Hockey's Human Cargo
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
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
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).
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
(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
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
"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
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
On Tuesday, like so many other players around the NHL,
Ovechkin didn't see a teammate get traded or a co-worker get
He said good-bye to one of the most important people in his
But like Alex said: "This is life. This is NHL."
Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is
a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, 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
is now on sale.