SYRACUSE, N.Y. — They plopped Jonathan Drouin down in front of a Syracuse Crunch banner inside the War Memorial, one of the old barns used to film Slap Shot, and the 20-year-old did his best impression of Marshawn Lynch.
“I’m not going to answer any questions about the trade request,” he told a small clutch of reporters Tuesday morning. “It’s between my agent and Steve [Yzerman]. The only thing I can do is play hockey here.”
Pressed further about agent Allan Walsh going public with his desire to leave Tampa over the weekend, Drouin smirked slightly: “Like I said, I’m not answering any questions about that.”
Asked how his Lightning teammates have reacted to the news: “Like I just said guys, I’m not talking about a trade request or anything here. That’s just how it is.”
You get the picture.
However, a couple hours later at the Crunch’s no-frills practice rink in the suburbs I heard all I needed to from Drouin. He had just finished a very optional skate with goalie Adam Wilcox and forward Brian Hart when I approached to ask him if his relationship with Walsh was still on solid footing after the furor of the past couple days.
He scoffed in a manner that suggested it was an absurd question.
“Oh yeah,” said Drouin. “We’re all good.”
So even though the former third overall pick might not be discussing his trade demand with reporters, there’s absolutely no reason to believe that he isn’t comfortable with the manner in which it is playing out.
When you step back and survey the wider landscape, it’s an astonishing fact: This simply doesn’t happen in hockey. Or it hasn’t, too often, in the nearly 100-year history of the NHL.
But the guess here is we’re going to start seeing situations like it more and more.
Athletes, especially younger ones, have grown up with so much of their lives shared in public that it only stands to reason they’re going to be more comfortable with everything it entails.
We’ve already seen players in other pro sports leagues attempt to exert influence in new ways. The Washington Redskins may have taken away Robert Griffin III’s starting quarterback job this season, but they couldn’t keep him from making several veiled comments about his dissatisfaction on Twitter. A few years back Derrick Rose’s brother even caused an uproar when he criticized the Chicago Bulls for a lack of moves during an interview.
In baseball, it’s basically standard operating procedure for agent Scott Boras to take everything public when he negotiates on behalf of clients.
The NHL has always been the tight-knit, small-town of North American pro sports. That’s one of the things I love about it. However, it would be foolish to think that teams are going to be able to continue to keep as many of their problems in-house as they have in the past.
Drouin’s trade request was communicated to the Lightning in November. You can empathize with the tough spot that left general manager Steve Yzerman in, particularly since he’s had to try and find a fair deal at a time when his team was underperforming and Drouin was out with a groin injury and literally no other GM in the league was able to make a trade of any consequence.
Now all of the dirty laundry has been tossed on the front lawn.
At least the player seems to understand that he can help expedite the process by playing well in the American Hockey League. Here with the Crunch he’s fortunate to have a level-headed coach in Rob Zettler, who had a long journeyman career as a player and is in his 13th year behind either an AHL or NHL bench.
“The only thing that’s really in his control right now is what he does on the ice and what he brings to the table,” Zettler said of Drouin. “Everything else is on the outside. What Jonathan needs to do is come down here and play hockey.”
The coach indicated that Drouin will be used in all situations when Syracuse visits Albany on Friday to kick off a three-in-three weekend. He acknowledged “selfishly” that the arrival of a player with so much talent is a good thing for the Crunch.
Still, it’s not too difficult to understand why Drouin was unhappy with his demotion. Last spring he was living in Tampa — one of the NHL’s top destinations — and competing in the Stanley Cup final.
On Tuesday he was spotted walking along a snowy Syracuse sidewalk wearing half of his gear, with the rest in a Lightning-issued bag slung over his shoulder, before grabbing a ride from a teammate to the practice rink.
This isn’t a place the former Canadian Hockey League player of the year will want to stay very long.
So, yeah, it’s worth remembering that even though Drouin didn’t say much in his first public comments about the trade request, that he doesn’t really have to. He already pays Walsh to do his bidding and seems more than willing to deal with the fallout.