Brian Elliott didn't ask to be thrown into the Northwest Division. We're glad he was, but that doesn't make it right. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
For about two weeks every year, the Canadian and American hockey worlds combine to obsess over every detail, pore over every contract, plunge into every rumour, and give life to the vast, remorseless automaton that is the NHL trade deadline. Dozens of players move from city to city, the future of teams sometimes remade in an instant. Some buy, some sell, some just seek great bargains, but there's no fan base who accepts "yeah, we decided to stand pat this year" as an acceptable way to handle the deadline. Either you should be dumping promising assets or picking up essential ones; there never seems to be an in between.
Don't worry, I'm not here to rant about how much attention the deadline gets from the media. It's great theatre for those of us whose teams plumb the flooded basements of the NHL. What I resent is the system of player movement dominant in the NHL and the rest of North American sports. Players are property of the league, not the team, and they are moved around like pawns on a board. If the general manager says you're an Anaheim Duck, then you're an Anaheim Duck. If he wants you to be a Columbus Blue Jacket, you're a Columbus Blue Jacket. No stability, no predictability, no freedom. It's a situation with almost no parallels outside North America. Only the most beaten-down workers would accept that from their employers, and in Europe player movements come almost exclusively with the player's consent. We and we alone hang on to this preposterous system that's not so much "antiquated" as "absurd".
A player signs a contract with a team, and unless he's wrangled a no-movement clause he's free to be tossed around like a softball between owners, managers, and coaches. His future is in the hands of those with anything but the player's best interests in mind. There's no historical basis for this policy, and in the earliest days of professional hockey the system was much freer. But as the NHL evolved during the Clarence Campbell era, the owners inexorably gained more and more power over their players. Some of these have been rolled back thanks to unrestricted free agency, the World Hockey Association, the NHLPA, and the like. But the most heinous laws of all, those governing player trades, are almost unchanged since Harold Ballard decided Darryl Sittler was no longer worth the trouble.
It's unfair and it's unjustifiable. The NHL trade deadline is great, but NHL trades themselves are repulsive.
What a fluke of history it is that, in North American sports, the player is an employee of the league and in the rest of the world the player is an employee of the team. It's not like the Europeans are progressive player-rights-loving peaceniks. The famous Bosman ruling, which was European soccer's equivalent of hockey's abolishing the reserve clause in 1970s, only came in 1995 after a fierce legal battle. Nor does the out-of-contract player have absolute freedom: a wide variety of rules combine to restrict the European professional athlete in any number of ways. Yet a French fourth-division soccer player working part-time in a pâtisserie has far more freedom of action than Sidney Crosby.
This isn't the way it's always been. In the earliest days of the game, players were transferred by joint agreement with their team owners for cash or players. Hockey Hall of Famer Cyclone Taylor famously jumped from the National Hockey Association to the Pacific Coast Hockey Association for $1,200 in 1912, touching off a row with the NHA that was only healed in 1947. The first NHL Entry Draft, tying young players to teams regardless of their consent, came in 1963. Prior to that date, players were free to sign contracts as they liked. While the "'C' form" because infamous for tying a player to a franchise and the byzantine negotiation lists meant that players were the exclusive NHL property of the teams that wanted them, ultimately the player had a chance to sign a contract at his will or make a good living in any of a number of independent professional or semi-professional leagues.
The transition from players controlling their own destinies to the primacy of the team was gradual. During most of the history of the National Hockey League, players had the choice of playing professional hockey elsewhere in North America for leagues outside the NHL aegis: the World Hockey Association, the old Western Hockey League, the glory days of Canada's semi-professional senior leagues: if a player didn't like the way his NHL career was going, then as a last resort he could play elsewhere for less glory but still, ultimately, a living. That's hardly a possibility today. There are professional European leagues and many North Americans do play there, but it's a more difficult move from Ottawa to Helsinki than from Ottawa to Toronto.
A player who sticks up for himself in the NHL gets a ferocious stigma attached to him. Mario Lemieux, drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins, refused to so much as stand up and walk to their draft table until he had a big-money entry contract and it was years before the NHL's chattering classes forgave him. Eric Lindros became the quintessential me-first player of the 1990s, his parents mocked for their influence on his career, all because he didn't want to suit up for the Quebec Nordiques. More recently, Evgeni Nabokov was criticized in some quarters for refusing to report to the New York Islanders after being plucked off of waivers. These weren't young men who made a commitment and then tried to back out of it like Alexei Yashin. They just didn't want to be dictated to; to be told where they would play by fat guys in suits. A player is drafted, signs an entry-level contract, and goes through years of restricted free agency with no ability to decide his own place of work just because he had the temerity, the bare-faced cheek to want to play professional hockey.
At the lower levels of hockey, we're already seeing the system start to crumble. CHL fans, and most particularly Ontario Hockey League fans, could regale you with stories of top junior prospects quietly informing mediocre teams in lousy cities that, if drafted, they'll refuse to report. Better franchises like the London Knights have the inherent advantage that players want to play there and the players have all the leverage: the NCAA would be more than happy to take them. The resulting system is the worst of all worlds. It's unfair on the players, as only the biggest stars can risk their junior careers in such a fashion. It's unfair on the teams, who in the salary-controlled world of junior hockey can't spend their way out of trouble. Yet any suggestion that the CHL scrap the draft hasn't gotten beyond the lunatic fringe.
If I devote all this passion to the draft, you can imagine what I think about trading players without their consent. Not only do we unthinkingly accept that Mike Sillinger should have to change apartments a dozen times for his job without any say in the matter, but we deride and mock players who try to avoid it. How much abuse did members of the Toronto Maple Leafs come in for when they refused to waive their no-trade clauses? Mats Sundin had spent most of his career in Toronto, didn't want to pack up and move, and in spite of years of gallant service became a villain of the first rank among some Leafs fans. If any of our bosses told us that we had to move across the country to a city we liked less for no more money, we'd tell him to fuck off. But for an NHL player, this is the natural state of being.
Is it any better for fans, either? I'm writing this to an audience of Edmonton Oilers fans. If Kevin Lowe had tried to trade Ryan Smyth to the New York Islanders, only Smyth had the right to say "no"... either Smyth would have said "no" and a great deal of heartbreak/putting up with Ryan O'Marra would have been averted, or Smyth would have said "yes" and there'd have been no doubt on where his sympathies lay. If some mediocre plug wants to hang around and refuse a trade long after his welcome has been worn out, bury him in the minors or buy him out. Obviously most players wouldn't do that: there are few human beings eager to stick around where they're not wanted.
There's a simple solution. Have contracts be with the teams, not the players. If you want to trade for a guy, fine. Re-negotiate his contract with the player, and if you both sign along the dotted line the trade can go through. The idea that players are pawns to be moved around at the will of officialdom is preposterous, rooted in some nineteenth-century ethos where the worker is no less interchangeable a part than a fuse.
Of course, that's not the way we do things around here. But the way we do things around here is wrong.