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Oral history: What it's like when an NHL player is traded

Mike Brophy
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Bernie Nichols. (Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images) Author: The Hockey News

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Oral history: What it's like when an NHL player is traded

Mike Brophy
By:

In the post-Gretzky era, all players know anyone can be dealt, but it's still a big surprise when the call finally comes in.

The buzz from his cellphone, which he normally turned off during his pre-game nap, startled Mike Johnson. He quickly focused his eyes to see who was calling and saw it was Pat Quinn. “Uh oh, I thought,” Johnson said. “He’s probably not calling to see how my day was going.” It was Feb. 9, 2000, and the coach-GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, indeed, wasn’t exchanging pleasantries. He was about to throw a wrench in Johnson’s day – in his life, for that matter. “The most surprising part was how fast the conversation was,” Johnson recalled. “He literally said, ‘Hi, Mike. This is Pat Quinn. Listen, Mike, we made a trade. You’re going to Tampa. You know to get something we have to give something. We really liked you here, all the best. Somebody from Tampa will call you. Good luck. Bye.’ “I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ The call took 20 seconds. I did not for the life of me remember the team. I’m thinking, ‘Is it Boston?’ I sat there for 15 minutes not sure who I had been traded to.”
“PlayoffPreview”

And that is how quickly and drastically a pro athlete’s life can change because of a trade. Sure, it’s a part of the business. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t rock a lot of worlds.

