By Gare Joyce
The Vancouver Canucks were gifted a break by the NHL’s schedule makers. The Canucks were in Phoenix on trade deadline day. They weren’t going to have to squint into as many television cameras’ lights. They weren’t going to have as many microphones thrust in their faces or be asked for comments about teammates outgoing or incoming. They could go about their regular working day without much intrusion. So it was that Cody Hodgson went to lunch with thoughts of the trade deadline in the back recesses of his mind. The team was firing on all cylinders, in contention for the top seed in the Western Conference and a second consecutive Presidents’ Trophy. Something might get done, a tweak to the lineup, maybe a small adjustment in their roles, but that was about it.
Such is the confidence of youth.
Hodgson was just a few weeks removed from winning NHL rookie of the month. The team’s first-round pick in 2008 was on a comfortable pace for a 20-goal season and was in the conversation as a Calder Trophy candidate. He had made it into 12 playoff games as a fourth-liner the previous spring, though none in the Stanley Cup final. He was counting on a larger role this April.
On the walk from the restaurant to the team’s hotel, Hodgson’s cellphone rang. It rang for the next two hours. The Canucks had traded Hodgson and defenceman Alex Sulzer to Buffalo for physical forward Zack Kassian and depth defenceman Marc-André Gragnani. “I wasn’t able to make an outgoing call,” he says. “There were dozens of calls. Friends, my family, media guys, my agent asking me what I thought of Buffalo. I was shocked. I didn’t know what to say. I never saw it coming.”
He should have, though. All the signs were there. There was a mutually fractious relationship between player and management. There was Rich Winter, a sometimes quarrelsome maverick agent, who is no favourite of Vancouver GM Mike Gillis. And, finally, there was Hodgson’s place among his Canucks teammates—at least a few thought he was a little too ambitious for their liking.
How could he have missed it? For starters, Hodgson didn’t know what to look for from experience. He had switched teams in minor hockey, but that was his family’s choice, and he was moving from one team with Steven Stamkos to another with John Tavares. He had never been traded in junior. In fact, he had been captain of his team, the Brampton Battalion. He was an untouchable then, beyond reproach.
Hodgson’s mindset from grade school to the NHL has never changed. He is firm in his belief that if he puts in more work than anybody else, then he’ll be a star, he’ll be as good as anybody. The one who works most is best—it’s sort of the Protestant work ethic distilled. It’s a belief and attitude instilled by his father Chris, a former provincial cabinet minister, now a mining executive.
Cody Hodgson looked like he could back up that self-belief as a teen. Vancouver was able to land him at No. 10 overall in the 2008 draft, and it seemed like they might have landed one of three best players in a rich pool that included Stamkos and Drew Doughty. And it looked like an even better bet a few months later, when Hodgson was arguably Team Canada’s best player at the 2009 world juniors in Ottawa. Tavares scored electrifying goals and Jordan Eberle played the role of semifinal hero, but it was Hodgson whose game was most solid. He was the best two-way forward. He looked closer to a finished product than the rest. That spring, The Hockey News ranked him as the second best prospect not playing in the NHL, and he was named major junior player of the year.
Hodgson got off to a sluggish start in Buffalo, but has since turned it around. (AP Photo/Devin Duprey).
If someone had told you then that, three years later, Vancouver was going to trade him in what was essentially a one-for-one deal for a guy with three goals and four assists in 27 games, you would have laughed. The same is true in Buffalo these days when Cody Hodgson calls it “just a good hockey trade.” His rationale: “The Canucks identified what they thought was a need and addressed it.”
Occam’s razor holds that a simple explanation is more likely to be true than a complex one. We all strive for the straightforward in our lives. The Hodgson-Kassian deal is a multi-layered exception.
Yes, the Canucks were addressing a perceived need: size up front. Even at the best of times this season, the elephant in the room was the notion that the team would have to get bigger and meaner at forward, a notion that crystallized during games six and seven of last year’s Stanley Cup final.
But in the NHL, Gillis and Hodgson would be almost alone in their opinion that this is just a good hockey trade. “It’s a terrible trade for Vancouver,” says one NHL scout, noting Vancouver’s lack of prospect depth at centre. “Hodgson had done a good job for them this year. He was starting to show he had top-six upside…that he could step up if [Henrik] Sedin or [Ryan] Kesler went down. They didn’t have a player like him who could give them some offence outside of the top six. And centre is the most valuable position—you can’t trade a centre for a depth player with size, certainly not one who’s not a finished product.”
There had to be a better explanation of the Canucks’ motives. Most have presumed that the relationship between the team and the player was irreparably strained since Vancouver’s training camp in 2009 when Hodgson suffered a back injury. Coach Alain Vigneault hinted that Hodgson was malingering, or at least copping an excuse for a poor pre-season—the sort of slight that makes for a deeper wound than the original injury. Hodgson’s camp, headed by his father, decided to get the injury checked out by independent specialists. And around that time, Hodgson dropped Don Meehan and Newport Sports as his representation. He retained Winter at least in part because of his father’s business relationship with the agent. And yet, it seemed that the Canucks and Hodgson had moved past that. He did, after all, dress in the playoffs last spring. He was moving up the depth chart. It couldn’t have just been the carry-over from a rocky start. And it wasn’t.
From the moment those calls started in to Hodgson’s cellphone, one question has been left hanging: Did he ask for a trade? Hodgson will deny any sort of demand or request. The agent? Well, he’s not talking. The answer lies in something gleaned from an unambiguous admission by Hodgson. “I spoke to the coach about my role on the team,” he says. “That’s not unusual.”
Well, it’s less usual than he imagines, and far less usual than the Canucks were willing to tolerate.
In Vancouver, however—with a winning team that thinks it’s heading for a playoff with one more win in reserve than last year—he was still a rookie, no matter how long he had been on the scene. NHL culture has evolved, but not a rookie’s place in it. Teams aren’t looking for dialogues with rookies. They’re around on a need-to-know, speak-when-spoken-to basis, at least with coaches and management.
When Hodsgon went to the coach to talk about his role on the team, in the broader sense he was only asking for a trade.
And when Winter tweeted that Hodgson had met with Vigneault, it just further annoyed the team. It would have been the last thing Meehan and Newport would have done, but it’s completely in character for Winter. The Canucks had to assume there was more coming.
Maybe it will all turn out for the best. Many figure he’ll take off with ice time in Buffalo. Early on, however, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In his first seven games with the Sabres he was getting about 17 minutes, a few shifts more per night than with the Canucks, but he was still looking for his first point. In his eighth game, the Sabres were holding on for dear life in the playoff chase and hosting the Canadiens. The splash of cold water came in the third period: Coach Lindy Ruff knocked Hodgson down to the fourth line, and he saw just 11 minutes of ice time. The Sabres won 3–2 in overtime with two goals from Tyler Ennis and the winner from Tyler Myers, who were both drafted behind Hodgson in 2008.
A couple of nights later, Hodgson was a minus-2 in a shootout loss to Colorado. In the second period, when the Sabres looked to be in control, he took a tripping penalty deep in the Avalanche zone that led to a Colorado power play goal. “It’s an opportunity [in Buffalo], but it’s been a struggle lately,” Hodgson said. “I want to do more.”
Cody Hodgson won’t be knocking on the coach’s door and asking for a larger role anytime soon. It’s okay to have ambition, but he’ll have to make a case for himself by letting his play do the talking.