I hate waiting.
When I was a child, my mother used to call me ‘The Hammer’, because when I wanted something, I would be absolutely relentless. Unlike most children, I didn’t generally cry or throw tantrums or make a scene, I would simply refuse to think or talk about anything else until I got my way, and I could keep it up for days and weeks at a stretch. Mom always told me that someday I would have to get used to frustration and disappointment, but I didn’t believe her. Parents can be surprisingly easy to wear down.
But it turns out that my mom was right, as mothers are wont to be about these things. When you’re a kid and there are people who are capable of giving you most of the things you might want or need in life, that kind of single-minded desire works quite well. It’s much less effective as an adult- turns out that the forces of the universe are entirely indifferent to nagging. So, without anyone left to demand fulfillment from, my wantings now turn inward and, when forced to wait for something I want, I hammer away at myself.
One of the things I love about hockey is that it usually involves very little waiting. In-season, there is seldom more than a two-day stretch of waiting for something new, and usually events develop at such a mad pace that the only question is whether one has the time and energy to keep up. And me, if I’ve got the energy, the time seems to find itself. All year hockey fed the worst aspects of my innate impatience, offering gratification more instant than anything else in life, and that’s probably part of the reason it hooked me so readily.
The off-season, though, is a hell of waiting. Endless, interminable waiting. Whereas once everything in the hockey world seemed propelled by a restless, whirling centrifugal force that just got faster and faster and faster with time, now almost nothing happens and those things that do drag on for weeks and weeks of glacial development. Half the news is just reports of people ‘talking’ about things, and even the talking seems to take forever. My inner child is freaking out, skipping stones across my stream of consciousness, throwing Cheerios at the walls of my psyche. I....WANT.... HOCKEY! HOCKEY NOW! HOCKEY NOW!
But at last, finally, soon, things will happen, and for a brief period they will happen fast and furious again. Yes, in just a little over 24 hours, it will be UFA Day. I’ve started thinking of it as a holiday, like Trade Deadline Day. But unlike Trade Deadline Day, which I approached with trepidation verging on pure dread, I’m excited about UFA Day. Giddy, almost. UFA Day deserves a party.
I like the idea of UFA Day because it has a very old-school holiday feel to it, a classic day of role-reversal- Halloween, Carnival. Most of the season, the GMs have the most substantive power in hockey, answerable to no one but the money-men. Trade Deadline Day is all about the power of the GMs played off against each other, the collusion and contention of petty dictators over their warring nations. The players are just pawns, footsoldiers, who go where they’re sent and do as they’re told, regardless of their personal beliefs or desires.
UFA Day is much more unsettling than Trade Deadline Day. For better or worse, most of us have a sense of our GMs and what sort of things the might or might not do. Occasionally there’s a big surprise, but mostly you go into Trade Deadline Day knowing well what your team needs and the type of moves, conservative or crazy, that your management is likely to undertake in pursuit of those needs. GMs, for all their power, are creatures we’re used to observing and predicting.
But players? We have not the slightest clue how or why players make the decisions they do at free agency. We can see some of the factors involved, particularly the money aspect, but that’s only one angle, and a very incomplete one. Like any individual human weighing employment options, players will be thinking about a thousand things- the city, the region, their family, the reputation of the team, their personal feelings about the management or roster, their own assessment of the team’s future potential, how long before they intend to retire, the potential role they could play with any given franchise- all things that we either don’t know or could never possibly see from the player’s own perspective. Add to that the fact that GMs make deals on a monthly basis for years and years, while a player will only negotiate a contract from the
The GMs are curiously weak now. Bereft of their trading-power, they can only offer and hope that their offers are considered. And their offers seem, at this time of the year, pathetically, depressingly constrained. It’s easy to say that a GM should offer X ‘whatever he wants’, but they generally can’t do that. The limitations vary from team to team, but in no case does the GM have the power to offer a free agent ‘anything’. Some just don’t have enough money, but even the wealthiest cannot make their city bigger or smaller, cannot make the schools better or the media more tolerant, the weather nicer, the fans more numerous. They cannot change where their team finished the previous season, or whether the target
Most fans, I think, would agree on principle that unrestricted free agency is a good thing. Players should not be slaves their entire careers, it seems only fair that at some point they should have a moment of complete freedom to choose their own future. It’s a privilege most of us take for granted that professional athletes don’t often have- to choose where we want to live.
Nevertheless, I think most fans hate UFA Day. Regardless of our sense of fairness as people, we’re used to thinking of players as commodities that belong to ‘us’. Mostly, we like the idea of GMs being able to toss them back and forth across the League like large fleshy tennis balls. That’s why we play fantasy GM so much, because we love to imagine having that sort of structural power over the team, and we like seeing it exercised. UFA Day fucks up all our carefully constructed plans, or those we imagine our management has, because no GM, no matter how ingenious or devious, can sign a free agent who doesn’t want to. And even worse, when a player of your own goes
You can tell that it’s the most unpredictable time of year, at least in
If the proper metaphorical celebration for Trade Deadline Day would be an auction (‘Now, next up we’ve got one slightly used defensive forward, suitable also for penalty killing. Do I hear 2 draft picks and an enforcer?’), then
No matter what happens, it should be quite the party. With loud music and big trays of tiny little snack food. My inner child is very, very excited.