Long-time readers of this blog know that Backhand Shelf is a high-class place. Sophisticated, even, like Katharine Hepburn, or that pâté with the unpronounceable mushrooms in it. As writers for such a classy publication, myself and my co-contributors are generally prohibited from using some of the baser idioms in the English lexicon, the kind of expletives that less refined sites might use to express distaste or displeasure. In order to promote a higher caliber of reasoned, respectful debate in the untamed wilds of hockey blogistan, we confine ourselves to only the mildest profanity, so that you, dear reader, shall not feel unduly affronted by anything you might find on these webpages.
However, there are things that cannot be said politely. Some ideas are just too strong and too urgent to be conveyed through decorous euphemism, and so our glorious leader Mr. Bourne has gone before the corporate overlords and procured for us the privilege of one instance of strong profanity per month. And, perhaps because the end of the month is fast approaching, or perhaps because he sensed my frustration, he has given me the rare and tremendous honor of using that one expletive in my article today. So please understand that when I express the following sentiment, my words are not carelessly chosen, nor am I assaulting your delicate eyes merely for the sake of effect, but that I truly believe there is no other way to say what must be said except in the following way:
Fuck the trade deadline.
I hate this time of year. There is no time in the NHL calendar- not UFA Day, not the All-Star Game, not even the Awards show- more subject to bullshit and stupidity than the trade deadline. Or, more accurately, the three weeks or so before the trade deadline, when everybody and their grandmother spends 80% of their hockey-time either A) making stuff up, or B) very earnestly discussing stuff other people made up. It’s a season defined by fragmentary gossip, nonsensical rumors, unfounded speculation, and flat-out masturbatory fantasy, a time when even the most stolid and respectable commentators go a bit loony over maybes and possiblies and oh-wouldn’t-it-be-nice-ifs. It is the great annual harvest of made-up shit.
No one likes to admit that it’s almost all made-up shit, but it is. It cannot be otherwise. There are at least four layers of uncertainty, obfuscation, and incentivized deception in between any potential trade and the average fan. First, there is the fundamental uncertainty inherent in trading. GMs don’t have trades in clearly in mind and just wait until the last minute to whip them out. The whole process of making a trade is a process of suggesting, asking, waiting, wondering, negotiating, and hoping, which means that even the deciders themselves don’t really know what decision they’ll ultimately make. Even if you had something direct from the lips of Dean Lombardi two weeks ago, there’s not much chance it would actually correlate in any thorough way with his actual moves, because his moves will change right up until the last minute depending on what’s available and what compromises he can make to get at it.
But we don’t get our information straight from the mind of the GM. No, we get it filtered through someone in the organization- an assistant or a secretary or a PR person- who might well be making things up, or be wrong, or simply be selectively leaking false information that the organization finds it useful to put out. And then it gets filtered through the ‘insiders’, who range from respectable media figures who know everyone to ordinary people who know a guy to anonymous gossip-mongers who don’t know anything, all of whom have their own varied reasons for releasing things selectively and/or inventing things wholly, and are additionally subject to human error. And then, of course, everything goes into the great whirl of ‘rumors’, which get passed around like herpes until no one can tell where exactly they originated- and because the media considers reporting on ‘rumors’ to be part of it’s purview, it’s surprisingly easy for a rumor to take on a sheen of credibility simply by being repeated often enough, by the right mouths.
The result of this melodramatic and inefficient process is that about 90% of what people talk about when they talk about potential trades ends up being wrong in one way or another. The ways of being wrong differ- there’s right information that simply wasn’t consummated, there’s telephone game distortion, there’s wholesale invention- but wrong is still wrong no matter how you get there. So what we have, in essence, is three weeks of obsessive scrutiny of non-existent things.
Now, this is the point when certain astute readers might be tempted to accuse me of not being fun. “Oh Ellen,” they say to their screens, “Can’t you see? It’s just a little harmless speculation, just a fanciful diversion from the pressures of the workaday world. All this gossip, we understand it’s not real. It’s just for fun.” Now, it is true that I am a staunch opponent of many kinds of fun, and should you happen to meet me around the All-Star Game or the NHL Awards, you may freely accuse me of shitting on fun, because I most certainly will be. However, the trade deadline hype is not about fun, and any claim that it is thoroughly disingenuous.
Look, if you want to have fun with trade rumors, be my guest. Dress up in a suit and stamp around your apartment screaming “HEMSKY FOR A THIRD-ROUND PICK AND THAT’S FINAL” into your Fisher Price Light and Sound Elmophone. Sit at your desk dreamily scribbling Mrs. Rick Nash in the margins of your diary. Make up Tampa Bay Lightning trading cards and swap ‘em with your friends. Whittle little effigies of Brian Burke and George McPhee and make them kiss like Barbies. What consenting adult hockey fans do in the privacy of their own homes and message boards is no concern of mine. If you just want fun, have it with my blessing.
