Revisionist history can be loosely defined as skewing the truth about historical occurrences. In other words, it’s the action of changing the story to benefit the teller. Famous examples include historical accounts from WWI, WWII, Vietnam, the American Civil War, and the conquests of Napoleon. Part of the issue is encapsulated in early 20th-century philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous quote, “History is written by the victors.” The losers rarely get a chance to shape how history is recorded. But in some cases, the winners and losers are not so clearly defined.
The Brad Robson era in Lethbridge (as GM), while short-lived, was extraordinarily impactful. Robson inherited the title of GM after Rich Preston was fired two years ago. Robson only managed the team for a year and a half, but during that time, he faced (and debatably fueled) some volatile circumstances, the most public of which included the (perceived) mutiny of Ryan Pilon and Reid Duke. Their role in the situation isn’t one I intend to address with the column. All that matters for the sake of today’s conversation is they both wanted out of Lethbridge.
In truth, it’s not really a fun topic to discuss. I imagine most hockey fans in the city would rather move on and pretend that those years never happened. Today we look at the standings and see Lethbridge is sitting at 8-2-0-0 ten games in. It appears, at least for now, that the dark days are over. This is our renaissance. Our Age of Enlightenment following what could only be viewed now as the Dark Ages.
But was it really that bad? What if two of Robson’s most iconic trades weren’t actually as egregious as we all thought? Has the history on the trades been revised or are we still sorting it out two years later?
Everything began in 2011 when Rich Preston’s Hurricanes drafted and signed blue chip prospects Ryan Pilon and Reid Duke. This was a huge deal for the organization and its fans. The team had been abysmal since being eliminated in the second round two years prior. Pilon and Duke represented hope. It was the first time the Hurricanes had ever taken two top five players in the same bantam draft. The future looked bright. Perhaps a little too bright as the Hurricanes made sure to publicly flaunt their two young stallions following the draft.
Hindsight being 20-20, this is where the trouble began. The organization set themselves up for failure by placing the two young men on a pedestal. The Hurricanes created a hype storm around Duke and Pilon that would eventually come around, gut the club, and badly tarnish public perception. By elevating their top two picks, parading them in front of the city via a bold saviour-like photo shoot, and leveraging them to try generate hype (and ticket sales), the organization was asking for trouble. Not only did it put unfair pressure on the players, but it put unnecessary expectations on the Hurricanes as an institution.
To be fair, the Hurricanes are not the first organization to make this mistake. The Edmonton Oilers were doing something similar around that time. Complete with the saviour-esque photoshoot, Edmonton created a hype storm around Hall, Eberle, and Paajarvi that would eventually spiral into destruction. The Oilers took it a step further! So confident they would turn the corner, Edmonton even paid for, and introduced a mini-series to document their rise to glory. Only, that rise never came. It turned into a fantastic documentary on how to lose hockey games though… so that’s something.
To complete the analogy, two of Edmonton’s three saviours panned out. Hall and Eberle, not unlike Duke and Pilon, truly are/were valuable hockey players. But without the axillary pieces in place, both the Hurricanes and Oilers spun their tires.
In the years immediately following the Pilon/Duke draft, there were some significant decisions that led to the ultimate demise of the Pilon/Duke era in Lethbridge. First, the decision to fire Rich Preston had a lasting impact. The Hurricanes were not good under the former NHL bench assistant. Preston didn’t excel at coaching or managing the team and player development hit a wall. The team was bad, but Preston wasn’t a completely unlikable guy. His players, for the most part, didn’t hate him. The issue was that there was no improvement. Top end talent was dying on the vine. The writing was on the wall.
The decision to fire him was made in conjunction with promoting his assistant, Brad Robson, to GM. I could go on about how the hiring of Robson was foolish based on the hiring methodology alone. But is it really necessary? The Hurricanes elected to promote from within without broadening their search for a GM, despite the fact that they had been stinking out the joint for years. It’s one thing to promote from within when you have been running a successful franchise, but to do it when you haven’t made the playoffs for over four seasons is probably ill-advised. What made the decision even more ludicrous, was that, then Board President Brian McNaughton, went on the record to say the team’s finances were looking solid enough to justify the move.
“The financial position of the team is actually pretty darn good this year, so we believe we have a business case to deal with this. We have a plan in place to minimize the effects of this.”
As we all know, McNaughton was wrong. Catastrophically wrong. But were he hypothetically right, and the money to make a GM move was there, then the move to promote Robson looks even more foolish.
I believe what should have happened, was after firing Preston, the Board should have announced Robson as the interim GM, then conducted a full and orderly search for a new manager in the spring. The hire should have been based on merit alone. If Robson won the job under that circumstance, then the organization could at least save face and say they did their due diligence (even though most people may not have believed them). Instead, they arbitrarily hired from within and allowed their new GM to make bold proclamations.
“The Lethbridge Hurricanes will build a winning culture,” said Robson the day he was hired. “With the right coach and right assistant coach and with the direction from myself we can turn this around next year.”
