In 1990, Jari Kurri shocked the hockey world by leaving the Edmonton Oilers and signing with a little known hockey team halfway around the world — the Milan Devils.
It was a move that confused not just the scribes in Edmonton, but many around the hockey world. How could one of the best players in the world go to play in… Italy? This is a look at how the Oilers lost their superstar to in Italian millionaire.
Drafted by the Oilers in the fourth round of the 1980 draft, Kurri stepped into Edmonton and made his impact immediately felt scoring 75 points in as many games as a rookie. He was a tremendous player to ride shotgun with Wayne Gretzky, and the two were a near unstoppable force.
Kurri played a key part as a threat in both ends of the ice and was the near-perfect complementary player to go alongside 99. He amassed an incredible 1043 points in 754 games for the Oilers cementing himself as the second-highest scorer in club history next to his linemate.
But after lifting five Stanley Cups, it was time for a change.
After the Oilers hoisted Lord Stanley in 1989-90 with Kurri scoring 93 points in 78 regular-season games and another 25 points in 22 games in the playoffs, it didn’t take long for rumours to circulate about the 29-year-old leaving the Oilers.
His contract was up, and as Cam Cole wrote in a July 31, 1990 article, Kurri moved back home right after the cup win.
And he put his house in Edmonton up for sale. With that, the writing was nearly on the wall that his time in Edmonton was done.
Kurri and his agent Don Baizley turned down more money from the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League to take a route nobody expected. Kurri signed with a little known club in Milan, Italy; the Milan Devils.
The deal happened in thanks to a conglomerate headed by Italian millionaire Sylvio Berlusconi, who owned a cable sports channel and pro soccer and volleyball teams. He was the one who courted Kurri and made it happen.
Kurri had expressed his desire to examine other options beyond even the NHL. A Finnish national, there was an undying doubt that he wanted to play on the national team with his home country hosting the World Championships that year, something he was able to make happen playing for the Devils. To many, it came as a surprise when he signed that two-year deal. It paid him $1-million and featured an escape clause that could be exercised after one year.
“I just think it’s a shame that yet another of the greatest hockey players ever to put on the silks of the Edmonton Oilers is gone,” penned Cole in that aforementioned 1990 column. “Jari Kurri was not only their best goal-scorer but their best penalty-killer and most underrated defensive player. And a damn good man.”
“He will, I believe, be harder to replace that No. 99,” Cole closed with.
The Italian league had featured 10 teams — two in Milan and one each in Bolzano, Asiago, Alleghe, Varse, Bruinco, Sassi, Cortina and Cavalese. It was a 36-game schedule played on Tuesday’s and Saturdays and the teams always had Sunday’s off. No games, no practice, as Edmonton Journal scribe Jim Matheson explained in a 1991 article the day Kurri signed.
The move sent shockwaves around Edmonton. Coach John Muckler told Matheson he couldn’t understand why the best right-winger in the world wanted to take his talents to Italy, of all places. Why wouldn’t he want to play the game in the best league?
Teammate Charlie Huddy, meanwhile, was more understanding given Kurri had spent 10 years with his family in Edmonton already.
But what was done was done, and Kurri was off for Italy. There, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, Kurri was the best player in the league. He played alongside Santiano Pelligrino and Bruno Baseotto, two of the best players to have ever played in the Italian league.
The trio formed a powerhouse scoring 206 points between them. Kurri in his own right scored 27 goals and 75 points in 30 games. But Kurri never played in the playoffs for the club that lost in the finals. He did, however, get his chance to play with Finland in the World Championships scoring 12 points in 10 games making the international all-star team.
And today, in 1991, he made his return to the National Hockey League. Glen Sather concocted a trade that sent him to the Philadelphia Flyers, who flipped him in another deal to the LA Kings.
Alongside Kurri went Dave Brown and Corey Foster to Philadelphia. While Kurri didn’t stick and Foster played all of 25 games for the Flyers, Brown brought his tough-guy persona back to the team that drafted him.
In return for the trio, Edmonton got back Craig Fisher, Scott Mellanby and Craig Berube.
Fisher never played for the Oilers. Mellanby played two seasons for the Oilers scoring 38 goals and 82 points in 149 games but was claimed in the 1993 expansion draft by the Florida Panthers.
And Berube? Well, he was included in a deal four-months later that saw he, Grant Fuhr and Glenn Anderson traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kurri, meanwhile, was ecstatic to be once again playing alongside Gretzky, but he never found quite the form he used to have. But there’s no denying he was still a great player scoring 108 goals and 293 points in 331 games that spanned five years together.
He was later dealt in March 1996 to the New York Rangers where he closed out the year and spent a season each with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Colorado Avalanche. Kurri officially retired on after the 1997-98 campaign.
On Twitter: @zjlaing