Following ugly contract dispute, Edmonton Oilers trade Paul Coffey to Penguins 36 years ago today

Photo credit:Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images
Aleena Aksenchuk
6 months ago
On this day in 1987, the Edmonton Oilers would trade Paul Coffey, one of the best defencemen of all time, to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a seven-player deal, a sequel that followed one of the biggest contract disputes in Oilers franchise history.
Coffey was the sixth overall pick for the Oilers at the 1980 NHL Entry Draft. Right away, the young defenceman was off and running with his NHL career, joining the team the following season. Quickly, the then 20-year-old soared to the top of the defensive charts, having the breakthrough season of his career in 1981-1982 with 89 points and 29 goals.
Year after year, the defenceman would challenge himself and continue to shatter his records until the 1985-1986 season, where he scored 48 goals and 138 points, an unbeatable career high.
Standing behind Boston Bruins defenceman Ray Bourque, Coffey remains ranked second all-time in goals, assists, and points for an NHL defenceman. He also is ranked behind Bobby Orr amongst defencemen to score 100 points in a season, more than one time throughout their careers; Orr totalled six times, and Coffey followed at five.
A three-time James Norris Memorial Trophy winner for best defenceman, the then 25-year-old became well decorated with the Oilers winning three Stanley Cups. Still, all this wasn’t enough after refusing to report to the team after a massive contract dispute.
The dispute was reportedly over the hopes of Coffey having a renegotiated $800,000-a-year contract discussion with Peter Pocklington, the Oilers owner at the time. The all-star defenceman was holding onto two more years of a contract paying $320,000 per year.
Unfortunately, this turned into a conversation that would burn the bridges between Coffey and the Oilers franchise for quite some time.
“Gus [Badaldi, Coffey’s agent] asked me why I wouldn’t pay Paul the $800,000 a year he wants, and I said he hadn’t played well enough last year to deserve that kind of money,” Pocklington told the Globe and Mail.
“I said that many times he appeared to lack intestinal fortitude in games and didn’t seem to have the guts to go into the corner for the puck. I realize he had a bad back, and perhaps that was the reason.”

Coffey’s impressive style of play, experience playing with notorious players such as Wayne Gretzky, and point-producing numbers had plenty of teams knocking at his door, making it a no-brainer for him to want to dismiss the team after he felt hurt by the Oilers owners personal comments.
“He was questioning my guts, my courage. That’s what hurt me the most,” Coffey told the Globe. “I helped them win three Stanley Cups, I won two Norris Trophies, played in two Canada Cups against the best in the world. In 1985, I played in the Stanley Cup final with a cracked bone in my foot and had to have freezing in my hip before every game.
“That was to play hockey for him and win a Stanley Cup for Edmonton. It’s impossible for me to go back and put on that hockey sweater again.”
Although head coach Glen Sather was uninterested in shopping the defenceman, the actions that followed the conversation between the Oilers owner and Coffey left him with no choice.
In late November of 1987, the Oilers would say goodbye to one of the greatest defencemen the franchise had ever witnessed. Craig Simpson, Moe Mantha, Chris Joseph, and Dave Hannan from the Pittsburgh Penguins would join the Oilers in exchange for Dave Hunter, Wayne Van Dorp, and, of course, Paul Coffey, for a total of seven players involved in the deal.
Craig Simpson would pose as the star of this trade for Edmonton as the young forward was proclaimed the Penguins’ second-best player next to star forward Mario Lemieux, scoring 13 goals and 13 assists in 20 games with Pittsburgh before making the move.

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