He wasn’t the Great One, but Carson won’t complain

Times Staff Writer

When Luc Robitaille and Jimmy Carson broke into the NHL as Kings rookies 21 years ago, few would have predicted that Robitaille would be the one whose jersey would be retired this Saturday night in Staples Center and Carson would be the one flying in for the ceremony to honor his longtime friend.

Robitaille, two years older than his teammate and a ninth-round pick in the 1984 draft, was considered a long shot for NHL stardom.

Carson, the No. 2 pick in 1986, was said to be a sure bet.

But Carson’s ascendant career trajectory was thrown off course, starting with his inclusion in one of the most sensational and unlikeliest trades in sports history, and his playing days ended without fanfare 10 years ago, his last official shift skated in a minor league playoff game with the Detroit Vipers.


Que sera sera, he says.

“I am not one to look back and complain, ‘What if, what if, what if,’ ” Carson, 38, says from Michigan, where he is a partner in a small investment bank and lives about 45 minutes outside Detroit with his Downey-bred wife, Paula, and their four young children. “Yeah, in a perfect world, I would have stayed with the Kings, scored 50 goals for a number of years, won a Stanley Cup or two and I’d be getting my jersey retired too. That would have been great....

“But being bitter and being one of those guys that says, ‘I could have done this, I could have done that’ -- that just doesn’t serve any purpose.”

For two seasons together, Robitaille and Carson prospered, Robitaille exceeding expectations and Carson, a goal-oriented son of a lawyer from well-to-do Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich., more than living up to his advance billing.

Robitaille won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in 1987, Carson joining him on the all-rookie team. The next season, Carson scored 55 goals to give him 92 before his 20th birthday, more than any other player in NHL history.

But then came Aug. 9, 1988, when everything changed.

Carson, who had just signed a new, multiyear contract and bought a house in Redondo Beach, was traded to the Edmonton Oilers in the blockbuster, multiplayer trade that brought hockey icon Wayne Gretzky to the Kings.

The Kings and their fans were beside themselves. The news conference introducing Gretzky to Los Angeles was more a party than a news event. Celebrities who had previously shunned owner Bruce McNall’s team lined up for tickets.

Meanwhile, shell-shocked Carson flew to Edmonton, where he would join a team that had won four championships in five years but had just traded away its best, most popular player. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, hung in effigy, was taking real-life death threats. Fans urged Parliament to step in and block the deal.

At his news conference, Carson said, he felt numb.

He didn’t know it then, but his most enjoyable seasons were behind him.

He had just turned 20.

Carson was not bad in Edmonton -- he rang up 49 goals and 51 assists in his first season with the Oilers -- but he was not great.

Nor was he, as seemed to be constantly noted, The Great One.

“The end analysis was, I was not Wayne Gretzky,” he says.

The expectations were unrealistic, the pressure unbearable.

“He had a good season in Edmonton, but did it matter? No,” says McNall, who remained close to Carson. “He wasn’t Wayne. And it was totally unfair.”

Four games into his second season, Carson asked to be traded. The Oilers sent him to the Detroit Red Wings, where he spent two full seasons and parts of two others as the No. 3 center behind Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov.

His playing time severely cut, he never again reached the heights he had scaled in his first three NHL seasons as a top-line center.

He was traded back to the Kings late in the 1992-93 season, but it wasn’t the same. Coach Barry Melrose barely used him during the last three rounds of the Kings’ drive to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals and, after the Kings traded Carson to the Vancouver Canucks in the 1993-94 season, Melrose dinged him. Carson, he said, had “lost some of the fire” and was “not willing to pay the price anymore.”

Carson made it back to the Cup finals again in 1994, but he didn’t dress in the final round and the Canucks were defeated by the New York Rangers.

Three years later, he was out of the league for good.

McNall was not surprised.

“In a weird way, I knew Jimmy’s heart was not as much into it,” says McNall 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.”

Cut by the New York Islanders before the 1997-98 season, Carson walked away from hockey. Shoulder and knee injuries had taken their toll, but so had the constant moving around, bouncing from town to town.

“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.”