GETTING THE NEWS Some players see the trade coming, others are shocked. When tough guy Jody Shelley was traded to the San Jose Sharks from the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2008, it hit him like a punch to the beak. SHELLEY: I was no longer a Columbus Blue Jacket. That was the amazing part for me. I called (Sharks GM) Doug Wilson, called my wife, said bye to everybody in the room, got all my sticks and equipment, and I was standing outside in the loading dock. The door closed, and I remember the feeling I was no longer welcome in and a part of that room. That was the ice-cold feeling for me. I got in my truck, and when I drove home my wife was in tears. That loading dock moment was gut wrenching for me. Bernie Nicholls was at the 1990 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh representing the Los Angeles Kings when he got the news he had been dealt to the New York Rangers. NICHOLLS: The Friday night after the skills competition Mike Vernon walked past me and said, “I heard you were just traded.” I said, “What are you talking about?” Sure enough, I met with (Kings owner) Bruce McNall and found out they traded me that night to the Rangers. I was shocked. In the summertime, just after I had scored 70 goals, I went in to talk with McNall because I was looking to buy a house. It was a million-dollar house, and I had just signed a new deal with the Kings. Bruce said, “I’ll never trade you…blah, blah, blah.” Three months later, I get traded. I was absolutely blindsided and shocked. The same thing happened to Nicholls in 1991 when he played for the Rangers. NICHOLLS: My wife was pregnant with twins when I got traded the second time. I told our GM Neil Smith I am about to have twins and I’m thinking about buying a house. He said, “Great idea. We’re not looking to trade you.” Deja vu, same thing again. Rod Brind’Amour knows the feeling. BRIND’AMOUR: In Philadelphia, I didn’t buy a house for eight years because I was always thinking I was going to get traded. I finally bought a house, and then I got traded to Carolina three months later (in 2000). IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TIMING John-Michael Liles knew his time was up in Toronto, but he hoped he could hang in long enough to play in the 2014 Winter Classic in Michigan. He nearly made it. LILES: When I got to Michigan Stadium, they let me know the trade to Carolina was going to go through. I said, “Can I still go out for warmup?” I wanted to be a part of this even if I’m not playing. They said, “Go ahead, the deal hasn’t been finalized.” I was on the red line with Kyle Quincey and Drew Miller of the Red Wings, and they said, “Hey, what’s going on?” I said, “Nothing, I just got traded to Carolina.” They were both dying laughing. There is actually a picture of me leaving the ice, and Drew has his arm around me laughing about the trade. Some players simply aren’t prepared to move. It was a one-game road trip in 2000, and the Philadelphia Flyers were travelling to Pittsburgh on a charter. BRIND’AMOUR: I got the call at two in the afternoon, and it was Carolina coach Paul Maurice saying, “Hey Rod, we got you a five o’clock flight. You’re with us now.” That’s how I found out. It was shocking to hear it like that. I was expecting to fly home after the game. So I fly to Carolina, and they say they’ll fly me home to get my stuff the next day. Then they had the snowstorm of the century. Things were cancelled in Raleigh for about a week. I was stuck at a hotel with one suit and no money, and I’m thinking to myself, “What a great start to this place.” Trades can happen anywhere and at any time, as Johnson knows all too well. JOHNSON: Mike Ribeiro was traded by Montreal in 2006 during warmup. I was on the ice stretching beside him and we were chatting. All of a sudden, he just got up and skated away. I’m like, “Where are you going?” Off he went to Dallas, and we played that game with just 19 players. With the Mike Cammalleri trade in 2012, we were playing in Boston. It was the second period, and he just walks off the bench. He had been traded in the middle of the game, and they pulled him out of the game because they didn’t want him to get hurt. It isn’t unusual for a player to find out from his mother-in-law or the media that he has been traded. Wendel Clark was traded four times. The first, at the 1994 draft, he was moved from Toronto to Quebec, a blockbuster that brought Mats Sundin to the Maple Leafs. CLARK: I turned my radio on at a gas station. I was filling up with gas after shooting a Cheerios commercial. We had no cellphones back then, so I turned the radio on to see who we drafted, and I heard I had been traded. Nobody knew how to get ahold of me to tell me about the trade. Johnson NEW TEAMMATES It is often strange for players when their enemies suddenly become their teammates. JOHNSON: There were always guys that you thought you probably wouldn’t like or get along with by their reputation or by the odd exchange you had with them on the ice. I remember Matt Barnaby was one in Tampa. He was right in his heyday of being just insane with the whole shtick he had going on the ice. I figured I would not be able to relate to this guy on any level. He’s crazy, and I find his act on the ice obnoxious and annoying. He turned out to be an unbelievable guy and a great teammate. BARNABY: I was that a--hole that everyone hated. Everyone used to say to me, “If they only knew you off the ice, they’d love you.” When I went to New York from Tampa Bay (in 2001), I was aware I had said so many nasty things to Eric Lindros over the years. I was walking into this room following the battles we had between Buffalo and Philadelphia. They were epic. We had a lot of battles. I had fought him. That was the only time where I walked in and thought, “This is going to be awkward.” He ended up being my roommate, and we got along well. That first handshake was weird. He looked at me and said, “Oh my God, we have to talk.” I think he understood what happened between us before was just a part of the game, and I was just doing my job. BRIND’AMOUR: There are guys you play against and you can’t stand, then you become teammates and friends. One who stands out was Keith Jones. I hated playing against him when he was with Washington. I could not stand the guy. He joined the Flyers, and we became good friends. WHO WON THE DEAL? BARNABY: Every time I got traded for someone, I remember looking at the stats every day to see if I was scoring more than the guy I was traded for. I was traded for Stu Barnes, and if he scored, I felt like I had to score. I was obsessed with that. I wanted my team to get the better of the trade. Barnes went into this awful slump – I don’t think he scored for about 20 games after the trade. I was as happy as could be. JOHNSON: I went to the arena in the afternoon I was traded to Tampa and got my gear, and then I was supposed to get my visa the next day. I got traded on Tuesday and didn’t get the visa until Friday. For three days, I just sat in Toronto. All I wanted to do was get out of there. Darcy Tucker came to Toronto, and in his first game he scored a goal and had a fight and the fans loved him. I was sitting there thinking, “I’ve got to get out of here. I can’t watch this.” THE GRETZKY FACTOR When Clark was traded from Toronto to Quebec, he quickly put the deal in perspective. CLARK: I was shocked on one hand, but on the other hand after Wayne Gretzky got traded we were all aware that anybody could get traded. For Nicholls, the move from L.A. to New York meant leaving The Great One behind. NICHOLLS: I was absolutely devastated. I played with Wayne for a year, and I loved it. I wonder how amazing it would have been to play with Wayne for five, 10 years. It would have been incredible. To have the opportunity to play with him and then have it taken away from you was devastating. For Johnson, being traded from Tampa Bay to Phoenix in 2001 had the opposite effect. Suddenly, he was joining a team coached by the greatest scorer of all-time. JOHNSON: ‘Gretz’ called me from Phoenix to welcome me to the team, which was pretty cool. He was my favorite player when I was growing up. I played against him and maybe exchanged a hello with him once, but I didn’t know him. To have him call me and welcome me…it was Wayne Gretzky, for heaven sake. THE SAD GOODBYE Rob DiMaio was traded four times and said he got used to it. The first time, however, when he was traded by Tampa Bay to Philadelphia in 1994, left a lasting impression. DIMAIO: Our coach Terry Crisp called me into his office, and Wayne Cashman was the assistant coach. I’ll never forget this. Cash had tears in his eyes. Terry had tears in his eyes as he told me I was traded. I didn’t know how to react, and when I came out of the room, my teammate Marc Bergevin was there. He knew what was going on. He was sitting on one of the players’ benches, and he had tears in his eyes. It was the most emotional time in my career, having to leave certain people.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the March 7 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.
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Oral history: What it's like when an NHL player is traded