Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Steak, Mutton, or Filet Mignon? – the NHL Trade Deadline

It was the 2002-03 season – March 11 – game day – and there were three teams located in Calgary: the Flames, of course, the Edmonton Oilers (who were playing that night), and the Toronto Maple Leafs (in town early for their game against the Flames).

Before the morning skate, Oilers fan favorite Anson Carter had learned he was traded to the New York Rangers. He had an idea before it was official but how he learned about it was quintessential NHL.

“What happened is one of my friends from a sports radio show in Toronto called me and gave me the heads-up. It hadn’t been announced yet. He was pretty sure a deal went down. I contacted my agent and he hadn’t heard anything yet. Next thing you know, I got a call from the guys with the TV shows who wanted to know my reaction to the trade.”

The irony was, after talking to Carter, Janne Niinimaa offered his reaction to his teammate leaving the Oilers, standing in front of a large television screen that featured TSN and the latest news of the day. “It’s tough to see a good friend go. It hurts. He was a big part of our club. It’s hard to comment. It happened and we have to move on.”

It wasn’t even a minute after the media left the Oilers’ room when Niinimaa learned he was traded to the Islanders – via that same TV.

The teams’ general managers never seem to pick up a phone to inform the players.

Late in the day, Rob Niedermayer learned he was traded to Anaheim. Because the Flames were in the midst of their eight-season playoff drought, his reaction was a positive one.

“I’ve been smiling ever since the trade went down. There’s nothing worse than not playing for a playoff spot in the last 10 or 15 games. I had a chance to play with Paul (Kariya) with the World Junior team over in Sweden. He’s a great guy and you all know what he can do out on the ice (smiling). I’m really looking forward to playing with a guy like him.”

Lo and behold, the Ducks made a run to the Stanley Cup final.

Trade Deadline shows that professional sports comes all down to business. Regardless of how signing announcements might be launched as sugar and spice, the players are just commodities, and it’s about the bottom line. The human side of it doesn’t count. And yes, it’s what you sign up for when you want to be a professional athlete. Even so, it’s an emotional day for both the players that are traded and the ones left behind.

“It’s always so abrupt,” says Jarome Iginla. “Buddies leave and buddies come the other way. There are rumors. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We can’t control that.

You hear things that were close that weren’t done. People run with rumors. And you don’t know. I imagine there’s some truth to them and some not. Fans enjoy saying, what if we put this guy here and there and another team has no intention of moving a guy but people run with it.”

Iginla also admits a player is last to know. “It may happen that way. I guess it’s easier to get a hold of guys now with cell phones. I remember guys saying they were reading the Ticker (Sportsticker) and the trade deadline was over. The trade went through a couple hours later, and they read the Ticker and see they’re gone when they already thought they were staying.”

One player that knows how that feels is Olli Jokinen. The rumors ran amuck and all but seemed certain. He dressed for a game in Calgary, and the trade came through before he left the rink. It still shocked him.

“I wasn’t expecting to get moved. It’s tough. This business is about winning. You’ve got to play hard every time you go on the ice, no matter what kind of distractions you have. You play for that sweater, that logo on the front of you as long as they tell you you’re part of the team. I just got the news I’m not part of the team anymore. It’s a cruel business. It comes with the salary. It’s definitely a slap in the face to get traded.”

The players do understand it’s a business. They know all about no-move clauses, unrestricted free agency at the end of the season, salary dumping, and all the aspects that impact how a team wheels and deals with their lives.

“You learn early on in this game that you are a piece of meat,” adds Chris Pronger. “You don’t really have a say unless you’re an unrestricted free agent, but then you have to be wanted as well. It is what it is.”

Players have no time to think about logistics. Once they’re traded, it’s get to B from A in the quickest time possible. Jokinen, who initially thought he was just going home from a game to spend time with his family, ended up packing a bag and heading to the airport for the next possible flight.

A lot of the details are passed off to the wives, girlfriends, or friends. If there is a family, chances are the wife and kids will stay behind until the end of the school year, and the player will move into a hotel at his new destination.

If the family does decide to join the player, Pronger says, “You’ve got 20 extra friends and they’re stuck moving your family, cleaning up the household, and moving it all, trying to figure out where the kids are going to go to school, babysitters – all the little things that get taken for granted when you’ve been in a city for a number of years. For the most part, it’s a lot easier at the rink then at home.”

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