Former NHL free agents tell their tales of suspense and anxiety
Jody Shelley locked himself in the master bedroom, watching NHL Network and hoping the phone would ring. It was July 1, 2010, and the starting pistol had just fired on free agency. As the hours passed, the longtime enforcer grew increasingly nervous. He called his agent, but couldn’t get through reception. He stared at the television ticker, but his name never crawled across. That his wife was enjoying the afternoon with several friends down the hall, their laughter seeping under the bedroom door, didn’t exactly ease the internal tension, either. “I’m losing my mind,” Shelley says. “I was stressed to the gills. I look back now and laugh. I think I created it. But if there was a camera in the room, it would’ve gone viral.”
Excluding that upper echelon of targets attractive enough to host suitors or earn invitations for on-site visits, Shelley’s story resonates for most unrestricted free agents who exit June still wondering about their next home. “It’s a very powerless feeling,” says former defenseman Jordan Leopold. Yes, the end result is likely another million-dollar contract and the continued promise of playing sports for work. But entering July 1 means surrendering to the unpredictability of a rather basic experience—looking for employment. “You sit there and wait and wonder if you’ll have a job or not,” Leopold says. “It’s a roller-coaster, but you just have to go along with the ride.”
Leopold would know. In 2010, roughly one month before free agency opened, he hospitalized himself because his ulcerative colitis had flared up. He had lived with the condition, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, for more than 10 years by that point, but refused to tell anyone that he had fallen ill, concerned that it would impact potential deals. “I lost 18 pounds, I was really frail,” he says. “I told my wife, if anybody knows I’m in the hospital right now, we’re going to be screwed.”
Fortunately, word never leaked and Leopold, still recovering on July 1, agreed to a three-year, $9 million deal with the Buffalo Sabres. The security offered a nice reward, particularly after Leopold had dressed for four different teams in three different divisions over the previous two seasons. Before 2009-10, Florida had signed him as a UFA, only to deal him to Pittsburgh after 61 games. The whirlwind travel coupled with handling another summer on the open market, Leopold says today, “ended up getting to me” and probably contributed to the hospital stint.
Leopold wouldn’t be the last player to wind up in the ER with the weight of free agency looming. That distinction likely belongs to Capitals forward Justin Williams, who last July 1 tried distracting himself by playing doubles tennis with his wife and another couple. Before one point, as Kelly Williams tossed the ball up to serve, her shoulder popped out of its socket. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Williams recalls thinking. “Right now? Right now? Free agency opens in an hour.” Luckily, everything worked out. Whenever the phone rang at the hospital, even as doctors conducted an MRI and other tests, Kelly would say, “Just go take it.” That night, Williams agreed to his two-year, $6.5 million deal with the Washington Capitals. And two weeks later, Kelly underwent successful surgery.
These are extreme examples, of course, but they speak to a larger truism of July 1: Always be prepared. “There’s always the unknown, right?” says Brooks Orpik, who joined Washington the summer before Williams. “For a lot of guys, you only know one organization and you think that’s how it works everywhere.”
Take retired forward and current Hurricanes scout Ray Whitney, for instance, because if “The Wizard” can’t successfully gaze into the crystal ball, what chance to the rest of us have? On July 1, 2010, the same day Leopold joined the Sabres, the New York Rangers had (rather impressively) timed a DVD to arrive on Whitney’s doorstep before noon. The footage featured celebrities talking about the Big Apple, highlights of New York City’s sports franchises, and even one of Whitney scoring an overtime goal at Madison Square Garden. “It was actually a pretty good video,” Whitney says, which made it sting somewhat when the Rangers never called. Within a couple hours, his focus had swung from the Rangers and landed on Phoenix, where he spent the next two years. It wasn’t his top choice at first, but it was on the table.
“It’s a short window to get your life back in order,” Whitney says. “That’s what people don’t understand. It’s great that you make lots of money and play in great cities, but your kids have to get up and make new friends at new schools. I have 23 new friends in the locker room. I don’t have to worry about it. Your wives and kids have to change their lives the most.”
Which is why the particularly diligent pending UFAs plan ahead, and even thrust themselves into the business side. In 2007, after his third full season in Buffalo, Daniel Briere entered June fully expecting to re-sign, ignoring other options. “Maybe I was blocking it out mentally,” he says today.
