Loyalty is a lost quality

Few players play their whole career with just one team

29.02.2008
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Captain Mats Sundin refused to leave the Toronto Maple Leafs. Photo: HHoF/Dave Sandford

TORONTO – As of today, there are exactly 16 players in the NHL (of about 1,000 who have made an appearance this season) who have played their whole careers with one NHL team (minimum 10 years). Only one was the topic of trade speculation as deadline day approached — Chris Phillips in Ottawa. He invoked his no-trade clause and refused to be moved. For the others, they have become so much a part of the team’s identity that to trade that player would do more damage than good.

Yet, amazingly, when Toronto put the pressure on Mats Sundin to waive his no-trade clause and he refused, some people called the Leafs captain selfish! This despite the fact that (a) he’s having a superb year; (b) he wants to be the first captain since George Armstrong in 1969 to retire as Toronto’s captain; (c) the incredible insult by the team to want to trade their marquee player has been completely overlooked!

Take a look at the other one-team superstars. None of their teams would dare think about trading these players because of their value to the team on ice and off: Daniel Alfredsson (Ottawa, 12 seasons), Per-Johan Axelsson (Boston, 10 seasons), Martin Brodeur (New Jersey, 15 seasons), Sergei Brylin (New Jersey, 13 seasons), Shane Doan (Winnipeg/Phoenix ,12 seasons), Jarome Iginla (Calgary, 12 seasons), Saku Koivu (Montreal, 12 seasons), Olaf Kolzig (Washington, 16 seasons), Jere Lehtinen (Dallas, 12 seasons), Nicklas Lidstrom (Detroit, 16 seasons), Mike Modano (Minnesota/Dallas, 19 seasons), Matthias Ohlund (Vancouver, 10 seasons), Jay Pandolfo (New Jersey, 11 seasons), Chris Phillips (Ottawa, 10 seasons), Wade Redden (Ottawa, 11 seasons), Joe Sakic (Quebec/Colorado, 19 seasons).

The trade deadline in the NHL has made a mockery of a player’s loyalty, and, indeed, it is almost impossible to stay with just one team for the length of a career. A player not only has to be a superstar — he has to be lucky as well. After all, even many of the greatest players in the game today have been traded — Joe Thornton, Roberto Luongo, Martin St. Louis, Jaromir Jagr, Dany Heatley, Olli Jokinen, Sundin. There is a new crop of young stars who have played only a short period of time without being traded, but the law of averages suggest that one day even Vincent Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Alexander Ovechkin, and, yes, Sidney Crosby will all be traded. After all, if Wayne Gretzky can be traded in the prime of his career, anything is possible.

Loyalty is a two-way street. The player must want to stay with one team, and that team must also want to keep him. Such a player must be a star. No third-line forward or fifth defenceman has the leverage to demand a no-trade clause or has earned the right not to be traded. But a star player is key to a team’s playoff chances and success in the community, and no matter what offers may land at a general manager’s inbox a team would simply never, ever trade Joe Sakic or Jarome Iginla. But even a star player must have luck. He must enter the league at a time when the team is on the rise, and he must either take his team to the Cup or be an obvious key to the team winning the Cup. For instance, although Daniel Alfredsson has yet to bring the hallowed trophy to Ottawa, it is unlikely the team could do so without him, either, for the foreseeable future.

Hockey’s history and tradition are rooted in players staying with one team for most of their careers, even though the old days are just like today. That is, it rarely happened. Johnny Bower played a couple of seasons with the Rangers. Johnny Bucyk played a season with Detroit. Gordie Howe played his final year with Hartford, and Borje Salming ended his “Leafs career” by playing with the Red Wings for one last season. Sundin, too, started his career with the Quebec Nordiques. Yet fans love the idea of a one-team career player. They love the idea of requited loyalty. They love the idea of the hometown boy playing his entire life in his hometown (think Ryan Smyth crying at Edmonton’s airport on his way out of town), or the player from somewhere else moving to a new city and loving it so much he plays his whole career there (think Markus Naslund). Fans love the idea that this loyalty is the basis for winning a Stanley Cup. They love their players like they love their families and want the players to give that same love back.

Rental players are just the opposite. They come to a city for six weeks and try to help a team win the Cup as a ringer. They don’t buy a house and uproot their families. Instead, they kiss their wives goodbye and say, ‘see you in a few weeks’, like the trade is nothing more than a long road trip. And rental players almost never bring home the Cup, anyway. Rental players are the very antithesis to what hockey players stand for and what the game means to fans. The concept strikes at the very heart of the game and kills that passion for the game, kills that connection between a fan and a team. When you have Leafs fans criticising Sundin for not allowing the team to trade him, you know something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with the game.

There has to be a trade deadline, of course, but it is not a day of excitement, and it is definitely not a day when your favourite team acquired the final piece of that Stanley Cup puzzle. No. It is a day of sadness, a day of loss, a day of mourning. Today’s players are so much more skilled than players of the “old days”, but today’s system betrays a player’s loyalty to a team, and a team’s loyalty to a player.

Note: Here is one of the greatest trivia questions of all time. Only four goalies in the history of the NHL who have played at least ten years in the league have played their entire careers with one team. Who are they? Two are on the list at the top of this story — Martin Brodeur (New Jersey) and Olaf Kolzig (Washington). The others? Turk Broda (Toronto) and Mike Richter (New York Rangers). Incredible.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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