Tales from the NHL trade block
They find out when the hotel phone rings or the ticker scrolls across the bottom of the TV screen. They learn while they're at home or on the road, eating dinner or breakfast. They hear rumors and make plans, but nothing prepares them for the actual thing—families they have to suddenly leave, bags to pack, houses to sell, lives to uproot. It’s the nature of the business, they claim, but business becomes intensely personal when it happens to them. And they never forget that first feeling.
“It’s not panic,” says Capitals forward Justin Williams. “It’s shock.”
The stories are legion among NHL players who have been swapped a mid-season and their ranks will only grow by the 2015-16 season’s Feb. 29 trade deadline. Summer deals can stink too, of course, but the headaches are relatively mild. Children aren’t in school, dad isn’t busy at work, and there’s actually time to plot the path ahead. But for those like Williams—who as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes saw a TSN broadcast mention his name as part of a three-way trade on March 4, 2009 before the segment went straight to commercial without noting where he was headed—the experience often proves chaotic.
“I think I got traded,” Williams said when he reached his wife.
“Where?” asked Kelly, a first-grade teacher in Raleigh, NC at the time.
“I don't know yet,” he replied. A few minutes later, the Kings finally called and confirmed Williams was headed to Los Angeles—and not Edmonton, the other club involved in the trade.
As Williams learned, the discovery phase of deadline deals promises the most confusion. In 2008, winger Steve Bernier was headed to breakfast with some fellow San Jose Sharks at the team hotel in Columbus when a public relations official interrupted. GM Doug Wilson wanted to see him. “I knew right away I had been traded, but I didn’t know where,” says Bernier, who met Wilson in the hotel lobby, learned of his destination (Buffalo), hopped on the next flight out and never looked back. He even had his roommate, teammate Ryane Clowe, pack his suitcases and ship them in his car. “I’m missing so much stuff,” Bernier says. “I don’t know where it is.”
The hotel scene is common, though the bearers of bad news vary. On March 13, 2001, St. Louis Blues forward Craig Conroy was sitting in his room in Philadelphia, watching deadline day coverage with the front end of a back-to-back series beginning that night. First, his cell buzzed. It was a national television analyst. “What’d you think about the trade?” asked the analyst, a former player. Conroy answered nonchalantly. After all, the Blues had just acquired Keith Tkachuk shortly before the deadline, buffering up after their Presidents’ Trophy season of 1999-2000 had ended with a disappointing first round flameout in the playoffs.
“I’m like, oh yeah, I think it’s awesome, unbelievable player,” says Conroy, who is now an assistant GM with the Calgary Flames. “And he says, ‘No, I’m talking about your trade.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t get traded.’ He goes, ‘Oh… Well, can I call you back in a half-hour?’” Not two minutes later, the room’s landline rang.
Hearing the news this way, at least offers hope of some easily accessible support. The bellhops can help with bags, team service employees can assist in travel logistics, and teammates are all there to say goodbye. “Not much you can do,” Bernier says. “You take the plane and you go shopping the next day, because usually you don’t have much stuff.”
Teammates were on hand too for goaltender Michal Neuvirth last March when he moved from the Buffalo Sabres to the New York Islanders—except they were all dining at a sushi restaurant when someone said, “Look on the TV.” And few can top the reported experience of Florida Panthers forward Jerred Smithson, who was busy heading to the hospital with his pregnant wife to have labor induced when he learned he was being shipped to Edmonton. (Forward Lee Stempniak, whose wife birthed twins only one week before his 2014 move from Calgary to Pittsburgh, and defenseman Radko Gudas, whose wife was pregnant with their first child when Tampa Bay flipped him to Philadelphia last spring, come close.)
Breaking the news
Still, these are hardened hockey players accustomed to the rigors of their jobs, the business side included. They hear the news, accept its complications and march forward. “It’s just moving,” says Williams, who was also traded on Jan. 20, 2004 from Philadelphia to Carolina. “It’s obviously tough, but you move on. It’s a short time that you’re a hockey player, you may be shipped other places. It may be understandable, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”
Nor does it help the next step—telling family. Several players recall the wrenching task of pulling their children out of school, because their outbound flights were leaving before the final bell. In Feb. 2007, when forward Bill Guerin learned of his third career trade, this time from St. Louis to San Jose, he explained to his four children—then ages 9, 7, 5 and 4—at a family meeting over dinner.
“You want to sell it to them,” he says. “You want them to be excited. For them, it was near San Francisco and we’ll go see Alcatraz and Lombard Street. We’ll go to Santa Cruz, not far from the beach. So they get excited. It’s like a mini-vacation for them.”
