Saturday, June 30, 2007

Cotillion

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.

But on UFA day and for a short time afterwards, the tables are turned. Whereas usually players’ existence is entirely structured and ordered by the higher powers of the League and their individual teams, come free agent time, a few among them are privileged to be, temporarily, among the most powerful men in the League. Not only do they have control over their own fate, but also over that of the many teams vying for their services. Their choices will determine, in large part, how many of us view not only our rosters, but our management going into next season. Meet Ryan Smyth, King of the Bean.

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 UFA position a few times in a career, so we have many more previous examples per GM to use for reference. It’s infinitely easier to guess a GM’s decisions than a player’s.

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 UFA has friends/enemies on the roster. In short, they are essentially reliant on the hope that the player was already amenable to coming to their franchise, or that they can offer enough money to make him amenable.

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 UFA, he just gets to leave. Period. Fans in Montreal still seem incapable of grasping the fact that Souray can go and we won’t ‘get anything’ for him. After all we did? After 7 seasons? 7 seasons sticking with him through his defensive lapses, injuries, and weird experiments in facial hair, 7 seasons of support, of buying his jerseys and cheering for him and giving him all kinds of idol-worship, and we don’t get anything when he leaves? Not even a pick? A puck? A nice hug? That’s not fair!

You can tell that it’s the most unpredictable time of year, at least in Montreal, because the rumor-mill goes into hyperdrive. I didn’t think there was any way you could top in-season Habs trade rumors, either for quantity or surrealism, but UFA Day rumors are in a class by themselves. Suddenly every single person in the city has a friend whose girlfriend’s cousin gets his hair cut at the same place as Briere’s brother-in-law, and the barber totally told him that Briere will sign in Montreal because Gainey offered him a rare 1934 Brazilian Amazon River-Toad Stamp with the minor printing erratum in the lower left-hand corner, and Danny’s secret weakness is his passion for philately (purple monkey dishwasher). Nearly every day for the past week has brought a new wave of gossip and speculation, and when no one has any standards by which to judge good or bad information, all possibilities are taken seriously. Typically, the best thing to believe about a rumor in Montreal is that if you hear about it in advance, Gainey won’t do it. The man runs a great disinformation network. But it doesn’t matter that the gossip never turns out to be true, we do it anyway, because we can’t do anything rational.

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 UFA day is hockey’s debutante ball. All the teams put on their very best dresses, slather on a whole bunch of lipstick, and go out, anxiously smoothing their skirts and fluffing their hair, hoping that with a pretty smile, a nice figure, and whole bunch of very expensive jewelry they can land them a big hunky UFA who’ll make all their dreams come true. And the UFAs wander the room, agents in tow, flirting with everyone, insinuating to each franchise that they might be interested in a relationship, just to see what sort of a reaction they get. Like most courtship rituals, it’s all about lies on both sides- there’s a lot of coyness (‘Of course we have a rebuilding plan! It’s a great rebuilding plan, in fact, it’s mathematically guaranteed to win us at least 4 Cups over the next 6 years. No, I can’t show it to you yet, what kind of a girl do you think I am? But if you’ll just sign here…’) and dissembling (‘I love [X city where I’ve played the past several years]. X is a great hockey market and I’ll never forget what they did for me. Of course I’d like to come back, we just have to see what happens…’). Everyone is trying to seem as attractive as possible, so it’s a great holiday for bullshit and clichés. In the end, though, all that matters is who goes home with whom, and the fans will loiter around the buffet like sequined spinsters, watching the suitors pair off, sighing romantically over the good matches and griping viciously about the bad ones.

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.

7 comments:

PB said...

E -

Great stuff! It always seems to me that a player that will be a UFA has an incredible year, where the previous years have been like a training ground for him.

Then, when he signs that huge deal, he puts too much pressure on himself and the investment blows up.

MathMan said...

UFA day as a holiday? As it turns out, it falls the same day as Canada Day. In Canada, UFA day is always on an honest-to-goodness national holiday, with businesses closing and everything.

Coincidence? You decide. ;)

Unfortunately, it also seems UFA Day in Montreal *is* typically rather predictable -- they end up with some third-tier guy who's never really what they wanted and never seem to have a shot at the really big names and never bring in anyone who does much impact. Diappointment is almost always par for the course, either immediately or soon after the season starts, often both.

Here's hoping this year surprises us, for once.

E said...

pb- that does seem common, i sometimes wonder if some guys don't think hard enough about the kind of expectations that will come with their paychecks and whether or not they'll really be up to carrying that much responsibility. probably there are a lot of players who've lived to regret taking a giant paycheck when all it does is turn them into a giant mistake.

mathman- so, does this mean people are going to misinterpret the purpose of my ufa day barbecue? i'm not particularly excited for the habs, i doubt they're going to do anything big unless some desirable guy actively wants to come to montreal and is willing to do it at a gainey-ish price. which is, as you are now thinking, impossible. i think maybe the best we can hope for is a competent 3-4 level defenseman, something useful but unspectacular. mostly for me the excitement is going to be watching other teams, especially those who are apt to toss out disgustingly bloated deals. nothing to make you feel good about your stolid, conservative gm like watching other people's gms flail around like epileptic octopi.

MathMan said...

The problem I have is that right now, if the Habs *don't* get someone more than "a competent 3-4 defenseman", then they look very much like the worst team in a division where everyone either was better, or got better. I'm a Hab fan through and through, so while I'm looking forward to the amusement of seeing what other teams do, and I'm sure some teams will make me laugh out loud by the sheer stupidity, I'm also really worried that the Habs will come out of it looking like a team contending for the draft lottery...

But the main reason why I suspect we *might* see some fireworks this year is because it's not like last year where the team stayed mostly intact, and he could just add a piece, swap a player or two, and keep on going.

We'll see if we get surprised. Gainey has been known to splurge back when he was in Dallas, so you can never tell. He has the money, and he has vast needs. The two constants about him are that he doesn't panic and he's always unpredictable.

But hey, that's why UFA day is Canada's national holiday, no? :)

E said...

it is true that, of necessity, the roster will have to change significantly. the question is how much of the new space goes to veteran acquisitions and how much goes to various pieces already in the habs system. since building from within seems to be the order of the day for us, it seems likely that at least a few of the slots will be kept open for whatever erstwhile bulldogs perform well at camp.

thing is, i trust that gainey does have a plan, and that he's too smart of a guy to be basing that plan on 'acquire ryan smyth' (or any other single marquee ufa). i assume he's prepared for several contingencies, and if he can't get what he wants at the price he wants from the ufa market, he'll pursue other angles. so basically, even if the habs don't land anything huge tomorrow, i think that bob will still find a way to keep moving in the right direction. the only question is will he move that way fast enough for our taste.

hambown said...

Slow day for Le Tricolore. To be expected, though I was surprised that Souray didn't get snapped up by L.A. Now that most of the super marquee UFAs have been dealt with (some at huge prices, others remarkably reasonable.) I cringe at the Leafs picking up Jason Blake at 4m/yr, and have a better goaltender.

Now is when I see Gainey stepping in to scoop up a 4th d-man. I also see L.A as way more likely to get Souray, since they've missed out on all the big ticket centres and wings available.

I can see you guys getting Tom Preissing. Oh, boy can I see it. I can almost taste it. It tastes faitly of mint and cloves. Or is that dessert?

Teebz said...

Hello, E! Great article. I've tagged you with this comment. Check out my blog for more info.

http://hockey-blog-in-canada.blogspot.com/2007/07/eight-things.html