Brad May of the Toronto Maple Leafs could be on the move at the deadline for the third time in his NHL career. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
“They say the anticipation of death is worse than death itself, it’s the same thing with the trade deadline.”
That’s how Toronto’s Brad May described deadline day for NHL players when THN.com caught up with him for some insight on the topic.
In recent years, that anticipation has become a reality for more and more players. The record for sheer volume of trades was set in 2006, when 25 were consummated; a number matched at each subsequent deadline.
As for the largest number of players to switch teams on one deadline day, 46 changed sweaters in 2003; a number nearly matched the past two years when 44 and 45 players were moved.
In the past 30 years, the trade deadline has become a phenomenon unto itself, a self-fulfilling prophecy, even. Blame the frenzy on Hall of Fame executive Bill Torrey who, while GM of the Islanders in 1980, plucked Butch Goring from Los Angeles one day before the deadline. The Islanders went on to win four consecutive Stanley Cups, Goring won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 1981 and the trade deadline took on a life of its own.
“We all get sucked in,” Toronto GM Brian Burke told reporters on a conference call last week. “It's an awful day, it's an exciting day, it's a day full of magic and a day full of very poor decision making.”
Columbus GM Scott Howson agreed that teams have a tendency to shoot for the moon on deadline day.
“I went through...the deadline trades the last two years,” Howson said on the same conference call. “There are a lot of trades a lot of teams would take back. I kind of agree with Brian, a lot of mistakes are made on that day.”
Including 1980, 374 deadline-day trades have been made involving 676 players and 225 draft picks. Of those, very few have been blockbusters and even fewer have played a role in who won the Cup: Pittsburgh pilfered Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson from Hartford in 1991, then won back-to-back titles; the 1994 Rangers wrangled Stephane Matteau and Craig MacTavish in separate deals; Detroit deleted Larry Murphy from Toronto’s roster in 1997; New Jersey nabbed Alex Mogilny in 2000; and in 2001, Colorado cajoled Rob Blake from Los Angeles.
But those are about it as far as Cup-changing deals are concerned. And yet, each year, the anticipation of and pressure surrounding deadline day grows.
“It is crazy,” said Burke about teams and their ‘war rooms.’ “You’ve got as many phone lines open as you can. You've got to have an idea going in the night before that there are four or five deals that are possible (and) here are the assets involved. It's going to come down to a yes or no or add a sixth round pick.”
As May alluded to, as difficult a day as it is for NHL GMs, it’s a whole different bag of pucks for NHL players. For them it’s a waiting game and, often, a hoping game – hoping they don’t leave a contender for a pretender, or hoping against hope they get the hell out of Dodge, away from losing – and sometimes caustic – situations.
“There’s no question you can understand why everyone is so nervous,” said May, one of just six active NHLers to be traded twice on deadline day. “It’s nerve-wracking for sure. I got traded to two playoff teams from teams that were not necessarily in it. It was exciting to get to an environment where you know you’re going to be playing the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yet the door shuts behind you and you leave friends behind and, of course, your family to pick up the pieces.”
As for his expected-to-be-quite-active Maple Leafs, May said everyone just wants to know their fate one way or another.
“It’s kind of like ‘enough of the apprehension,’ ” said the rugged left winger.
May is rumored to be available himself, which would make him one of the half-dozen players in league history to be traded three or more times on deadline day. The record, ironically, belongs to Alan May – no relation – who was moved four times between 1988 and 1995.
“At the end of the day,” May continued, “you have to be ready to play hockey when it’s done. You can’t get caught up in it.”
Easier said than done for those involved: players, GMs and fans alike.
John Grigg is a copy editor with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his Monday blog and the Wednesday Top 10.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazines.