Monday, December 04, 2006

Trading/Fantasy/Loyalty: Wherein the Author Gives Up Any Pretense of Reasoned Argument and Rants a Bit

A confession: I hate trade rumors.

I’m not particularly enthusiastic about trading in general, but I can accept it. But trade rumors, and especially trade fantasies, make me a little bit nauseous. With the Canadiens facing a large number of unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, Montreal is buzzing with trade rumors, and the internet is serving its divinely-ordained purpose by taking the fan trade fantasies of yesteryear and transforming them into a veritable orgy of triple XXX, full-frontal trade porn. In the past two weeks, between the fans and the journalists, I’m pretty sure I’ve heard a rumor or plan or scheme to unload every single current Hab except Koivu in some configuration or another. Niinimaa, Aebischer, Samsonov, and Souray are almost always involved, but I’ve heard people whispering about ‘what we could get’ for Markov, Kovalev, Ryder, even Higgins or Huet.

Most of this is nothing but wishful thinking by fans with too much time on their hands, or analysts with too much air-time or too many column-inches to fill, but that somehow makes it even more troubling. The Habs are doing well, and yet their fan base seems to be itching to pick the team apart into its constituent elements and try to rebuild it into something else. Why? Do all hockey fans do this, all the time, regardless of success or failure? I can understand the compulsion when a team is failing, to try to solve the problem by rearranging the people, but the Habs are not failing. They may be mystifying, but they’re not failing. Are there people all over Buffalo right now hatching bizarre plots to unload Spacek or Miller or whoever just for the hell of it?

I suppose what troubles me about this is that hockey fans in general make a big deal of loyalty. If you look at all the anger about Pronger leaving Edmonton, the sense of injury among fans comes not from the fact that he didn’t honor his contract, but from a sense that he showed no loyalty to nor affection for the city and the team. I sympathize with their feelings- were I an Oilers fan, I think I would feel betrayed as well, and I must admit that even though I have no personal involvement in the matter I’ve still developed a vaguely icky feeling about Pronger that I can’t shake. But I have to say that hockey fans don’t do much to earn players’ loyalty or commitment. Sure, when a guy is fabulously talented or having a great season, we love him, but we’re always looking for the better deal. I think being a hockey player in Montreal, indeed in many cities, must feel a bit like being in a relationship with a woman who’s always looking around the room for another guy- maybe a little taller, a little richer, someone with a sexier car or bigger vacation home, maybe a power forward… What right do we have to demand their affection? What on earth have we done to earn it? Why shouldn’t all players behave like Pronger and do whatever benefits them most, because as beloved as they might be in a given moment, all it takes is one bad month and half the city will be ready to ship them to Chicago for a couple of draft picks and a hot dog. I mean, Rivet has developed a reputation for being as devoted to the Habs as humanly possible, and yet there are plenty of people ready to let him go at the end of the year.

I understand trading- sometimes you have a gaping hole on your roster that must be filled, sometimes there are personality clashes, sometimes players do have legitimate personal reasons for wanting to relocate, sometimes you simply cannot afford to keep everyone. But ultimately, integration is more important to a team than pure talent, and too much trading necessarily runs the risk of disrupting any team’s understanding of itself. The skill of learning to work together, whatever the personalities and abilities involved, is in itself valuable. But it takes time for a team to develop this skill, a rhythm, or ‘chemistry’ if you prefer, and during that time all sorts of egregious fuck-ups will happen. The sort of trading pundits and fans seem to fantasize about most is at best a cheap shortcut, based on the idea that some magic person will take all the struggle and pain out of 20-some guys trying to figure out how to coordinate with each other in half-second bursts at god-knows-how-many mph.

Ultimately, I don’t want to see anybody on the Canadiens right now traded. Yes, they’ve got problems, but none of these are with the deep structure of the team- they’re mental, maybe emotional. Several of the Habs players have commented that the team has more of a ‘family’ feel this year than in previous years. Maybe they’re a dysfunctional family, but I’d just as soon see them solve their problems the way families have to, by working it out amongst themselves. No, you can’t put your little brother up for adoption, no, you can’t have another puck, there’s only one, you’ll just have to learn to share it.

For the time being, these guys have all the loyalty I have to give to a hockey team. I hope that, when the time comes, we fans as a collective will be worthy of whatever loyalty they have to give us.

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