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There stood Winnipeg Jets coach Barry Long one morning last week, a look of bewilderment all over his face. The Jets had just finished practicing, and Long, leaning on the butt of his stick, was staring off into the vastness of the Byrne Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., as if hoping to find the object of his suffering in one of the 19,040 vacant seats. "Right now we have a hole as big as this building," he said.
That hole was cut the previous week when Jets general manager John Bowie (as in knife) Ferguson, in one of the most baffling trades of this or any other NHL season, sent defenseman Dave Babych, 24, a two-time Campbell Conference All-Star and a cornerstone of the franchise, to Hartford for right wing Ray Neufeld. Ray WHOfeld? Neufeld is a run-of-the- Zamboni grinder who scored 26, 27 and 27 goals in the last three years. That production was more the result of playing on a line with slick center Ron Francis than anything else.
Ferguson did trade from depth (of defensemen) for need (a winger), but it's difficult to argue that he received equal value. Worse, he appears to have underestimated the effect that the loss of the 6'1", 210-pound Babych would have on his team, a curious oversight considering that goalie Brian Hayward said last season that "players on this team would revolt if they ever traded Babych."
The ice revolt was evident as Winnipeg suffered humiliating 8-1 losses to Pittsburgh and Babych's new team, Hartford. Next came a 4-3 loss to New Jersey, and the Jets, No. 4 overall in the NHL last season, had lost three straight by the combined score of 20-5 to three of the five teams that failed to make the '85 Stanley Cup playoffs. Losses to Philadelphia and the Islanders and, finally, a win over the Flyers on Sunday left the post-Babych Jets 1-5. "Something here is snowballing," says Jets forward Doug Smail. "We haven't played well since the trade."
Question, Barry Long. Does your team miss Babych? "Definitely," says Long, clearly mystified by the trade. Though he says he knew of the deal in advance, Long did not agree with it and had tears in his eyes as he left the rink after Winnipeg's 3-1 home win over St. Louis on Nov. 20, the night the trade was announced. "When I told the team, there was absolute silence in the room," he says. "Babs was one of the most popular players."
The deal stunned Babych. "I'd heard rumors I might be traded, but I didn't think it would happen," he says. "I thought I'd always be a Jet."
If the trade was a blow to Winnipeg, it was a boon to Hartford, which followed its 8-1 pasting of the Jets (Babych had an assist) with a 9-0 blowout of Los Angeles (another assist) and a 5-4 win at Vancouver (Babych scored the winning goal) and is playing like a team that might make the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
"I was surprised it was one for one," says Edmonton scout Bucky Kane, bending if not breaking the taboo against commenting on another team's deals.