Mike Sillinger and Brent Ashton can star in their own version of Trading Places.
They share the record for being traded the most times in the history of the National Hockey League — nine times apiece. Neither were never nicknamed Suitcase, the moniker slapped on goalie Gary Smith because of the number of teams he’s played for in his professional hockey career, although Sillinger heard the media apply the tag to him at various times.
And as the 2012-13 NHL trade deadline comes and goes, Sillinger is reminded of the two times he found himself swapped to another team on the final day to make deals. One year it happened to him after the bewitching hour passed and he thought he’d been spared, only to see his name on the NHL transaction list before he’d actually been called and informed of the deal. Turned out he went from the lowly Florida Panthers to the Ottawa Senators, who were considered a strong contender going into the playoffs, except they were bounced in the first round by Toronto.
Neither Sillinger, who played 17 seasons, nor Ashton, who played 14, were ever teammates, although both played for the Vancouver Canucks and the Detroit Red Wings at various points in their career.
“I’m sure if you go on Twitter, you’ll see Suitcase Sillinger,” Sillinger told sportsnet.ca. “I’m very proud I played a long time and played at a very high level, and whether you want to call me a Suitcase or whatnot, I feel I accomplished a lot at the NHL level. Whatever the media or Twitter is calling me, I’m okay with that — at least they’re still talking about me.”
“The whole idea of a hockey player is longevity, to play as long as he can and make them tear the jersey off your back, so if it means being traded or going to another team that wants you, you can call me whatever you want,” Ashton said. “It’s not how many teams or who doesn’t want you. Obviously it’s an honour to play in the National Hockey League. I played a long time and I enjoyed every day of it.”
Both were born in Saskatchewan and played major junior in the Western Hockey League — Sillinger for his hometown Regina Pats and Ashton for his hometown Saskatoon Blades. Both were drafted fairly high — Sillinger 11th overall by Detroit in 1989, Ashton 26th overall by Vancouver in 1979.
The two now reside in their respective home towns — Ashton working as a realtor, Sillinger as the director of player development for the Edmonton Oilers. A few years ago they happened to be playing together in a golf tournament in Saskatoon, but Ashton recalled they didn’t talk hockey.
Ashton last played in the NHL 20 years ago, but said it’s been 15 years since he was asked by the media about his career and his many trades and team changes.
“It’s just been a long time, that’s all,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m fine with that, totally.”
While admitting being traded became disruptive, he also mentioned the positives such as playing with the likes of Ray Bourque, Steve Yzerman, Cam Neely and many other greats of the game.
“It was a great honour and a great experience to play in different cities,” Ashton said. “I’d love if it would have been with one or two cities your whole career. It’s tough on your family, packing up each year. You’re not really buying, you’re renting. When we were traded you got the phone call that afternoon, you grabbed your bags and were on a plane that night and it was up to your wife to sell the house or shut all the power off and move the family. It’s a lot different now. They’ve got a few days to get things in order.”
“The way I always looked at it is it was a fresh start,” Sillinger said. “If it happened once, it could happen twice. The third time you think it’s not going to happen to me again and sure enough you’re gone again. After awhile it was Groundhog Day. I guess the biggest thing for me was there were 20 guys in the other locker room that were ready to welcome you with open arms.
“Everybody says, ‘You’ve played with probably half the league.’ During my time I probably did. I got to have a lot of good friendships and whatnot. There’s nothing better than being in that locker room and going to battle in war with your teammates. I have three boys that play hockey and pay attention to the NHL and they can’t believe that I played with that many teams and moved around that much.”
Ashton’s first trade saw him go from Vancouver to Winnipeg because the Canucks signed Czech national Ivan Hlinka, whose rights were owned by the Jets. One of his trade memories is from the fourth time he was dealt, this one from Minnesota to Quebec. He was driving in the car with North Stars teammate Keith Acton, who had heard the team had made a deal. Acton had been convinced he had been the one traded and Ashton told him there was no way that would happen. As soon as they arrived at the rink, Ashton was called into the coach’s office and informed he’d been traded.
“Stories like that happened, but it’s part of the business,” Ashton said. “The key to that is to adapt to the new teams. Some aren’t able to adapt to the new team. They might be playing a different role. It’s tough when you go from a winning team to a team that’s struggling. It’s very exciting to be in the other situation. You feel the difference in the dressing room as well as in the rink. It’s a whole different feeling, but one as a hockey player you want.”
“It’s one of those things you have to approach as a business,” Sillinger added. “You’re not in control of the situation and you have to be professional about it wherever you end up. It’s probably more difficult on the family than yourself. You have to have a very supportive wife and family. My kids started to go to school as I got older and it was more difficult to move around. The wives have to understand it’s a business. Lives change quickly, but what you have to do is adapt and that’s the one thing I give my family credit for. Everywhere that I went, they adapted well and I think that’s another reason for my success going from team to team to team. I had a bigtime support system.”
Neither player won a Stanley Cup, nor even played in a final, although Ashton made it as far as the semifinals three times.
“Any kid playing hockey that was your dream — to carry the Stanley Cup — so to play 14 years and not have that opportunity (is tough), but you have to realize it’s circumstances as well,” he said. “There’s a lot of great players that never had that opportunity. It’s tough. It’s being in the right place at the right time.”