After being selected as the first overall pick in the 1977 NHL draft by the Red Wings, one of Canada’s all time greatest junior players lead Detroit to its first playoff appearance in seven years. As the team’s leading scorer with 33 goals, Dale McCourt, the nephew of Maple Leaf legend George Armstrong, was the talk of the NHL.
But a lawsuit against the hockey establishment following his rookie season affected the talented center more than he ever imagined.
When Wing’s GM Ted Lindsay signed restricted free agent goaltender Rogie Vachon of the Los Angeles Kings, a Toronto arbitrator awarded McCourt to the Kings as compensation. Citing violations of monopoly law and a bad faith labor agreement, McCourt sued the NHL and the Player’s Association while the Wings kept their fingers crossed.
“I simply wanted to stay in Detroit and win the Stanley Cup,” McCourt says. “It would have been different if the Wings didn’t want me.”
Just prior to an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court, the case settled when L.A. accepted Andre St. Laurent and two high draft choices as compensation for Vachon. But McCourt paid a price.
“Some players in the league questioned my motives, I think probably because Alan Eagelson (the union head) and others told them I was hurting hockey,” McCourt says.
Although McCourt remained a steady 30-goal a year performer, he says the lawsuit experience caused him to lose his love for hockey.
“The Detroit fans expected a lot from me and they could see my game just wasn’t there. I wasn’t playing with the same passion and I kind of soured on the fans,” McCourt says.
According to Bob Goodenow, the former executive director of the National Hockey League Player’s Association, “Dale should be credited with taking a stand against what at the time was an oppressive system that has since been modified.”
During his fifth season in Detroit, McCourt, Mike Foligno, and Brent Peterson were traded to Buffalo for Danny Gare, Jim Schoenfeld, and Derek Smith. Two years later, tired of the NHL grind, McCourt left for Switzerland where he played for eight years before becoming an assistant coach for the Italian national team, a position he held before returning to Canada full time two years ago.
When I interviewed McCourt a few years ago, he was a truck driver who enjoyed driving his 75 foot long “Supertruck” rig on the Trans-Canada highway between Sudbury and Vancouver.