The Ritual of Goodbye: How Traded Athletes Speak

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Trade and transfer deadlines in professional sports always see a flurry of activity, as teams look to bolster their ranks for playoff pushes, make a last effort to stave off relegation, or, sensing the inevitable, sell off assets and look to the fabled “next year” when things will certainly be better. Fans eagerly devour news of transactions, following rumors and refreshing the trade pages on the major sports sites all day long on the day of the deadline.

Go Huet! by Big Swede Guy, via a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/No Derivatives licence

Tucked into many quickly posted news items about breaking trades is a comment from a just-traded athlete, and most such comments adhere to the same basic pattern: Reaction to the trade, regards for the team and fans being left, excitement at the prospect of playing for the new team, expectation for what the player will accomplish in the future.

The National Hockey League trade deadline this year was on Tuesday, February 26th, and the athletes moved around like game pieces pretty much followed the call-and-response pattern. To wit, goaltender Cristobal Huet, on his trade to from the Montreal Canadiens to the Washington Capitals, per a Canadian Press wire report (Feb. 27, 2008):

“I expected the unexpected, but I was shocked,” said Huet, who met with the media at the Bell Centre before heading to Washington. “I had three great years here. It was a lot of fun. I can’t say anything bad. I would love to have finished the job here but it was a little difficult. I didn’t play well enough the last three weeks so I guess I didn’t help my cause. Now I have a chance to join another team and try to help them jump into the playoffs.”

Now, in Huet’s case, he was essentially kicked out of Montreal in favor of a young goalie (20 year-old Carey Price) and traded away to Washington for a second round draft pick at next year’s draft. Washington ostensibly brought him in to take away the number one goaltending spot from a revered but slowing goalie (Olie Kolzig) who spent his entire career there and stuck with the Capitals during their several seasons’ long rebuilding effort. Not an ideal situation to wake up to on a Tuesday morning, but Huet remained sufficiently composed to provide the ritualized response. Montreal fans most likely appreciated the gesture, and Washington fans can look forward to a team player joining up.

It’s when athletes diverge from the pattern that you sense something is awry.

Take for instance the case of Brad Richards, new Dallas Star and former Tampa Bay Lightning. ESPN.com’s trade deadline blog quoted Richards as saying, immediately after the deal:

“For whatever reason, things haven’t worked out here the last couple of years. . . . I think I need to get refreshed with a new beginning. I am happy it’s done with now and I can move on.”

While he also noted that he was sad to leave his long-time friend, Vincent Lecavalier, behind in Tampa Bay, he paid scant heed to the requisite noises about what amazing fans the Lightning had and how he’ll miss playing at the St. Pete Times Forum. Brant James of the St. Pete Times (natch) on February 27 notes:

Richards called his time with Tampa Bay “great,” but said the move will be rejuvenating after two seasons of struggles:

“A new surrounding wasn’t what I wanted at the beginning of the week, but thinking back over the last year and a half, it’s been a tough time here with our budget problems and different things going around.

“It’s kind of like getting let out of a cage. I felt handcuffed here. I can’t wait for a new start.”

Great? That’s it? The budget problems were, one must add, caused in part by his own large contract, but was his dissatisfaction in Tampa Bay limited to upper management?

Indeed, we find him waxing less than poetic about the Lightning at the Dallas Stars site (so we have to take his comments with the understanding that he’s playing to his new audience, but still . . .):

“I just didn’t see the sense in leaving a non-playoff team to another non-playoff team, so when Dallas showed interest, that was my number one choice because of those reasons. I think with what they’ve done there, I really respect the team and how they’ve been playing. They play as a team and they win, and that’s something I miss doing and I can’t wait to be involved in it.” (Emphasis added)

Did we miss the memo about not slagging off the former team, Brad?

It’s hard for fans when a favorite like Richards leaves. What do you do with the signed jersey, the posters and autographed sticks, the hours of emotional investment? Player movement is a fact of life in contemporary sports, causing some to root for teams instead of players. Players make their transitions easier by following the ritual of goodbye. They remain marketable and generate good-will for the sport as a whole. Of course they’re free to say what they want—they’re paid to perform on the ice or pitch or hardwood, not to spin business transactions—but does it take so much effort to say, “Thanks for cheering for me”?

I certainly wish Brad Richards the best of luck in Dallas, but I wonder how Tampa Bay fans are feeling now.

(Image courtesy of Big Swede Guy via a Creative Commons Attribution/Non-Commercial/No Derivatives licence.)

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