One of the trivial footnotes that resurfaced from last week's marathon media party on the 25th anniversary of the (first) Wayne Gretzky trade was this: Before he called it quits for good, Jimmy Carson was a 1997 training camp invite by the New York Islanders.
The timing, and the outcome, tells you all you need to know about the Islanders of that era and Carson, who quit by age 29 and last played in the NHL at age 27.
The first thing to remember about Carson -- other than his infamous part of, and unfair expectations from, the Gretzky trade -- is that he really was immensely talented at hockey. The second thing to remember is that he had other things to do, too.
Carson was from a reportedly well-to-do family in Michigan and he long had his eye on finances outside the game, which is where he went after retiring at an age when most NHLers are jumping for their first big UFA deal.
Said former Kings owner Bruce McNall, who signed Carson to a long-term deal shortly before he realized the opportunity to acquire Gretzky meant Carson would need to go the other way:
"In a weird way, I knew Jimmy's heart was not as much into it," says McNall [in 2007] of his friend, who neither smoked, drank nor partied with teammates. "He was an intellectual, multidimensional guy, read the Wall Street Journal, and so many other players just don't have his opportunities and interests. So I always thought, deep down, that maybe long-term hockey wouldn't be for him."
Carson scored 100 points in his first season in Edmonton, just seven points shy of his career high the previous year in L.A. But the combo of expectations from the trade and from playing what is now called "200-foot" hockey seemed to drain his will on the ice.
It's fitting that the New York Times during his Isles training camp invite used the ol' "who once scored 55 goals in a season" tag that seemed to haunt him.
Carson requested a trade in his second season with the Oilers, and naturally the return of Petr Klima, Adam Graves and Joe Murphy was key to the Oilers' fifth and only* post-Gretzky Cup.
*excluding 1994, when Graves and several of his Oilers teammates occupied Manhattan
Seeing him scoring but not carrying the team, the Red Wings dealt him back to L.A. in 1993 for a package that included Paul Coffey. With that move, his part in the Gretzky deal almost had a happy, full-circle ending as. Carson played a supporting role in the Kings' run to the 1993 finals. But Marty McSorley's stick turned the series the wrong way, and Carson signed a big deal with the Canucks in the offseason.
Almost fittingly for his career, Carson was on a Stanley Cup finals roster for the second year in a row in 1994 but dressed for only two playoff games for Vancouver. The Canucks bought out his three-year, $3.3 million contract that summer, just a year after signing it.
But Carson would land on his feet (hockey-wise, anyway) one more time. The Hartford Whalers, who were even more desperate than the Islanders in those days, signed Carson to a $2.1 million, two-year deal -- with coach Paul Holmgrem and GM Jim Rutherford sounding almost apologetic about it:
"We think he has a great upside. Are we getting a guy who goes through a wall and is a two-way player? No, he's a natural goal scorer and he'll really help us on the power play. We need that. The guy scored almost 150 goals his first three years in the NHL. And at the time he was traded by Detroit to LA [92-93] he was leading the Red Wings in goals.''
Oh also, Whalers owner Peter Karmanos and Carson's dad were connected back in Detroit, giving the thing a Mike Comrie-like feel:
"There's a special situation there,'' said Rutherford, who tried to acquire Carson from Vancouver at the entry draft. "Jimmy's dad is an attorney and did legal work for Peter in the past.''
A guy who had the hands and the talent but not the all-around game: That was a recurring theme for Carson's post-L.A. NHL career, no doubt also influenced by knee and shoulder injuries. If you remember anything from his '97 Isles camp invite, it likely ended with the same conclusion.
But as Carson told the L.A. Times in 2007, he left on his own terms, with options outside of hockey on the table:
"I had some good business opportunities and I just decided, 'Hey, enough's enough,' " Carson says. "That's when I vowed in my head, 'Yeah, it's frustrating, it's disappointing, and I'll take responsibility.'
"But I'm not going to spend the rest of my life looking back."
He'd be forgiven for looking back every now and then: Even after fading in his late 20s, Carson finished with 561 points in 626 NHL regular season games.