Being traded to a new team, especially one in a far off city, is never easy for a player. For Dennis O’Brien and Dave McLlwain, they had to make that move four times in one season. O’Brien bounced around during the 1977-78 season, and McLlwain’s shuffle occurred throughout the 1991-92 season. They were the first and second to have four teams in one season, and their final move took place on March 10.
Defenseman Dennis O’Brien began his NHL career in 1969, when he was drafted 14th overall by the Minnesota North Stars. He remained a Star until that topsy-turvy 1977-78 season. After only 13 games, on December 2, O’Brien was claimed on waivers by the Colorado Rockies. In his shortest stint, O’Brien only played 16 games with the team before being traded to the Cleveland Barons on January 12. After 23 games, on March 10, 1978, O’Brien was again acquired on waivers.The Boston Bruins gave O’Brien a home to finish out his career. They picked him up after defenseman Gary Doak was injured by a hard hit by Dennis Hextall. Doak commented, “When Hextall hit me, I swallowed my gum. That’s why Schmautz had to pull my tongue out.” With Doak needing surgery for his fractured left cheekbone, the Bruins needed some defensive help. Boston’s general manager, Harry Sinden, joked that O’Brien “came cheap.” He did not have any goals and only seven assists yet that season, but in 52 games, he had racked up 75 penalty minutes. As Bruins historian John G. Robertson explained, O’Brien was “basically perceived as a reliable, long-term substitute defenseman – and nothing more.”
Not only did O’Brien finish the final 16 games with the Bruins, but he helped them as they made it to the Stanley Cup finals. His three former teams failed to even make playoffs. O’Brien then stayed in Boston throughout the 1978-79 season, but due to his teammates’ healthy status, he did not play during the playoffs. When the WHA merged into the NHL, a draft was held, and the Bruins left O’Brien unprotected. After no other teams snapped him up, he played a mere three games in 1979 before the Bruins cut him loose. In 592 NHL games, he only tallied 122 points but over 1,000 penalty minutes.
Exactly 14 years after O’Brien set the record for most teams in one season, Dave McLlwain matched him. The forward was selected 172nd overall in the 1986 Entry Draft by the Pittsburgh Penguins. At the end of the 1988-89 season, Pittsburgh traded McLlwain to the Winnipeg Jets, and he scored 25 goals the following season.
Then came the 1991-92 season, in which McLlwain played in all four NHL divisions and had to cross the Canadian-American border twice. After the first three games, on October 11, the Jets traded him to the Buffalo Sabres. No sooner had he begun settling in at Buffalo, when on October 25, after just five games, he was traded to the New York Islanders. Unfortunately, not everything made each move. McLlwain explained, “I had a car that was in Winnipeg, shipped it, and it didn’t pass U.S. standards. … My father picked it up and sold it in a few days, so I got lucky there with my car. I wound up buying something in New York, but I couldn’t get it back across the border when I went to Toronto. Little things like that honk you off. I leased a vehicle and you are not supposed to bring leased vehicles from one country to another. I had to take a hit on the buyout, which the team helps me pick up a bit. So I left it here (in the U.S.). I think I had three different leases that year. The teams are always responsible for it, but it’s the hassle of trying to get your money.” In addition to the car trouble, McLlwain had just rented an apartment in Buffalo when he had to move to Long Island. “I just rented the night before I got traded. They (the landlord) let me out of it, but my furniture was just arriving and I ended up leaving it in storage in Buffalo and sent it home to Ontario at the end of the year.”
On March 10, 1992, after 54 games, the Islanders traded McLlwain to the Toronto Maples Leafs. He headed back to Canada to join his fourth team that season. Coach Cliff Fletcher said that McLlwain “adds speed to the team. He’s a good checker and penalty killer.” He had 9 goals and 16 assists at that point in the season. McLlwain finished the final 11 games with Toronto and the whole of the next season. “It’s hard mentally,” McLlwain said of making so many moves. “You start doubting yourself and start doubting your confidence. It was just a year I would like to put behind me. I guess you got to take the positive out of being traded, that there always are teams looking at you and want to use you.” He continued, “Yeah, it is tough, you take a lot of ribbing, but you go on with it. Once you leave a city, you try to pretty well take everything out of there and move to the next one.”
McLlwain’s journey did not end with Toronto. In October 1993, he was claimed by the Ottawa Senators in the Waiver Draft, only to be traded to his original team in Pittsburgh on March 1, 1996. That summer, he signed with the Islanders again but only played four games with their NHL team and most of the season with their farm team. He ended his NHL career after 501 games (100G, 108A, 207P). In 1997-98, he began his European career with Landshut EV in Germany. He then spent two years in Bern’s Swiss A League before, in 2000, permanently joining the Cologne Sharks (Kolner Haie) of the Deutsche Eishockey League.
- Steve Marantz, “Doak facing surgery,” Boston Globe, 11 March 1978, pp. 20 and 22.
- “Hockey: National Hockey League,” New York Daily News, 11 March 1992, pp. 60-61.
- Joe LaPointe, “Hockey: Dealing of Baumgartner Called Strictly Business,” New York Times, 11 March 1992.
- Dave Fuller, “Leafs add some muscle,” Toronto National Post, 11 March 1992, p. 35.
- John G. Robertson, Too Many Men on the Ice: The 1978-1979 Boston Bruins and the Most Famous Penalty in Hockey History (McFarland, 2018), 174-175.