Gary Nylund is the hockey legend who should have been.
When Gary Nylund was drafted 3rd overall in 1982, he was expected to become the next Larry Robinson. The WHL's top defenseman was also a Memorial Cup all star and World Junior gold medal champion. He was a hulking 6'4" 200lb combination of physical domination and skating mobility, with a mean streak to boot. He may not have been projected to be dominant offensive NHL player at that time, but he would own the defensive end and make opponents pay upon entering it.
Unfortunately for Gary Nylund, injuries would not let him fulfill his destiny.
The BC boy grew up dreaming of playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs and at Maple Leaf Gardens. Yet shockingly, his agent advised him to tell the Leafs he would not play for the team if they drafted him. His meddling agent, Norm Caplan, figured Nylund's future was better served in Philadelphia, who owned the 4th pick. The naive Nylund mumbled through with his agent's request, but Toronto picked him anyways.
Nylund was ever thankful that the Leafs didn't listen to him that day, and selected Nylund. Soon he would sign the most expensive rookie contract, to that point in time, in Maple Leafs history. And Nylund would soak up his childhood dream of playing in Maple Leaf Gardens, perhaps the highlight of his career.
The dream came to a quick and abrupt end before his rookie season even began. In a pre-season game against the Quebec Nordiques, Nylund was hit innocently by Wilf Paiement, but his left knee buckled. It was dubbed a hyper-extension, and Nylund's rookie season would be delayed until after Christmas.
Nylund returned, and finally got his chance to play in the NHL. But his dream returned to nightmare after just 16 contests. A accidental bump with linesman John D'Amico not only re-aggravated the knee injury, but made it far worse. Nylund's ACL was torn, costing him the rest of his rookie season and half of the following season.
At this time Nylund was still a teenager, and as such was losing some of the most valuable development time a NHL hockey player has. Instead of fulfilling his destiny, he was busy rehabilitating his bad wheel. Nylund would return, but with his lost mobility he settled into a nice role as a defensive defender.
Nylund's stay in Toronto certainly wasn't how he envisioned as child, either. The team was at its all time low-point under owner Harold Ballard, and Nylund wanted out. So much so that he signed with Chicago as a restricted free agent, a true rarity in those days. As such the Leafs were owed compensation. The Leafs demanded Chicago-born scorer Ed Olczyk in return, but NHL arbitrators assigned Jerome Dupont, Ken Yaremchuk and a 1987 fourth-round pick (Joe Sacco) as compensation.
Nylund jumped at the Hawks offer because they offered the most money, a 4 year deal worth reportedly $150,000 a year. That certainly was not an insignificant sum in those days for a defenseman with a bad knee.
Nylund would enjoy 2 and 1/2 seasons in another Original Six city, but interestingly he would always regret signing with the Hawks. The Hawks weren't a whole lot better than the Leafs in those days, and were never Stanley Cup contenders. Interestingly, Nylund chose the Hawks over the Edmonton Oilers strictly because they offered more money. Nylund knew Edmonton would have offered him a chance to play with the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, and almost certainly would have won a Stanley Cup. As it turned out the Oilers won 3 Stanley Cups in the span of Nylund's contract. Nylund and the Hawks won nothing. Nylund's decision to choose money over opportunity would always be his biggest regret in hockey.
The Blackhawks traded Gary Nylund and Marc Bergevin to the New York Islanders in exchange for Steve Konroyd and Bob Bassen. Nylund would put in 2 and 1/2 seasons of yeoman's work on the Isle's blue line before disaster struck again. He would blow out his ACL again. The only good news was this time it was his other knee.
Nylund began the lengthy period of rehab, but somehow his heart and mental mind frame just weren't into it at the time. After a short comeback he would end up walking away by making another business decision. By retiring within 20 games played of the injury, he would received a NHL disability pension. Like when he chose Chicago over Edmonton, he took the money, but would later regret the decision. Gary Nylund still wanted to play hockey. He was still looking to capture childhood dreams.
I met Gary Nylund on the Oldtimers charity tour. He travels with that team quite a bit, looking to recapture the camaraderie of his NHL days. He was an intimidating sight even from the stands, a real monster on the ice. The Kitimat team the Oldtimers were playing tended to take the game too seriously, and would play disrespectfully against the NHL veterans. I remember Nylund approaching a couple of Kitimat's more aggressive players. He bumped them just enough to make it look accidental, but sent them flying on to the seat of their pants. The mean streak was still in him, and that's when I became a Gary Nylund fan.
Nylund travels with the Oldtimers when his work schedule allows. The son of an RCMP officer returned to Surrey BC and became a firefighter. On July 31, 2001, fire at a paper products warehouse on Annacis Island, in which he went back into a building burning to rescue two of his trapped colleagues, who were buried under some of the warehouse's cardboard boxes. In June 2003, Nylund and two other firefighters received British Columbia's prestigious Medal of Bravery for their efforts in the warehouse rescue, and in 2004 he was given the national Governor General's Decoration for Bravery.