By the time Carson was 11 he was good enough to play for a team sponsored by Compuware, a Detroit-based software company, whose alumni include such NHL players as Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, Pat LaFontaine, Craig Wolanin and Mike Modano—not to mention the highly touted Eric Lindros, who will almost certainly be the first player taken in next spring's NHL draft. Carson began traveling to tournaments all over North America, playing 60 to 70 games a year, wearing the best equipment, getting the best ice time. He wasn't just another player. Carson was a star through peewees, bantams and midgets.
When he was 16, Carson chose to play Junior A hockey in Verdun, a Montreal suburb. There wouldn't be a lot of travel because all the teams were in Quebec, so he could continue his education, and he liked the idea of learning French and living in a foreign culture. He also liked the idea that the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League was known as a scorer's league. Like Lafleur, Carson was a scorer: soft hands, quick, accurate shot. In his second season in Verdun, Carson was an all-star center, getting 70 goals and 83 assists in only 69 games. He would be one of the top players taken in the 1986 NHL draft.
As chance would have it, Detroit had the first pick that year. However, much to Carson's disappointment, the Red Wings selected Joe Murphy instead. "Looking back, it was the best thing that happened to me," says Carson, "having a chance to establish myself without the pressure of playing before the home folks."
Nonetheless, the Red Wings were his team. The month that he was drafted by the Kings with the second pick, his beloved Olympia Stadium fell to the wrecking ball. Before it was leveled, Carson and some friends sneaked into the abandoned Red Wing offices, and he grabbed a bunch of papers that had been left lying on the floor: old programs, press releases and calendars. A list of the original investors in Olympia Stadium, for heaven's sake, dated 1927. A blueprint of the building. All that history just lying there. Carson saved everything. He later would save a brick given to him that was taken from the site after the Olympia had been reduced to rubble, a brick that was, symbolically, the foundation of his childhood dreams. To this day he keeps it in his study.
Carson was 18 years and two months old, the youngest player in the league, when he joined the Kings for the 1986-87 season. He had already lived away from home for two years, so that was nothing new. He didn't drink alcohol. Marcel and Carol Dionne were there to keep an eye on him. Imbued in his bones he had a firm set of Greek Orthodox values that set him apart from the ordinary rookie. And the Smythe Division's freewheeling style suited his hockey skills perfectly. He immediately thrived, finishing with 37 goals his first year. In '87-88, Carson turned in a 55-goal, 107-point performance to become the first U.S.-born player to surpass 50 goals and 50 assists in the same season. He was just 19, and only Gretzky had more goals in a season as a teenager.
The Kings were up-and-coming. Bruce McNall bought them in March 1988, and he immediately befriended Carson. After the season, McNall promised Carson he would renegotiate his contract, which still had a year, plus an option year, to run. He told him to buy a house and to furnish it. He talked about purchasing a team plane to ease L.A.'s grueling travel regimen. Carson didn't think he would ever play for another team.
Then in July he got a call from McNall. "Jimmy, we've got to talk," McNall said, sounding shaken.
Carson went right over to McNall's office. That's when he heard about the pending deal involving Gretzky. "The Oilers are insisting on you," McNall said. He assured Carson that he was still exploring every other option.
Three weeks later, however, the details of the trade were announced: Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings for Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft choices and $15 million. The trade rocked the sports world.
It has been looked at from Gretzky's perspective a million times, but here is what it looked like from Carson's: "The first thing I hear is there have been death threats on [Oiler owner Peter] Pocklington, and they're hanging him in the streets in effigy. Just a barrage of negativism. Meanwhile, in L.A., where I've just bought a house, the first home I've ever owned, it's like a big party. The town was going berserk. And guess who's leaving? I was totally numb at the press conference when I was introduced to Edmonton."