Friday, February 01, 2008

Some Thoughts on Loyalty

The NHL trade deadline is approaching and talk of waiving no-trade clauses is popping up all over the league again. The situation with Mats Sundin, in particular, got me thinking about the value of (as well as general lack of) loyalty to NHL teams from players around the league.

More and more, players at the end of their careers waive no-trade clauses or request trades to teams they view as Stanley Cup contenders. It is a strange thing. I'm sure the tradition goes back a long way, but for me all this one last throw of the dice for the Cup came to a head after Ray Bourque was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 2000. It was Ray Bourque, the heart and soul of the Boston franchise for 20 years, who requested the trade. And it wasn't just to get out, it was to a limited number of teams who he thought had a chance of winning.

This has led to a boatload of trades every year to teams like Detroit and Colorado (formerly). The teams that players will gladly waive their no-trade clauses for.

Aside from the trend of asking for trades, there has also been an annoying trend in the media to pick a player who is thought to be so deserving of the Cup, that all others should roll over and clear the way.

The press loved the Bourque win. They ate it up. It was a Cup for Ray Bourque, though it took a year, courtesy of a team who probably would have won it anyway as they had the best 2 centres in the league and the best goalie. Since 2001, there have been a number of players with long to intermediate length careers who became the feel-good heroes of the playoffs. Players who should win the Cup, just by virtue of being in the league so long:

2002: Dominik Hasek and Luc Robitaille, who found ways to miss by a couple of years in NYR and Pittsbrugh
2003: Adam Oates, who still hasn't won...
2004: Dave Andreychuk, who strangely was traded to make way for the "more deserving" Ray Bourque
2006: Rod Brind'amour
2007: Teemu Selanne

Looking at this list, there's no question that all the players had great careers (well you could question Brind'amour there...), but since when does that equate with a Cup.

So many players toiled in the league without the reward of a Cup for many years before Brind'amour came along. Many many more deserving than he. I'm picking on Rod, but really I would say that no one is outright deserving of a Cup, and it gets my back up when the media turn it into a story like that.

Apart from Selanne (who I identify with the Ducks and the Jets), the last time I was truly happy for an aging, tireless star to win a Cup was Steve Yzerman. Both players did thing the right way and won with the teams they were associated, even synonymous, with. Ray Bourque on the other hand may as well have just bought the Cup for all I'm concernned. he should have been trying to win with Boston for those last years of his career and not jumping ship.

Players like Todd Bertuzzi last year who make special requests to be on "Cup contenders" should be banished to first round upsets as far as I am concerned...

This brings me to the current Mats Sundin scenario.

I guess, first things first. No one owes Mats Sundin a Cup.

He has had a good career. he is the best player the Leafs have probably ever had. He has had some playoff success. But all that equates to nothing. the only thing that makes you deserving of the Cup is an unquenchable desire to win it. And, the only person who can give a player that is the player himself.

But you have to give the guy loads of credit. He knows that. He is still 100% focused on making the playoffs, on winning the Cup. But, he wants to win for his fans, his friends, his neighbours of more than a decade.

When you talk about a captain, isn't that exactly what you want? This kind of loyalty has to be recognised and applauded, I think. Fans of teams around the league should envy players like Sundin and his commitment to the cause.

If you're a Habs fan you don't have to look any further than Saku Koivu to see the same type of class. I'd hazard a guess that Daniel Alfredsson is the same with Ottawa. To win a Stanley Cup you need Mats Sundins and Saku Koivus. Players who play for pride in the sweater they wear.

Sure you can carry a Ray Bourque or two, but too many and you threaten to make that sweater meaningless, and take away the very fuel that fires those long Cup runs. Look to Joe Sakic in Colorado, Steve Yzerman in Detroit, Martin Brodeur in New Jersey to play big when Cups are on the line. These are one franchise players – with very good reason.

I hope the Maple Leafs can find a way to honour Mats Sundin's wishes and hold onto him. As a Habs fan, I certainly hope they don't win the Cup, but will be sure to applaud Mats if he manages to retire with the team he loves.

As for the Habs, I hope we can find ways to hang to players who want to play and win in Montreal. Ultimately, that will be where success will come from. And success will be so much the sweeter if it does come.

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