WASHINGTON — Brooks Laich pleaded his case with Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan. Despite an extended goal drought, Laich didn’t want to get waived or traded by Washington with the team poised to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
“I had conversations with management and I told them that I wanted to be part of it,” Laich said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
The longest-tenured player the organization had, Laich found out from fiancee Julianne Hough late Sunday night that the Capitals had traded him to the Toronto Maple Leafs. After 742 games over 12 years, Laich was forced to come to the realization that he’d never win the Cup alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
“I have such an empty feeling that I never got the ultimate goal,” Laich said Wednesday after the Maple Leafs’ morning skate back at his old home arena, Verizon Center. “I really wanted to do it with Alex, I really wanted to do it with Nicky and really wanted to do it with Mike Green, who unfortunately wasn’t back this year.”
Even without Green, who left for Detroit via free agency last summer and with winger Alexander Semin long gone after he was part of Washington’s core for several years, the Capitals may have their best team in the Ovechkin era. They lead the NHL by a wide margin and are Cup favourites.
Trading the 32-year-old forward and his $4.5 million salary-cap hit was part of moving toward that goal for MacLellan, who scouted Laich back in 2004 before the Capitals acquired him from the Ottawa Senators. MacLellan knew it was the move to make even though he had to fight through the emotions of sending Laich from first to worst in the league standings.
“You want him to be a part. He’s earned it,” MacLellan said. “I know he likes the team and we’re a good team going forward, and it’s frustrating, but we had to do what’s necessary to keep the organization, to keep the team going forward here.”
The Capitals keep moving forward without Laich, who scored 20 goals three times in his prime and was a respected teammate. Ovechkin felt a special connection to Laich because they went through so many playoff runs together.
“It’s only me and him was (here) since my first year,” Ovechkin said. “Right now it’s only me … who’s been (here) since the beginning.”
Laich reflected on the beginning Wednesday when he arrived in Washington over a decade ago and saw then-GM George McPhee when he walked into the locker room.
“He shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome to D.C. I hope you’re here for 15 years,'” Laich said. “It was a very special moment for myself to feel like you’re a part of the National Hockey League and you have a home with an organization. I made it 12. That’s longer than most make it.”
Laich spent 10 full seasons and the first half of this one trying to win the Cup. His role diminished over time to the point that he was a fourth-liner with limited responsibilities aside from penalty killing, but he was at peace with doing his job.
Now his job is to help mentor the young Maple Leafs as the Capitals surge toward the top seed in the NHL.
“What’s awkward about it is that you’re an important part for a lot of years, you were part of it, you build a program and then now when it looks like they’re ready to take the step, you’re not part of it,” Toronto coach Mike Babcock said.
Laich said it was difficult to close the Capitals chapter of his life, and going back to Washington so soon after the trade made it even harder. A quick return might provide some closure, but there’s still the possibility that Laich watches his former teammates and friends raise the Cup in June.
The Wawota, Saskatchewan, native said it wouldn’t be difficult to watch because of how much Ovechkin, Backstrom and others meant to him.
“They’ve had such a huge impact on my life and I’m so grateful and thankful for them not only as friends but as teammates, colleagues,” Laich said. “They’re lifelong friends. We grew up together and I’m always thankful for them and I will always wish them the best.”