I can’t claim to have played in the NHL, and I certainly can’t claim to have been traded from a team I had formed a strong affiliation to the way both James Van Riemsdyk and Luke Schenn now can. But I was traded once, and the two days later we played the team that had just traded me. Fun!
It’s an odd feeling. I had been with the Reading Royals of the ECHL for all of training camp (nearly a month, all-told) while rehabbing from a torn MCL I suffered at Hershey’s camp. I rushed it to get back for the first game of the Royals regular season, following which I was immediately moved to the Idaho Steelheads. Like I was saying: fun.
What I wanted, as JVR and Schenn likely did, was revenge. It’s not that a single game is going to prove anything all that much in particular, it’s just…f*** them, right? If somebody decides the best thing for their personal situation is to ship you to a different country or state, you’d at least like to make one day of their lives miserable, and you feel like you can do that with a good performance and a win. It’s one of the rare days where your own performance openly matters as much as a team “W,” and the boys know it. Naturally, they’re fine with it too.
I can’t remember playing with a single just-traded player who didn’t hear something blunt like “These guys didn’t want you” before the game (a friendly barb with a smile, not a dig, by the way. Really just a weak attempt at motivation).
Warming up on the visitors side of an arena when you’ve previously lived on the home side is a bizarre feeling. It’s tempting to walk down to the more comfortable side with all the amenities, but you’re stuck in the smaller, more-cramped visitors side. You never realize the luxuries home teams have until you’ve spent time in their dressing rooms. You don’t find many couches in road rooms, for some reason. At least not the minor pro ones.
You know the majority of your opponents beyond “hey, what’s up” level, but you certainly can’t hug, backslap and BS before the game. It’s focus time, and you want to kill more than ever. And if given the chance to mow a teammate over (in a clean way), boy-oh-boy are you licking your chops to take it. Players understand sometimes you have to do what you have to do, and it shouldn’t damage any relationships (though it does occasionally). And on that day, you kinda think “eff it if it does.” Hell, sometimes you’re itching to run through an ex-teammate who rubbed you the wrong way when you wore the same logo.
So as you see your ex-buddies and ex-roommates and ex-linemates roll in, you treat ‘em like ex-girlfriends – acknowledgement without involvement. Head nod, keep kicking the soccer ball and keep stretching, I’ll talk to you after. This all applies whether you’ve been traded, signed somewhere else as a free agent or whatever. A wordless “Hi, yes, you exist, bye.”
Of course, you don’t really talk to many people after the game, if any. Someone always ends up chapped about how the game went down. If your team loses, damned if you’re sticking around to chum about and give your new team the impression you aren’t a part of their team. And if you win, it’s not like there’s going to be smiles galore from the other side. So it’s post-game texts and a call or two, we’ll have to get together soon, and see ya later.
On the ice is where things get trippy. I was a chatty player, so I struggled with the whole “not talking at faceoffs thing” that coaches prefer. It was a lifelong curse of mine. But, the better the friend, the harder I tried to chop their ankle upon puck drop (well, as hard as you can reasonably expect without taking a dumb penalty), because dudes (jocks, in particular) basically interact with each other in the same way they flirted with girls in early elementary school. Pulled hair = I like you best.
And it’s funny, during the game you find that you know your now-opponents tendencies, so you play a little differently. When you rarely play a team, you don’t really know what you’re dealing with. But when you play with a guy for awhile, you learn weaknesses like “Oh, he constantly gets beat when guys push him wide,” so you try to exploit those things. “This d-man is a head-down shooter, so let me make sure I’m in his lane, and I could get a breakaway off my shinpads.” I found it made me play more confidently.
I never played directly against a player that was traded for me in some one-for-one situation the way JVR and Schenn did, but you can imagine how desperately you’d want to prove that your team got the better of the deal. And early in the game, it looked like Schenn might, as he picked up an assist in the first minute. His whole game was pretty decent actually – our own Cam Charron reports he had a plus-six scoring chance differential in the game, the highest of any player – until…until it happened. This:
He got walked.
JVR gets a pass (a nice one from Kessel, by the way – easily could’ve got it tipped), beats Schenn wide, and scores (on an attempted backhand-five-hole play that was doofily goaltended). In Toronto. It would’ve taken all my willpower not to snap my stick on the crossbar if I were Schenn, but I get the whole “never let ‘em see you sweat” thing.
In the grand scheme of things, that one game doesn’t matter much. You just can’t step into your old barn and roll over. You don’t want to get physically run over either, and most of all, you don’t want to get embarrassed. You put money on the board to motivate the boys, play the most intense game you can, and just hope the bounces go your way.
Because nothing changes when you leave the rink that day. Like an old relationship, you may recognize the good in what’s left behind, you may recognize the bad too, but it is what it always was, and in hockey, you can’t take “business” so personally it affects your year.
You just hope in the end everyone who moved you sees they’ve made the wrong choice, and the ones who’ve chosen you feel like they’ve made the right one.