Life in the NHL meat market
The NHL trade deadline is a holiday of bloviating that caps a month of rumors
In team dressing rooms, you hear players joke about being pieces of meat
The first rule of February: if everyone's talking about it, it likely won't happen
The trade rumor du jour is Blue Jackets star Rick Nash to Toronto for a slew of players.
That was the trade rumor d'hier -- or yesterday, for those who remember high school French.
In February, the United States celebrates National Black History Month, National Wise Mental Health Consumer Month and National Women's Heart Month.
In February, Canada celebrates National NHL Trading Deadline Month.
The big wind-up, an undeclared holiday for the puck obsessed, occurs Feb. 27 when a pair of Canadian sports network, TSN and Sportsnet, scurry to break trades and mightily attempt to one-up each other with instant analysis, giving fans a reason to keep hitting the refresh key on their computers or the "last" button on the remote.
(Note: On deadline day, I will be part of TSN's The Reporters panel. We were once dubbed, on-air, "the back panel" by fellow analyst and ex-coach Mike Keenan in a condescending reference to Dave Hodge's noisy group of sportswriters that throws spitballs and talks in class without raising their hands.)
But as occasionally intriguing as 10 non-stop hours of bloviating about trades and near trades can be, those shows are just the climax to a month-long celebration of rumor and speculation that grips the hockey parts of North America. And honestly, four weeks of this kind of chatter is way more entertaining than watching Columbus goalies wrestle pucks into submission or the Montreal Canadiens bungle power plays.
Like a Nuke LaLoosh fastball, a hockey trade rumor can bean you at any time. They come via the networks and newspapers and sports talk radio and the blogosphere, often couched in plausible deniability with modifiers such as "could" or "might" or "possible" or "potentially" or "a defenseman like (fill in the blank)" or other weasel words.
Even without being privilege to insider gossip, you can play the home version of the Trade Game. The beginner's version is to find a list of players without no-trade clauses who can become potential unrestricted free agents July 1 and currently play for also-rans, the so-called "sellers". Then match these players with a playoff-bound team that has a conspicuous hole at that position. So you take defensemen like Carolina's Bryan Allen or Montreal's Hal Gill and pair them with, say, the Philadelphia Flyers. And there you go. Your rumor is as good as anyone else's, and it might even come true before the deadline. (Indeed, Gill was traded...to Nashville, not Philly, on Feb. 17.)
(The advanced version of the game involves stars on non-playoff teams with long-term deals, which can make the exercise tricky even for the pros. Think about the toxic contract of Columbus' Jeff Carter, who has looked uncomfortable in the heartland since the Flyers shocked him by shipping him out of Philly last June.)
The show provides a great source of amusement for hockey day traders and the rest of us typists until the playoff push starts in earnest on March 1.
"Ales Hemsky, C'mon Down!"
"Who Wants to be a Blackhawk?"
And "A King for Two Months."
Of course, they are not necessarily a source of cheer to the teams that are on tenterhooks and the players whose lives are directly affected by all the noise.
"(In the dressing) room you hear a lot of joking about how we're all just pieces of meat," says Gill. "And maybe it does feel that way at times. But we're all pretty well paid to be in that situation. The paychecks keep coming. It's not like you're playing in a pick-up league where you can just say I've had enough, I'm going home."
Gill wants to make sure you know that. No complaints. He understands better than anyone that if the players whose names float in the Internet ether really are just pieces of meat, they are prime filet mignon if not actually Kobe beef. Gill makes $2.25 million this season.
But attachments do form. You can fall in love with a city or a team, even one that has only a slightly better chance of winning the Stanley Cup this spring than the ECHL's Wheeling Nailers. If you play looking over your shoulder, or looking at the tube or online for your next possible employer, you are not doing everything you can to put your current team in the optimum situation. Says Gill, "I really don't think anyone wants to leave."
GALLERY: NHL's oft-traded players
Gill has left at the deadline before. He was in Toronto, seemingly the one Maple Leafs player who, in the hard winter of 2008, had not heard he was on the trading block. He settled in for a post-practice nap. His wife, watching television, heard he had been traded to Pittsburgh. Gill says he was "sorta blindsided" by the deal but thus learned the first rule of February: if everyone is talking about it, it probably won't happen. Fifteen months later, he and Rob Scuderi formed the unlikely shutdown pair that helped stifle the Red Wings and lift the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
This time, Gill had heard his name in the rumors and was at the team's hotel in Buffalo when he received a phone call from Canadiens GM Pierre Gauthier telling him to get ready to go. But it wasn't until 45 minutes later that Gauthier called back to tell Gill he was going to the Predators.
"I said: 'Why don't you just wait and tell me all at once instead of keeping me on pins and needles?' " Gill later told Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette.
Chris Campoli, another Montreal defenseman, has been traded twice in February. In 2009, the New York Islanders, who had drafted him, offloaded him to Ottawa. In 2011, the Senators wheeled him to the Blackhawks on deadline day. In both cases he was departing scuffling teams for ones that had more than a glimmer of playoff promise. As it turned out, Campoli was not a difference-maker. Neither of his new teams advanced past the first round. In 13 playoff games with the Senators and Hawks, Campoli had just three assists while averaging a little more than 19 minutes per game.
"There's a business side of the game that I really didn't understand my first four years," says the 27-year-old Campoli, who perfectly fits the profile of a rental defenseman -- impending UFA, a relatively manageable $1.75 million annual salary, second power-play unit skills. "I know my name's been floating around out there now. My feeling is that if you're moved at the deadline, if you do go somewhere, at least somebody wants you. That's not always the worst thing. For a married guy (like Gill, who has three children under the age of eight), I'd think it would be way tougher than it is for me. I just get furnished places. Walk in. Walk out.
"It can still get to you. You can't avoid it. Last year (on the morning of the deadline), my brother, who's really into it, calls me and tells me he heard I was going to Toronto, where my family is. I told him it was the wrong day to screw around with me. I get home, turn on TSN and five minutes later hear that I've been traded to Chicago."
The pieces of meat there are excellent.