Famous last words.
I don’t need to go on about what happened from there. Robson hired Drake Berehowsky as head coach and Brad Lukowich as his assistant. It didn’t take long to see it wasn’t a good combination. The two didn’t see eye to eye on how the team should play, and there was a personality clash on top of it. To say the situation became volatile would be an understatement.
This was the context in which Ryan Pilon, the same guy who was going to save the franchise in 2011, decided to publicly demand a trade in November 2013. A year later, and following Berehowsky’s first disastrous season as head coach, Duke also asked to be traded. He soon found himself back with Pilon in Brandon. Just like that, the two young men standing in front of the high-level bridge on a sunny spring day in 2011, were gone. The two players that the organization had branded as saviours, had requested, and Pilon’s case, demanded, to be moved. Out of all of it, the media, and (I think) majority of fans, sided with the players. An organization with an already tarnished reputation somehow managed to find a brand new low.
I suspect this was the point at which some fans left the team and still haven’t returned. Reading articles and comments online, it was pretty clear how the hockey world felt about things. The Hurricanes and Brad Robson got fleeced by the Wheat Kings and Lethbridge would now need to rebuild their rebuilt rebuild. Oh, and they were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.
That’s allot of information to process and I left some important details out for the sake of brevity. It really was a crazy time to follow the Lethbridge Hurricanes. But now we come to the crux of this whole conversation. Were those two, now infamous trades, actually bad moves? Did Lethbridge come out on the losing side? If so, did Robson lose those trades as badly as some would have you believe? Did he lose them at all?
We are now slowly coming to the end of the life cycle on the Duke and Pilon trades. Most of the players are no longer playing and we can now begin to objectively view the fallout. Since the Pilon move was made first, let’s begin there.
Brad Robson was in a tough spot. He would look terrible if he denied Pilon’s request. The media would suggest it could damage the player’s career and the residual optical damage in the player-community would be devastating. However, fulfilling the request could also appear weak, and set a dangerous precedent for other disgruntled players. Pilon of course, had more leverage than the average player. Not only was he highly touted, but as we looked at earlier, the Hurricanes had unwittingly given him more leverage by declaring him as a future star years prior. Robson was caught between a rock and a hard place. The blood was in the water. Every GM in the league knew Robson was dealing from a position of weakness.
It was Brandon that came through with the winning offer.
Robson agreed to trade Pilon, as well as prospect Colt Conrad, in exchange for Nick Walters, Taylor Cooper, and the rights to Tanner Browne.
Until this fall, it was pretty evident that the Wheat Kings had won the deal. Ryan Pilon was still trending upward and had been drafted by the New York Islanders. The Wheat Kings were expected to be a top team and Memorial Cup contender. Both Colt Conrad and Tanner Browne were busts, and could be considered a wash. Nick Walters did end up logging some good time for the Hurricanes, but the seasons he played in Lethbridge were utter disasters from a team perspective. Other than Pilon, the only other active players remaining from the deal were Taylor Cooper, and Brady Reagan (Robson’s replacement, GM Peter Anholt, shipped Cooper to the Pats in exchange for Brady Reagan last season).
However, when Ryan Pilon announced he was quitting hockey heading into this season, everything changed. Suddenly the Wheat Kings had nothing to show for the trade, yet Regina and Lethbridge still had serviceable defenders. What does it all mean? Well, I would suggest it means that despite the trainwreck Lethbridge was during Pilon’s time as a Hurricane, the issues ran deeper. Clearly Pilon wasn’t the player either Preston/Robson, McCrimmon, or Islanders GM Garth Snow thought he was. We shouldn’t resent Pilon for his decisions, it’s only hockey after all, but to fully blame Lethbridge is unwarranted.
Where does it leave us now? Well, Brandon has a hole on their back end, and Lethbridge has Brady Reagan. Ten games into the season, Reagan has arguably been one of the most underrated players on a very successful Hurricanes team. New head coach Brent Kisio has been able to bring the best out in Brady and I have seen some flashes of brilliance. I have also seen some ugly moments where he and defensive partner Brandon Kennedy have been victimized by speedy attacks. All that said, despite losing the trade on paper, Brady Reagan buying into a system and playing some really solid minutes is better than Ryan Pilon quitting the game of hockey and leaving the Wheat Kings high and dry.
Final verdict? This trade was a wash but Lethbridge is the one still benefitting today.
While it wasn’t as dramatic as the now infamous Pilon trade request, Reid Duke and skilled blueliner Macoy Erkamps both asked to be traded heading into the following season. Duke made the request and decided not to report to training camp, a decision that got attention across the CHL. Once again, Robson found himself in a terrible position. People were calling for Berehowsky’s head, but Brad had hired him and promised the team would turn the corner. Financially, Lethbridge had fallen way short of a foolishly optimistic budget (again) and had already been forced to deal with legal ramifications for firing Lukowich midway through the previous season. Firing Berehowsky at that juncture was just not an option for Robson. Like any good captain, he stuck to his guns, and with a salute, went down with the ship (a ship of (mostly) his own making I might add)… but not before trading away two blue-chippers.
