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March 1, 2007

Hockey's Human Cargo
As the trade deadline dust settles, TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski provides a reminder that, in the end, lives can change dramatically for the players involved.

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- Your alarm goes off with that annoying series of electronic buzzes. You force yourself out of bed, do the bathroom routine and grab some work clothes.

As the coffee brews, you spend some fleeting moments with your children (whom you never seem to have enough time for), grab your coat and kiss the wife goodbye. (Remember the time thing with the kids? Ditto for the wife.)

You arrive at work, mentally prepared for another long day, only to find you won't be joining your co-workers for the usual grind. Too risky — no one wants damaged goods.

No, your job is now to wait until 3 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, as a couple of men armed with a stack of scouting reports, calculators and FAX machines determine your fate. In a few hours, your job might be transferred to a different city, a different state or an entirely different country — and then you'll really be kissing the wife and kids goodbye.

They say it's hard out there for a pimp, but I'm telling you that pimps ain't got nuthin' on National Hockey League players facing the trade deadline.

While it's Christmas morning for rumormongers and hot-stove fans, it's an emotional gauntlet for players and their teammates — several of the most intense, distracting and potentially life-altering hours they'll experience during the season. It makes an overtime shootout feel like a trip to Club Med by comparison.

Friends leave, enemies arrive and your chances for winning the Stanley Cup dramatically increase (congratulations San Jose) or decrease (better luck next year, Anaheim... oh, and after the Sabres' goaltending moves, Lindy Ruff better not let Ryan Miller take a ski trip, lift a weight or cross the street in the next three months).


Talk to a player as the deadline approaches and you'll receive an archetypal response about "focusing on the game" or how the entire process is "out of his hands" or some other platitude. But most of these guys know whether they're on the block, and even if they're not, many believe they are. Everyone in the room is nervous as hell about what may or may not come down the pike for their team.

(Then again, some of them are just giddy, especially the ones that are impending UFAs who were traded to teams with a chance to win the Stanley Cup, but who'll end up returning to their former teams in the off-season anyway. In the super-secret hockey insiders business, we call these guys "Tkuchuk" and "Guerin.")

How intense is deadline anxiety? Just look at Tuesday night's box scores, and the fact that every game that didn't involve a guy named Brodeur had at least three goals scored, and six of 11 had teams combining for more than five goals. Getting on the ice was cathartic for players that were questioning their fate, and that of their teammates, until the final conference call ended at NHL HQ in the late afternoon.

I thought about that as I watched Florida's 6-5 shootout win over Washington on Tuesday night. The Panthers are like a trade bait buffet on skates; I don't think there was a player on the ice outside of Jay Bouwmeester that I didn't hear in a trade rumor since the beginning of the season. Gary Roberts and Todd Bertuzzi were shipped out on deadline; players rumored to be one the move like Martin Gelinas (2 assists), Jozef Stumpel (1 assist), Eddie Belfour (28 saves) and Chris Gratton (1 assist) helped Florida to victory that evening.

Can you imagine what it's like to be Gratton at the trade deadline? Here's a guy who's been on the block practically every season since his rookie year; as long as he's a 6-foot-4, 230-pound center in the NHL, he's going to have his bags packed every February.

And that's the point: To hockey fans, Gratton's just another potential name on the transaction wire, a guy who's been with six teams since 1998 and will probably one day have a seventh or eighth on the résumé. But he's also a 31-year-old guy whose wife gave birth to their second child last November.

Say a trade comes out of nowhere on deadline day — how does that affect him, his friendships and, most importantly, his family? So many of us see him as a commodity, but how many of us forget about the humanity of a player like Gratton?

Same goes for Phoenix Coyotes winger Owen Nolan. Here's the kind of veteran sniper that, if healthy, could help a team to the ultimate prize. (And to say that he's past his prime is an insult to Sharon Stone.) But while we all started placing Nolan in different scenarios on different teams, we forgot one thing: He didn't want to leave Phoenix.

Even though he doesn't have a no-trade clause in his contract, The Arizona Republic reported that the Coyotes asked Nolan's permission before potentially dealing him to the Red Wings. Nolan turned them down; TSN reported that the winger's wife is pregnant, and that was a factor in the decision.

The player could have challenged for the Stanley Cup in Hockeytown; the father decided to stay with his family in the desert.

Nolan's the exception to the rule when it comes to the trade deadline. Rare is the case that a player's fate is in his own hands. Sometimes it's in his agent's hands, like with Dainius Zubrus, formerly of the Capitals.

Zubrus and his representation wanted a multi-year extension before he went UFA this summer; the Capitals didn't want to commit to five years with the veteran center.

On Tuesday, he showed up to work, but was told he wasn't skating with his teammates. When the contract negotiations stalled, he was packaged off to the Buffalo Sabres.

After Tuesday night's game, Zubrus's presence could still be felt in the Capitals' locker room where he spent the last six seasons.

"He was always smiling," recalled captain Chris Clark, who was Zubrus's linemate for the last two years. "We always said that it's great to be Zubie. He's got everything: Great family, great life, being in the NHL. He loved everything about it. He was one of the guys to brighten up the room all the time."

Alexander Ovechkin was also on Zubrus’s line, and was taken under the veteran's wing when he arrived in D.C. last season. Zubrus was a mentor, an interpreter and a host to Ovechkin. He was, according to several members of the organization, one of the most important reasons the Calder winner found his comfort zone so quickly last year.

When this season began, Alex wanted to take the locker closest to the hallway door in the bowels of the Verizon Center. Zubrus, however, claimed seniority, and Ovechkin settled for the second-closest.

On Tuesday night, Ovechkin had relocated his belongings to his former center's now-vacant cubical: a small tribute to the departed veteran's influence on the superstar.

"Everybody hoped he stayed here. If our bosses think he should be traded, then he's traded and we can't do nothing. They're our bosses," said Ovechkin, who saw Zubrus, defenseman Jamie Heward and winger Richard Zednik depart during the 48 hours leading up to the deadline. "This is life. This is NHL. We lost the guys, we lost great players, but you just have to play."

On Tuesday, like so many other players around the NHL, Ovechkin didn't see a teammate get traded or a co-worker get relocated.

He said good-bye to one of the most important people in his life.

But like Alex said: "This is life. This is NHL."

Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.



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