week you could have been mistaken for thinking that the Canadiens season started a little earlier than usual. And while the team still has about a month to go before their first game against the Carolina Hurricanes, there was enough news to make it seem like it was the middle of the season.
From Saku Koivu’s take on the team’s Cup chances, to the introduction of new uniforms, to the continuing Daniel Briere postmortem, to the raising of the Carey Price expectation meter, to the retiring of Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson’s number’s, it was a busy week for those concerned with all things Habitant.
And yet there was one story that seemed to fall through the cracks and for the most part went unnoticed by many in the media and on the team’s numerous fan boards. In many ways it was a fitting end to the career of Pierre Turgeon; a player who announced his retirement from his agent’s office as opposed to holding a press conference at the Bell Centre. A player who was one of the most gifted of his generation, a player who is a member of the prestigious 500 goal, 1000 point club, a former captain of the Canadiens, but a player who seemed unable to take that final step, that final step to greatness.
Pierre Turgeon is mostly remembered today for what he wasn’t, rather than for what he was. He never seemed to live up to the expectations that others held for him, and seemed unable to step out from the shadows that seemed to follow him throughout his NHL career. Throughout his career he seemed to always stop short of becoming the superstar that so many had envisioned.
Pierre Turgeon was born in Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec on August 28th, 1969. Turgeon first came to prominence in 1982 for his baseball prowess as he led his team to the Little League World Series. Three years later he was rewarded for his hockey potential when he was the first overall selection of the Granby Bison’s of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in the 1985 midget draft.
In his two years with the Bison’s, Turgeon more than lived up to the tremendous hype he was beginning to generate, scoring 47 goals and 114 points in only 69 games. In 1986-87 he was even better scoring 69 goals and 154 points in only 58 games. This performance made him the most valuable junior star in the country and he was selected with the first overall pick of the 1987 NHL entry draft by the Buffalo Sabres.
Expectations were high for Turgeon in Buffalo, not only had the team failed to qualify for the playoffs the previous three years, but he was expected to step into the shoes of the recently retired Gilbert Perreault. All of this and Turgeon didn’t know how to speak a word of english.
Gradually however, Turgeon began to blossom and the team slowly began to improve. In his rookie year he scored 42 points and the Sabres made the playoffs, before bowing out in the first round. In 1988-89 he scored 88 points to lead the Sabres in scoring as the team made the playoffs again, only to lose in the first round. Turgeon was even better in 1989-90 as he cracked the 100 point barrier with 106 points, before the Sabres once again lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Things seemed to be coming together for Turgeon and the Sabres in the 1990-91 season. Turgeon scored 79 points and the Sabres bolstered by the addition of Dale Hawerchuk and the emergence of Alexander Mogilny seemed poised to make a breakthrough in their first round series against the Montreal Canadiens, but once again went home the losers in a tough six game series.
After four consecutive first round playoff exits there was a sense of frustration beginning to envelop the Sabres franchise, and unfortunately Pierre Turgeon became the scapegoat for the team’s troubles.
Singled out by the Sabres as one of the main reasons behind their playoff failures, Turgeon was traded on October 25th, 1991 along with Uwe Krupp, Benoit Hogue, and Dave McLlwain to the New York Islanders for Pat Lafontaine, Randy Hillier, Randy Wood, and a fourth round draft choice. In one of the biggest trades of the decade the Sabres acquired Lafontaine because of his explosiveness, his dynamism, and his willingness to get his nose dirty, all traits they found lacking in Turgeon.
Unlike Lafontaine, Turgeon excelled at the finesse game, and combined that with superior playmaking ability and a keen hockey sense. He did lack a physical game, and even though he was over six feet tall and weighed 205 pounds, he never did impose himself in a physical way towards the opposition.
Singling out Turgeon for the Sabres playoff failures however, was unfair. In 23 playoff games with the Sabres, Turgeon collected 25 points. As became the norm for his career, he was never surrounded by a talented supporting cast or for that matter a great NHL goaltender. The Sabres playoff troubles went deeper than Turgeon as the team’s playoff disappointments continued in the years following his departure.
But for Turgeon these stigmas would dog him throughout his NHL career. He had been cast as a soft player, whose game disappeared when the team needed him the most. For Pierre Turgeon these perceptions were hard to shake, and in reality, he never overcame them. In truth, Turgeon was often asked to take average teams and turn them into Stanley Cup contenders. He simply was not that type of player.
Upon joining the new York Islanders in 1991-92 Pierre Turgeon continued doing what he did best; putting up points on the board. In the 69 games he played that year with the Islanders he contributed 87 points. But it was the next year, his first full year in New York that saw Turgeon finally begin to win over the naysayer’s.
1992-93 is without a doubt the finest year that Pierre Turgeon would enjoy in his NHL career. The numbers speak for themselves; 58 goals, 132 points. At the conclusion of the year Turgeon was awarded the Lady Byng trophy for gentlemanly play after only taking 13 minor penalties the whole season. Turgeon continued his stellar play in the playoffs against the Washington Capitals, leading the Islanders past Washington after scoring the series clinching goal. It appeared that Pierre Turgeon had finally taken that next step, the step towards greatness, and then within a mere couple of seconds it all came crashing down.
As he was celebrating the series clinching goal he was checked from behind by Washington’s Dale Hunter and went crashing into the boards, separating his shoulder. And even though Hunter was eventually suspended an NHL record 21 games the damage had been done.
