While I can’t claim to know the unique complications that come with getting dealt in the NHL, I’m not unfamiliar with joining new teams at the pro level. I got traded once in the minors (ironically because of moves the Toronto Maple Leafs were making), I’ve been called up and sent down, and I spent enough time on the Toronto Marlies' coaching staff to see dozens of players come and go. Hell, my dad got traded in the NHL when I was a boy. The point is: I think I’ve seen enough to tease out some pretty universal truths about getting dealt. Hint: it mostly sucks. As we move toward that time of year, I thought it’d be fun to take a look at those shared experiences to better appreciate what these players who are about to be dealt will be going through.
The room is not your own, the logo is not your own
The best comparison I’ve heard for being a freshly traded player is that it’s like being at someone else’s house, even when they tell you you’ve got full run of the place. You don’t wear your shoes in the house, you don’t put your feet up and you just generally try to err on the side of being polite and cautious. That’s what it’s like in a new dressing room because every team has their own little rituals and customs, and you don’t want to start on anyone’s bad side. Comfortable as you may be, it’s not the same as it being yours.
The whole vibe with a new team is one of imposter syndrome, of playing dress-up. When you’re embedded with a franchise for any real measure of time, even just from the start of one summer into the season, it’s easy to feel like you’re one of the people who make up the “team.” The logo represents you. You’ve heard the orientation talks, done the pre-season testing and heard all the rules laid out. You’ve seen others come and go. The team logo becomes part of who you are as a hockey player.
When you’re traded to a new team, putting on the jersey feels fake, like it’s fantasy camp for a day or something. I always felt out of place, and uninvested in the colours. It usually takes some dramatic events (brawls, comebacks, even bag-skates), often those involving adversity, to start feeling like the crest on your chest represents you.
The only place things feel normal is on the ice
The good news is that hockey remains just hockey, no matter whose sweater you’re in. I’ll never forget the feeling of constant strangeness being somewhere in a new city with a new team, contrasted directly with how it felt to step into those familiar confines of an ice rink. In North America, it’s almost always a 200-by-85-foot rink, with the lines painted in the same spots, and you’re almost always lining up in the same position, with the same goals. It feels like one of the few things you can control where you trust what the outcomes of your actions will be.
What gets lost is that some players require more mental preparation than others to be their best, while some play a more reactionary game. Those who are more reactionary are less likely to struggle than those who really have to be in a good headspace to bring their best every day. Because away from the rink, there’s no time to think about hockey for a while. It’s…
A) How does this affect my family and how do I put them in the best position?
B) Where am I going to live? What do I need to live there comfortably?
C) How do I get around this new city?
D) How do I get my stuff here? Or, am I even going to be here long?
You likely know how moving is. It’s always hard, but it’s harder when it’s just for a few months, but also for an undetermined amount of time. You want to get comfortable, because you want to play well, and again, it’s going to be for months. But how comfortable and permanent should you make your home, given both cost time and money?
At least on the ice, there’s none of that to consider.
Trying to fit into a new dressing room is like being the new kid at a new high school
You don’t want to be perceived as trying too hard (kind of like high school), but if you don’t put yourself out there at all, you’ll go the rest of the season without getting to know certain guys on your team. Think about it: there are probably 25 players or so to get to know on a given team, not to mention all the staff. If you’re new, that’s a lot of relationships to form, and they’re all important.
The hardest part is probably the second week, where everyone is done trying to help you, people have said their "Hellos," and you’re left to find yourself and your people. Certain players go for lunch every day, certain players have shared interests, and so the early going is figuring out which people you’re most drawn to, and vice versa.
I think some people will read this and probably laugh, "It’s pro hockey, the guys in the NHL are all millionaires, and being in with the cool kids doesn’t matter." But like most workplaces, being accepted into what the team is trying to do is a big part of carving out a role for yourself and, in turn, finding success. The best players in the world make a ton of money and rarely change teams. Those closer to the middle and bottom are more likely to be dealt with, so those relationships (and fitting in or not fitting in) can make or break a career.
Knowing that, or at least somewhat sensing it, being dropped into a new dressing room can feel daunting.
Learning the coach’s language is tough. Learning their inherent likes/dislikes can be tougher
There is nothing more jarring than getting on the ice and hearing something you’ve called one thing — “the St. Louey,” maybe – called like “The Minnesota swing” or something. It turns out we’ve all been doing the same drills in hockey all over North America, but they’ve taken on different, more regional names.
That sort of thing in practice is all fine and harmless, but it’s a problem when referring to certain actions a coach may want a player to take on the ice. Flush, attack, drive, steer, chase, pursue, lead, angle, direct, push … any of these things can refer to the same action on the forecheck. But the problem is that they might mean something slightly different to different coaches, so figuring out a coach's dialect is important. (I can’t imagine trying to do it if you quite literally don’t speak the same language as the coach.)
Then there’s figuring out how your team wants to play, which is a reasonably achievable goal. If you’re a winger in the D-zone, one coach may be furious if you’re above the hashmarks defending, the other mad if you’re below them. So, you have to do a bit more thinking on the ice as a new guy, rather than just anticipating the play and reacting in a second. It’s a legit hindrance to gaining crucial inches all over the rink for a while.
But it’s the things the coaches won’t tell you they like, but are just in their personalities that you really have to get to know to shape your behaviours (given coaches wield the all-mighty hammer that is ice time). Exchanging gloved punches in a post-whistle scrum might show one coach you’re engaged, another might think you’re unfocused. Shooting from distance might be “atta boy, get pucks on net” to one guy, and all but a turnover to another. A finished forecheck after the puck has already been moved may be worth a pat on the back for your physical play, or a seat on the bench for running out of position. Those things are rarely made explicit, but have to be learned through trial and error.
The whole thing is trial and error, and the only conclusion I remember being left with after doing it a few times is to just be yourself on and off the rink and let everything else sort it itself out from there. There’s probably some sort of Pinterest/Etsy life lesson quote to be taken from that in there somewhere.
All in all, getting traded is just a major disruption, which isn’t always a bad thing. But it’s certainly a challenging thing, and there’s a very human element there we don’t always consider when hoping a new player is the perfect fit for our favourite team.