When no numbers were exchanged between his camp and the Sabres, though, the forward kicked into action. Several days before July 1, he called his agent, Pat Brisson, and arranged to fly into Los Angeles so he could spend the day at Brisson’s office. During the cross-country flight, he jotted down thoughts about potential destinations onto a notepad, and spent July 1 listening to phone conversations, doing the same. After signing his eight-year, $52 million mega-deal with the Flyers, Briere celebrated with a few glasses of wine, and the next morning was flying to Philadelphia. Today, he remembers that experience as “the toughest decision of my career.”
Asked what was so difficult, Briere relays an experience common among his colleagues. “Turning down some very powerful people,” he says. “You have to say, ‘No, thank you’ to people offering you a crazy amount of money, and people that you respect tremendously for what they’ve done over so many years in the hockey world. That was pretty stressful. It almost doesn’t make sense.”
Indeed, it sounds like a small-potato problem, but particularly for those naïve to the process—or naïve to dishing out rejection in general—this part quite frankly sucks. “People are going out on a limb and baring their soul about how you fit in, how badly you want you,” says agent Neil Sheehy. “It’s humbling. It’s not easy when people are saying wonderful things to you, you ultimately have to say no.”
In particular, Sheehy was discussing the events of July 4, 2012, when one of his clients, Ryan Suter, contributed to a market-wide stall. Unlike Steven Stamkos, who ended all sweepstakes speculation by re-signing with Tampa Bay on June 29, Suter and Zach Parise kept the NHL on its tiptoes four years ago. “All of a sudden, when it didn’t get done on July 2, you’re getting calls saying, ‘How does it feel to have the whole NHL waiting for you?’” Sheehy recalls.
At first, both Suter and Parise tried to coax the other to their past home—Suter in Nashville, and Parise in Jersey. Eventually, the pair agreed to join Minnesota together, each signing for 13 years and $98 million. Unlike other agents who might want their clients nearby, Sheehy insisted that Suter handle free agency from his home. “I wanted him to be in the most comfortable surroundings, as opposed to being in the so-called war room,” Sheehy says. “I felt Ryan should be where he wants to be, and that’s working out on his farm, on the tractor. We still can have the same conversations, yet he’ll be in a more relaxed environment.”
Even getaway destinations, though, can’t fully protect players from the stress. In 2014, forward Daniel Winnik spent the first two weeks of July in Brazil at the World Cup, unemployed and disappointed. After posting a career-high 30 points and 24 assists for Anaheim the previous year, Winnik had anticipated signing on July 1. “I had my hopes up and it was nothing the whole time in Brazil,” he says. “I’m sitting in the hotel lobby, watching some soccer and updating my Twitter feed. It’s your job, you know? You’re up for your new contract that day, I’m sure you’re going to sit by your phone too. It sucked. Nothing. No calls or anything.”
Thanks to the NHL’s relatively new interview period, instituted the year after Suter and Parise’s delayed package deal, UFAs are able to speak with suitors heading into July 1, giving them a better idea of what’s to come. “I’m shocked that wasn’t put in place long before it was,” Orpik says. “You have guys who are making life decisions for themselves and their families. The way it was set up before, teams were calling guys at noon and they’re expected to make big decisions like that without ever talking to teams or visiting teams, and they had no idea who was going to be interested. They couldn’t do a lot of background or research.”
Orpik took full advantage of this last summer, flying into D.C. from his summer home outside Boston to meet Barry Trotz’s new coaching staff. It was the only in-person visit he took, but spoke to close friends who were on several other teams that showed interest. So when his agent called on July 1, Orpik already had his list ready. “We basically told him that morning, just get the best contract you can for us and that was that,” Orpik says. When noon tolled, he was at the gym, paying the market little mind.
Of course, experience—Orpik had previously gone through free agency as a 27-year-old with Pittsburgh—always helps. “Calmer,” was how Briere described his 2013 deal with Montreal, compared to when the Flyers inked him. So does clout. “Everyone thinks it’s like, I’m going to be a free agent, 29 other teams have a chance to sign me,” Winnik says. “No. Not the case at all. For me, there might be 10 teams that need a third or fourth-line guy who kills penalties and that stuff, and then four or five might like you. But realistically, it’s like two or three for me. So your options aren’t as great as you think they are. Guys find that out.”
Especially for those depth-chart players, though, closing the deal means so much more than another paycheck. “That’s a big moment,” Shelley says. In his case in 2010, this happened when Philadelphia dangled a three-year offer, deep into the afternoon after Shelley’s wife’s friends had left the house. To commemorate the occasion, as Shelley remembers it, the family stepped into the steaming July heat and turned on the sprinklers. “We didn’t do much,” he says. “I was wiped out by the end of it. And it wasn’t from being on a private jet or being courted around."