Because of his injury Turgeon was forced to sit out the Islanders next series; the Patrick division finals against the two time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In one of the greatest playoff upsets in hockey history the Islanders, despite missing Turgeon, went on to defeat the Penguins in seven games and reached the Wales Conference finals.
Against the doctor’s better judgment, Turgeon returned to play for the Islanders in the conference finals against the Montreal Canadiens, temporarily quieting the skeptics who questioned his heart. It was obvious that he was still feeling the effects of the hit however, and the Islanders bowed out to the eventual champion Canadiens in five hard, fought close games.
As the next year began, it soon became apparent that Pierre Turgeon was not the same player he had been before. The physical part of his body had healed, but mentally he never seemed to regain any semblance of his former self. His energy level seemed to drop as he became more hesitant on the ice, and soon found himself playing mostly on the perimeter, seemingly unwilling to pay the price. And while he continued to produce points, he never again assumed the level of play he had exhibited before the Hunter hit.
The Islanders were also not able to build on their success of the previous year, as they barely qualified for the playoffs, only to be humiliated in a sweep by their cross-town rival New York Rangers in 1993-94. The next season proved to be even more disastrous for the Islanders as they plummeted to the bottom of the league’s standings. In addition, the Islanders began to feel that Turgeon wasn’t living up to his franchise player tag and began to actively seek trade offers for him.
In didn’t take the Islanders long to find a team desperate for his services. The Montreal Canadiens of the mid-1990’s were a team in turmoil. A major part of the problem was the team’s overall lack of direction, combined with poor drafts, and trades that had not worked in the team’s favor. This period was also characterized by the team constantly trading and seeking out potential french superstars. Quite often these players were hailed at the time of their arrival in Montreal only to be shipped out of town as disappointments in quick order.
The acquisition of Pierre Turgeon would be no different. Acquired to help the Canadiens in a desperate push to a playoff spot, Turgeon didn’t disappoint as he scored 20 points in Montreal’s last 15 games, but it was too little too late, as the Canadiens failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in 25 years.
In 1995-96 Turgeon would lead the Canadiens with 96 points and be named as the team’s most valuable player as the team once again qualified for the playoffs. It would be his only full year as a member of the Canadiens.
The 1995-96 season was a tumultuous season for the Canadiens. Both general manager Serge Savard and head coach Jacques Demers were fired a couple of weeks into the season and replaced by newcomers Rejean Houle and Mario Tremblay, respectively. On December 6th, 1995 after a highly publicized spat with Tremblay, Patrick Roy and Mike Keane the team’s captain were shipped off to Colorado.
Almost immediately, Tremblay anointed Turgeon as the Canadiens new captain. It was not a good choice for either the team or Turgeon. Turgeon by nature shunned the spotlight and was a quiet and reserved player who went about his work. In a media mad city like Montreal this quietness was often misconstrued as aloofness and it was quickly pronounced that Turgeon lacked the desire and fortitude required of a Canadiens captain.
Once again, as the Sabres and Islanders had already tried, the Canadiens seeked to mold Turgeon into a player and personality that he wasn’t. And like the Sabres and Islanders before them, once Turgeon didn’t become what the Canadiens thought he should be, he became expendable.
So after only nine games in 1996-97 (in which he had 11 points), the Canadiens traded their leading scorer, their team MVP, to the St. Louis Blues (along with Rory Fitzpatrick and Craig Conroy) in exchange for Shayne Corson, Murray Baron, and a fifth round pick. The trade netted Montreal some grit in Corson but they lost the points provided by Turgeon. Ironically, Turgeon’s 96 points in 1995-96 has not been topped by a Canadiens player since.
Going to St. Louis was an excellent career move for Turgeon. A place where he could play the game in relative anonymity, without the pressure often associated with hockey mad cities like Montreal. In his five years in St. Louis he scored 355 points in the 327 games that he played for. Turgeon’s stay in St. Louis coincided with playoff disappointments for the Blues, none more so than in 1999-2000 when the team won the President’s trophy with 115 points, only to be upset in the first round by the San Jose Sharks.
On July 1st, 2001 he signed a free agent contract with the Dallas Stars, but injuries and age began to take their toll on Turgeon as his point totals began to slightly dip. He was also unable to achieve his dream of playing for the Stanley Cup as the Stars were unable to enjoy much playoff success during his three years with the team.
Turgeon finished out the last two years of his career with the Colorado Avalanche. The unquestioned highlight of his tenure there occurred on November 8th, 2005 when he became the 34th player in history to score 500 career goals. Hampered last year by groin and calf injuries, Turgeon was only able to play in 17 games for the Avalanche and decided to formally retire from the game on September 5th, 2007.
Pierre Turgeon has been defined for his whole career by what he isn’t as opposed to what he is. He was a gifted offensive player, who was a remarkably consistent point producer. But he was also a player who seemed to always be a step short of taking his game to the next level, the elite level. Not once during his professional career was he able to play for Team Canada on the international level. He also never played in the Stanley Cup finals. And while this may not entirely be his fault, his lack of experience at the games biggest showcases means that we were deprived the opportunity to see the true measure of his talent. For despite all of his skills, and his abilities on the ice, he was never considered a great hockey player, just a very good hockey player, one that was never able to fully take his game to the levels expected of him by others.