Caps’ trade of Brooks Laich a heartbreaking but necessary move

The Capitals absolutely did the right thing with Brooks Laich. Never has being right felt so doggone wrong.
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The Capitals absolutely did the right thing with Brooks Laich. Trading him to Toronto didn't net a huge return in Daniel Winnik. It did move a $4.5 million salary off the books and free up some space under the salary cap. It's hard to argue the Caps should have done anything else.

Never has being right felt so doggone wrong.

Much of the sports-following community in the D.C. area was in mourning Monday over the loss of Laich, which seems odd on the surface. He was making too much money and was nowhere near as effective on the ice as he was a few short years ago. Plus, cap space is a valuable commodity. You’d think there'd be a celebration of some sort.

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But that’s not the case with Laich, who was revered in and out of the hockey community for being something that’s all-too-rare these days. He’s a guy who gets it, a guy who appreciates the fact that he’s paid to play a game he loves, appreciates the life he has and treats everyone he comes in contact with in a way that makes them feel they’re his equals. You could spend the rest of your life looking for someone in D.C. to say a single negative word about Laich and you’d come up empty.

It is easy for the media to prattle on about athletes who are gracious in dealing with them. Laich is exceptional in dealing with everybody. That hardly makes him the lone ranger, even among athletes. But folks like Laich are becoming harder to find. Common decency is a lot like common courtesy and common sense. They’re not really that common. Laich hits the trifecta in that he displays all three.

He flew to Toronto on Monday to join his new team, leaving a trail of tears and tributes behind him.

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Dan Steinberg, the gifted columnist for the Washington Post, wrote this. Russian Machine Never Breaks, a fun website devoted to Caps coverage, weighed in with this. Laich got a lot of notice a few years ago when he stopped to change someone’s tire after a heartbreaking loss in a playoff-series Game 7 (of which the Caps have had a few) and that moment was discussed again and again as Laich flew to his new home.

Check out this tweet from Isabelle Khurshudyan, who is in her first year of covering the Caps for the Post:

I don’t know Laich anywhere near as well as Steinberg. Laich never called me “bloggy” or anything else. He likely never knew my name as I wasn’t around him all that much and I worked for The Washington Times, not the Post. He still treated me with respect, still gave me all the time I ever needed, still put up with my endless questions as I tried to understand some hockey nuance. I used to call the corner of the Caps practice locker room where Laich sat next to Troy Brouwer (now in St. Louis) “quote corner” because you knew you could always head over there and come away with a full notebook.

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Not long before I left D.C. to join the crew at Sports Illustrated, my friend Ben Raby called and pitched a story idea. Raby worked with the Caps radio team at the time and wanted to look back on the 10-year anniversary of the day the Caps traded another beloved player, Peter Bondra, and got Laich as part of the return. By then, Laich was the longest tenured pro athlete in D.C. Raby got time with Laich and Bondra and did an exceptional job with the story. I saw Laich soon after it appeared and thanked him for making time for Ben. “I should be thanking you,” Laich said. “Thank you for allowing Ben to do that story and thank Ben for me for doing it. I appreciate it.”

That made Laich one of two athletes to ever thank me for a story, and I hadn’t even written this one.

At a Caps charity event later that same season, I introduced Laich to my guest. She’d been a fan of Laich’s since he first arrived. In two minutes, he made her feel like he was her biggest fan. He did that with countless people that night. Laich didn’t go through the motions. He truly appreciated the people who supported him, supported his team. He didn’t see being a pro athlete as his birthright. He was no better than you, he just happened to play hockey for a (very good) living.

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And make no mistake, Laich played the game awfully well for a long time. Being a great guy is cool and all, but it won’t keep you in the league for 10-plus years. From the 2007–08 season to the 2011–12 campaign, Laich played in all 82 games four times and in 78 the other. He scored 21 or more goals in three of those five seasons and 16 in each of the other two. He earned his keep.

Laich got hurt playing overseas during the 2012–13 season lockout and, frankly, was never quite the same player. Maybe the injury affected his game somehow, maybe age was catching up to him, maybe both. Whatever it was, his production had fallen precipitously. In 60 games this year, he had one goal and six assists. Laich remains an effective penalty killer and he took his move to the fourth line with the professionalism you’d expect from him. But you also can’t pay a guy $4.5 million a year to kill penalties. It’s a bit ironic that money is what ultimately forced the Caps to move Laich. This is a guy who loves the game so much he’d probably play for free.

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​Anyone who watches the Caps with any regularity had to know Laich’s time was running short. Nothing lasts forever and the Caps did what was necessary here. General manager Brian MacLellan, who has pulled all the right strings in his two years in charge, made that final call with the deal to Toronto and it crushed him as much as it did so many others. Khurshudyan reported MacLellan had to hold back tears when talking about the trade.

That’s understandable. MacLellan has to run the hockey business, but that doesn’t make him less human. Lots of tears were shed in D.C. over the loss of Laich, necessary though it may have been.

The schedule brings Laich back to D.C. quickly. The Leafs play the Caps Wednesday night. No doubt Laich will be the subject of a tribute video, the kind Washington has done for other former players.

It’s the right thing to do, particularly in this case. There’s only one reason not to do it: There’s a game to be played and the ovation could go on forever.