When a player gets traded, he’s immediately got a million things to think of, the least of which is actual hockey. Depending on the guy, there might be family to move, a house to sell and a new one to buy, business relationships to deal with…and they want you on the ice with your new team like 10 minutes after the deal is done.
That first time you step into the new room, head swirling, there’s another bouquet of responsibilities to take care of. You’ve got to meet the coach and the rest of the staff, be shown to your stall, shake hands and introduce yourself around the dressing room, and most importantly that first night, get your new gear. There’s gloves that’ll need breaking in, a bucket to be adjusted, and sometimes even new pants to get fitted for. It’s a lot to take in when you first make the switch.
Fortunately, you’ve always got one thing to lean on: you’re good at hockey. I mean, maybe you aren’t Martin St. Louis-good, but if you’re playing at a high enough level to warrant trades, you’re probably decent. Once you hit the ice it’ll be oh-so-natural, it’s your safe place, it’s great…until you remember you have to learn your new team’s system. In like, an hour.
For all the just-traded players who suited up for their new teams last night, there was a moment where they sat down with their new coach by a whiteboard, and the X’s and O’s were presented.
“On our forecheck we like to…”
“In our d-zone we prefer to…”
“Our neutral zone forecheck plan means that you’ll…”
And so on. They’ll usually spare the new guy the depths of it all on that first day – the neutral zone regroup, the penalty kill forechecks and all that – but if the guy is an offensive stud, he’ll usually at least have to know the powerplay basics to go with the general systems.
The good thing for hockey players is that the basics of rotating and defending stay the same (each team just likes to add their own wrinkles), so you’re never too far lost. But once you hit the ice for that first time, it happens: you start thinking instead of playing, like a pitcher aiming instead of throwing.
You’ve got to figure out what hand your new linemantes are and how they’d like to play on top of worrying about the system (we’ve all seen how a single breakdown from a player can cause it all to fall apart, and you don’t wanna be that guy night one), so you’re never quite reacting at the same clip as you’re used to. You end up playing the “unintentional sidewalk dance game” with your linemates, where you both go one way, you both see that, correct, and go the other, and then…DAMMIT SOMEONE JUST GO FORECHECK. Reading off each other usually isn’t easy for awhile.
It takes a few practices and games before you get to know everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, and to get comfortable knowing that you’re in the right place on the ice. That uncertainty can be a killer, and lead to the type of hesitations that can bury you against the best players in the world.
Sometimes you get a break early on and have some success, but most players find that their first few games leave them lost in a mental tornado. Learning a new team’s playbook, to go on top of all the other life changes that come with getting traded means extra hours of work and diligent focus.
You’re always given some leeway for awhile, but if you don’t put your best in early on and it takes you a long time to learn what you need to know, your new coach and team will start get frustrated. Everyone has patience during the transition phase, but the seasons not long enough to make excuses for any pro for too long.