It's funny sometimes how different hockey players can take similar paths and history can repeat itself.
On Friday afternoon, when Erik Cole walked away from the Carolina Hurricanes and took his services to Montreal for a bigger paycheck and for a supposed, better opportunity to win the Cup, it reminded me of a similar occurrence a few years ago.
Back in the summer of 2000, another power forward and very popular player with the fans left town for similar reasons.
Gary Roberts was originally drafted by Calgary, became very popular in Calgary, won the Cup in Calgary, but was also severely injured while playing for the Flames. The injury was bad enough to cause him to retire from the game because he felt he could no longer play without pain.
But Roberts wasn't a quitter and fortunately for him it was a relatively short retirement. He continued to work hard and eventually the pain from his neck subsided. The following quote is from the SI Vault
"I was 30, in the prime of my career, and I had it taken from me," Roberts says of his 18-month retirement, which began in June 1996, because of a series of collisions which caused nerve and disk damage in his neck. "Now, every year I play is a bonus. My career can end at any time, and I know that, so I try to enjoy every day. I've been given a second chance."
Jim Rutherford also took a chance and traded for Roberts, more or less based upon the player's word that he could play again. But the trade was dependent upon the forward passing a physical. Roberts once shared a Rutherford quote that I'll never forget. He said that the Carolina GM told him, "You better pass that physical or you're going back home in a body bag."
Whether or not he passed the physical is still in question, but Roberts not only played after that, he excelled. The winger could score, drive to the net with reckless abandon, and remarkably, continued to play with almost a constant physical edge. In one season alone while with the Hurricanes, he amassed a total of 178 penalty minutes.
But after three years, it was time for a new contract and Roberts felt it was time to move on. The Toronto Maple Leafs offered the winger a deal he couldn't refuse, but the main reason he gave for leaving was that he felt playing for the Leafs gave him a better chance to win the Cup.
How did that work out?
Just two seasons later, he was on the wrong side of a hand shake line, congratulating his former teammates on advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. That's right, in 2002, the underdog Carolina Hurricanes defeated his Leafs in the Eastern Conference Finals and went on to play for the Cup.
As it turned out, Gary Roberts would never lift the Cup again.
And a few of those same former teammates, who started off the 2005-06 season as 100-1 long shots, went on to win the Stanley Cup Championship just four years after that.
Erik Cole is another player who suffered a serious neck injury, and is another player that Jim Rutherford went out on the limb for.
In the summer after the Cup win, Cole was due a new contract, but he had only played in two games since recovering from his neck injury and there was really no telling if he could play as effectively as before. But Rutherford and the Canes took on the risk and gave him a three year, $12 million dollar contract, which seemed like a huge gamble at the time.
Cole was able to perform at a high level, but his production dipped, from 29 goals in 2006-07, to 22 goals in 2007-08, and to 18 goals in 2008-09.
The Hurricanes signed him again for another two years, although to a lower deal, ($2.9 million average). But now that contract is over and the power forward is ready to move on. One reason given was that he felt the he had a better chance to be effective sooner, in his quest for the Cup.
While Montreal certainly has a much higher budget than Carolina, it's been proven time and again that it's more important how you spend your money, than how much money you spend.
Current Carolina management has been to the Eastern Conference Finals three times in the last 10 years. They have been in the Stanley Cup Finals twice, (2002-2006), and have won the Cup once, (2006).
Current Montreal management has been to a Conference Finals once, (2010) over the same time frame.
Two different players have followed similar paths. Will history repeat itself?