But does anyone writing, posting, Tweeting or commenting on trade speculation ever say it’s just for fun? Are there a lot of disclaimers on TSN and Sportsnet about how this is all just for shits and giggles? Hell no. Because people don’t think of it as fun. They think of it as analysis, and therein lies the second fundamentally infuriating thing about the run-up to the trade deadline: you cannot produce a real analysis of events that are not real.
Most of what we hear in the weeks leading up to the deadline is not real. It’s fiction, and therefore, fruit of the poisonous tree, all analysis of it is also fiction. If I write a long explanation of why Cersei Lannister grew up into such a fantastically vicious creature, that explanation is still made-up, because Cersei Lannister and all her life are made-up things. Similarly, if I write a long and involved description of why the Lightning might trade Lecavalier to the Habs for Palushaj and Weber, it doesn’t matter if it’s plausible, hell, it doesn’t matter if it’s brilliant, because I made it up.
So what’s wrong with analyzing made-up shit? It blurs the line between fantasy and reality. There is a Buddhist precept that says: mind creates everything. The things you choose to think about influence the way you perceive the world, which in turn influences the facts you think you know about the world. It doesn’t matter if you’re nominally aware that the things you’re thinking about are fictional, you’re still training your mind to think and feel as though they were real. Too much fantasy endows the fantastic with the same epistemological status substance as the actual. The shorthand: You know those people who get all jealous and paranoid in their romantic relationships? Doesn’t matter if their partner is actually cheating or not; their constant dwelling on it creates a relationship that’s equally terrible either way. Wrong ideas don’t have to be passed off as right to have ugly consequences.
The big ugly consequence of the trade deadline is that the whole hockey world spends almost a month poring in agonizing detail over things that never happen, treating gossip and fantasy as if they were bits of fact. Consequently, when many hockey observers think about trading (not ‘insiders’ necessarily, if that word even means anything anymore), they’re working from a mental stock of information that’s 90% bullshit. Our sense of what is reasonable, what is possible, what is to be expected in an NHL trade is informed largely by things that are unreasonable and impossible, and hence our expectations don’t get better. Despite the ever-increasing amount of hype and drama surrounding the trade deadline, I don’t think anyone- casual fan or professional commentator- is getting any better at understanding how trading actually works, because we don’t distinguish reality from daydreams. Trade deadline analysis is no smarter today than it was five years ago, and five years is a long time to ‘analyze’ something without making any noticeable improvement.
When the deadline comes and all the trades are over, there’s no big debriefing session. No blog or network is going to have a big day where they go over all the bullshit rumors and misinformation and gratuitous speculation they previously promoted and say, “Oh man, we were so wrong about that. Let’s try to figure out why we were wrong so we don’t do it again next year.” There’s no great breakdown of what the fictions were and how they made it into the system and why they didn’t come to pass. As always in hockey predictions, people get effusively praised for the 5% of things they called right and are granted a free pass on the 95% of things they implied, suggested, or perpetuated that turn out wrong.
And the absolute worst thing about it, the thing that makes me fall to my knees in despair, shaking my fists at the hockey gods for subjecting us to the wheel of tears and travail that is February, is the whole frenzy is utterly futile. All this rumor and gossip, all this heady speculation and quasi-analysis make absolutely no difference. Come February 27th, some trades will be made and others won’t and that’s it. It doesn’t matter, at all, in any way, who predicted it and when, which network called it first, whether some chick Tweeted it five minutes before Bob Mackenzie did. It does not matter. The entire edifice of the trade deadline is built on this notion that prediction is somehow valuable, and in this case, it just isn’t. I suppose I can see why the insiders like it, as one of those pseudo-phallic professional competitions that guys sometimes get into- MY CONTACT LIST IS LONGER THAN YOURS! DAVID POILE LIKES ME BETTER! MY PHONE IS BUZZING MORE OFTEN! For them, ability to predict things is a symbol of their access, and their access is their name. But why should we peons care? Why should it make any difference to us if we hear of a trade at 10:30 or 2:30 or the next day? The trade is the trade, and of the famous Five Ws (and One H) of journalism, the “when” is conclusively the least important part of it. It shouldn’t be sufficient to either make or break a reputation. It should barely even be worth noticing.
Of course, I know that telling hockey fans not to get caught up in trade deadline hype is like telling five-year-old girls not to be seduced by the Disney Princess brand: it ain’t gonna happen. The fantasy trading fills an emotional need that cannot be denied, the need to practice feeling the things you might feel should the worst, or the best, happen. At the bottom of it, pre-deadline hysteria is motivated by fear and desire: the fear fans of sellers have of losing someone dear; the desire fans of buyers have to get that one perfect player who will make the Cup seem more assured. Daydreaming, in hockey as in life, is practice for reality. It’s how we prepare for multifarious possibilities. People need that, I suppose, and I can tell them it’s silly, but I can’t really tell them it’s wrong.
No, wait, actually I can. It’s totally, completely, positively, dead wrong.
Fuck the trade deadline.