But not for players who are wrapping their heads around joining a new organization while handling ancillary matters. Shortly before the 2011 deadline, then Dallas Stars teammates Matt Niskanen and James Neal tried to meet up with the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had acquired them for Alex Goligoski. Instead, they wound up staying overnight at a Newark Airport hotel, buried under snow, and missed their first practice with their new team. Niskanen even forgot to pack dress socks, as he was too busy with interviews and calls from his new organization. He borrowed a “flashy” pair from Neal—black with purple stripes—and wore them for several straight days.
“Kind of gross,” he says. “I just didn’t get it all together. There was enough going on, trying to get settle in with the hotel, trying to move all your stuff.”
Others rely on the aid of those around them. Defensman Marek Zidlicky’s wife packed “everything” after he waived his full no-trade clause to leave New Jersey and join Detroit for the playoff push last March. Blueliner Brian Campbell, who was the return piece in Bernier’s trade, noticed his father pre-loading boxes and cleaning the apartment. “It was as if he knew I was going to get traded,” says Campbell, who also had an inkling since his contract was expiring that summer. “Maybe my agent gave him more of a heads-up.”
Two years after his San Jose deal, Guerin was moving again, this time from the Islanders to Pittsburgh. New York had initially planned to send him elsewhere, but Guerin waited five days and missed two games for the would-be suitor to clear cap space ... only the deal never happened. Still, he made the best of the unexpected diversion. He decorated his two-bedroom hotel suite with Penguins rugs and posters, then bought toys and mini-sticks so his children could play.
“You always worry about leaving, but I’ve got a great life and I’ve got great kids who always supported me and never made me feel like I was leaving them or anything like that,” Guerin says. “It was always like, all right, this is a new adventure for us. We all still remember the hotel room number at the Doubletree Hotel in Pittsburgh: 1723. That was our apartment. We knew the guys in the parking garage. [My kids would] go down and steal the cookies at the front desk. It was great.”
Only under rare circumstances, like last year when Buffalo traded forward Torrey Mitchell to Montreal, his hometown team, and he excitedly called his mother, a Canadiens fan, can thrills outweigh the shock. No recent example resonates more than the story of defenseman Jordan Leopold.
During an NHL career that began in 2002-03 and likely ended after the 2014-15 season, the Minnesota native, now 35, had already been traded four times before the 2015 deadline, including on Nov. 15, 2014 when he went from St. Louis to Columbus. With an expiring contract, Leopold knew he wasn’t in the Blue Jackets’ long-term plans and he began talking with GM Jarmo Kekäläinen about the future. He felt concerned that the Jackets would dump him on waivers and some random club would claim him. The Jackets’ front office assured him that would not happen. Time passed. At one point, Columbus carried nine defensemen but still didn’t move Leopold. He even played forward for two games just to get on the ice.
“You joke around,” he says. “We always say we’re a name and a number—your physical name and then your salary and how does that all fit into the books as far as your roster? When you’re falling into that category, however those dominoes fall, that’s how trades end up being made in this day and age.”
Sometime that January, Leopold’s wife messaged him. At the time, the family had moved back to Minnesota, setting up there rather than follow him to St. Louis, where he had rented a small apartment and furnished it with a bed, futon and television. The text contained a picture of a letter his 10-year-old daughter, Jordyn, had written. “Dear Minnesota Wild Coaches,” it began.
My name is jordyn Leopold, my dad is Jordan Leopold one of the Columbus blue jackets Defenseman. Well my Dad is very lonly without his family. We are living in Minnesota right now and I am lost without my dad and so is my mom, my 2 sisters, and my brother. My Dad is on a team with young Guys and is very lonly, and is not playing because the jackets got him because they need a Dman. It has been since November and we can not take it anymore. Well to get to the point the Wild have not been Winning Games and you lovly coaches are most likely mad about that but your team need’s some more D men so can you please, please, please ask the jackets if you guys can get him!
Jamie Leopold posted the note on Facebook for other wives and hockey friends to see. “Everyone thought it was quite neat and they can all relate to it,” Jordan says now. “We’ve all been there at some point in our lives.” But Jordyn never actually mailed the letter. Jamie eventually took it down from Facebook. Then came the deadline. Kekäläinen called. Leopold was indeed headed to Minnesota. His truck was already packed. He was ready to leave.
He was not ready, however, for the letter going viral.
“About an hour before the deadline, my phone started ringing off the hook,” Leopold recalls. “I didn’t really understand why. I wasn’t watching anything about hockey. Just cleared my mind for the day. It got crazy from there. It was just a letter that stayed within the boundaries of our family. It went wildfire.”
Friends vacationing in Thailand called to say the story had made front page news. Over breakfast, they had watched national television hosts read Jordyn’s letter. But in a household long since accustomed to trades, the moment passed by fast; Jordyn didn’t even come to the airport to see her father land, because she had too much homework and it was too late at night.
“I don't think I got much sleep,’’ says Leopold, “but you wake up the next day and it’s back to normal life.”
Until it's time to pack up and move on.