In his first statements designed to put the animosity of the Dany Heatley mess behind him, Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray engaged in a little game of "what-if." Speaking to reporters at the team's training camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the newly-acquired Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek standing behind him, Murray waxed about the patent unfairness of Heatley's forced trade and noted that once a player with a long-term contract -- the best deal he'll ever get in his playing life -- decides that he wants to take the money and run, he should surrender his right to pick and choose his destination.
"In this era where there are no-trade and no-move clauses, when you make that demand of an organization, then you should open yourself up to remove the clause from your contract and give the [general] manager the opportunity to talk to all other teams," Murray told a member of the Sun Media group.
"It has to be (looked at)," he went on. "Talking to a lot of people, they all agree. When you negotiate a contract in good faith, you make a lot of money with a no-move clause, you shouldn't have any qualms because you signed the deal. The league and the union have to consider this as criteria that if you ask for a trade, [the clause is] absolutely removed."
Murray didn't identify the "lot of people" he talked to, but it's a safe bet that many were hockey people with the letters G and M on their resumes. His is an interesting sentiment and more than a little self-serving. It also has about as much chance of happening as Wayne Gretzky cashing an $8 million paycheck en route to Coach of the Year honors and the Stanley Cup with the Coyotes next spring.
That's not to say that NHL owners won't have the idea on the table when the Collective Bargaining Agreement is again open for discussion, but if Murray is looking for help from a forged partnership with whomever the players can find to lead them, he may well have to wait for the return of former NHLPA boss Alan Eagleson to get what he wants. A better and more realistic option might have been to, oh, say, not give Heatley the no-movement icing on his $45 million cake in the first place.
About the best any GM can say when handing out one of those things is that "the player wanted it" and that "as a group, we had reason to believe it was something that really wasn't ever going to come into play." That last comment is usually accompanied by a photo of the GM with a pained look on his face, the player smiling and shaking hands, and a cutline that reads" (player name here) signs deal making him a (club name) for life."
We all know now that's not exactly the case.
If a player is heading for unrestricted free agency at the time of negotiation, he has a decided advantage that can make his current club look like the bad guy. "They're cheap" the player's agent often says to the slobbering media hordes. "The market sets the price and our guy would never leave. He loves playing for them."
Even if the club is proactive and starts negotiating while the player is still under contract, to buy back some of his upcoming years of free agent eligibility, it can still look bad simply by not giving the player what he wants. That's especially true if the agent offers a "home team discount" in return for "just a little job security" -- not for the player, mind you, but so his kids can stay in their favorite school and his wife can still be a part of the canned food drive for the team's charitable foundation.
The tactics are tried and true, and it takes courage to stand up to them. But it wasn't as if Murray and Senators owner Eugene Melnyk didn't have options. For starters, it would have been easy to leak the fact that they were willing to go to extraordinary lengths: $45 million dollars over seven years, making Heatly one of the game's richest players and carrying him to his likely retirement. They could have let slip that the deal would include a guarantee that if he ever wanted to move on, he could opt out simply by accepting any one of a rainbow of negotiated options that protect the Senators from having to make a deal that diminishes their return on a star player who, simply by insisting that he wanted out, seriously impacted any negotiations.
There's also the scenario, never fully explored, where Murray didn't have to even go that far. It's a "what-if" for sure, but what if Murray had simply said "No." No, there will be no no-trade or no-movement clause. Would Heatley, after months of negotiation and the bonanza almost in the bank, then turn his back on $45 million just because the club wouldn't meet a "no clause, no contract" demand? It certainly would have been worth asking.
And wouldn't it have been worth exploring the idea of letting the community know there was a $45 million deal on the table and the only thing keeping it from being concluded was that no-movement clause? Public pressure, especially in Canada, might have closed the deal and edged Heatley's camp into saying they don't need no stinkin' no trade clause simply because their boy loves the Ottawa Valley. Heatley's people would profess great love for Ottawa knowing full well that they could have demanded a trade at any point in the proceedings and likely been accommodated. It might not have been to a team of their liking, but come on, $45 million can buy a lot of liking even in a place you might not want to call home. Besides, Heatley wouldn't have been the first player to signal certain teams that if they get into the trade talk, he "might not" be able to play at his best in their particular market.
And wouldn't the Senators have some leverage if they casually leaked that Heatley had demanded the clause and they were resisting because, well, they have an obligation to do what's best for their franchise, and that giving a player, even one as talented as Dany Heatley, a "no-no" is well, a no-no in their eyes? You know, for the greater good of the franchise and the future and all that.
What would Heatley have done then? Gone to the media he despises and argue that he is being treated unfairly? What kind of leverage would he really have had?
It's all over now, but one has to ask why the Senators didn't try that. The consensus is this is "just one of those things" that happens all the time in the NHL, the player always wins, and the club just has to throw up its hands, rail about the unfairness of it all, and move on. In his remarks this week, Murray pretty much did that. He gave the consensus, but not necessarily the truth.
Anyone who's lost a job in this economy, or lives with the all-encompassing fear that they soon will be dismissed or diminished in the workforce, knows the reality of the marketplace dictates the fortunes (or lack of same) regarding compensation. That's true for the so-called "elite players" like the top earners at Goldman Sachs down to the rank and file at General Motors, and especially the independent merchant who simply peddles his wares or talents to anyone who will buy them. Price in the real world is simply at the mercy of what a buyer is willing to pay.
In finally getting his way, Heatley, the newest San Jose Shark, had the audacity to say that he had a tough summer but is "relieved." He thinks everyone is happy that there was a "resolution" and that "we can move on," but all of that might be wistful thinking. Owners may not get what Murray wants at the bargaining table, but you can be certain that there will be some stiffened backbones in GM offices across the NHL in the coming months.
GMs know there's been a change in the marketplace and how fans view players and their salaries. The GMs saw first-hand the sea change regarding Heatley after word, likely from the Sens' front office, leaked that he had demanded a trade for reasons that simply don't sit well with hockey fans. They especially noted that it was the player, not the club who took the brunt of public reaction. They can be therefore be certain that, in a similar situation in the future, they will be able to control a good deal of how the player's public perception is shaped.
In the end, Heatley may have gotten what he wanted, but he paid a price that will forever tarnish his reputation and diminish his stock among GMs and especially coaches who will think long and hard about taking him, and players like him, into their ranks. He also created a sense among GMs and owners that they no longer have to play the role of victim and that the process must change. It's a fairly safe bet that it will.
Don't for a moment think that the next player who wants a big salary and a no-trade, no-movement clause will easily get it. Not without the name Dany Heatley being thrown back in his face.