In what was one of the most highly publicized trades in Lethbridge Hurricanes history, Robson again made a deal with Wheat Kings GM Kelly McCrimmon. In exchange for Reid Duke, Macoy Erkamps, and prospect Tak Anholt – Lethbridge would get defenseman Kord Pankewicz, centre Ryley Lindgren, and Brett Kitt. It was, on the surface, an absolute travesty of a deal. The optics were terrible. The Hurricanes had traded three players, two of which were (more or less) proven WHL commodities (one with an alleged elite skill ceiling), for three unproven players in Lindgren, Pankewicz, and Kitt.
Over a year later, how does this trade hold up? Unlike the two-year-old Pilon trade, this one still has to play out more. While neither of Tak Anholt or Brett Kitt panned out, Duke, Erkamps, Pankewicz, and Lindgren are all still active and impactful players. From a Brandon perspective, they have two studs. As of the publishing date of this article, Reid Duke and Erkamps have combined for 28 points through eleven games played in 2015-2016. Duke is a bonafide sniper and Erkamps is a minutes eater, solid puck mover, and captain of the championship level Brandon Wheat Kings.
Try as you might, there’s just no way to square up the fact that, at best, Lethbridge didn’t lose the trade outright. This season, and the one after it, will go a long way to really showing us a clear winner and loser. Visually and statistically though, Duke and Erkamps are the real deal.
All that said, through ten games, Kord Pankewicz and Ryley Lindgren have done some incredible work to rewrite the narrative. I want to be very clear that neither of these players are a detriment to their club and that’s not what I am saying. The truth is, both have played a massive role in the Hurricanes early season success. Pankewicz, despite the occasional mistake, is a great puck mover. He has 9 pts through ten games. I feel extremely comfortable saying that the Hurricanes are a better team with Kord Pankewicz in the lineup. Kord was a highly touted bantam player and I think we are still seeing him evolve and develop further under Kisio. Pankewicz is a year younger than Erkamps and may yet prove to be, at the very least, an equal by his overage year. If we weren’t comparing him to a captain and 15 pt (to date) defenseman, Pankewicz would be a clear win, but there’s no doubt the Hurricanes gave up a great player in Erkamps.
As far as Lindgren is concerned, he might be the most important forward on the team today. While he has yet to become an impact player from a point-production perspective, Lindgren is the team’s top two-way centre. He’s undoubtedly the best centreman on the team when it comes to winning draws, and as a result, is on the ice for all of the most important moments. It’s safe to say that Robson got a really great player in Lindgren. Ryley isn’t Reid Duke. Let’s get that out of the way now. Reid Duke is a pure point producer and has a bright future in hockey because of it. Scoring goals is the most difficult thing to do in the game. It’s why natural goal scorers always hold the most value and demand the highest dollars as pros. In that sense, Lindgren will probably never compare to Duke – but I’m not sure he should be. Analyzing trades player to player isn’t always an accurate indication of how the trade worked out as a whole. Did it make the team better is what we should be asking.
In this case, it seems like it has worked out well for both sides.
It’s my opinion that comparing the two players isn’t a fruitful exercise and fans of both teams need to accept that they approach the game very differently. Robson managed to get a centerman that is currently worth his weight in gold to a solid Hurricanes squad, and McCrimmon has himself a legitimate sniper. With that said, I still feel that Brad Robson surrendered too much in the deal. Had the trade excluded Erkamps, I would wholeheartedly say Lethbridge won. But as it stands, Robson didn’t get enough for the elite goal-scorer that Reid Duke has evolved into. It’s not an indictment on the players the Canes got in return as much as it is on the one who pulled the trigger.
Final verdict? Both teams have done well with the players they received, but slight edge to Brandon for not having to surrender more.
The Lethbridge Hurricanes were in a really bad place up until Peter Anholt took the reins. As we discussed, there were some big mistakes made before, during, and after the Pilon and Duke years. What I think we can say with confidence is that the trades Robson made with Brandon were not catastrophic failures. Three of the players Lethbridge got in return are still impact guys and key cogs in this season’s early success. From that perspective, things have worked out well for the Hurricanes. For Brandon, while the Pilon deal turned to dust in the bat of an eye, they are still reaping the rewards of landing Duke and Erkamps. Though the argument could be made that Brandon got players with a higher skill ceiling – as of now – the trades worked out well for both teams.
As far as Robson is concerned, he probably took some unnecessary heat for the trades. Until this season, they looked to be catastrophic failures. It’s amazing what sound hockey structure and solid coaching can do to rewrite the narrative. The work of Brent Kisio and co, has gone a long way to changing my own personal perception of the trades and I hope yours as well.
The importance of coaching in turning the Hurricanes around does however highlight Robson’s biggest mistake.
Hiring Drake Berehowsky.