As you probably can surmise from the title of this article, I am angry–angry for Long Island, angry for hockey. Let me be clear up front, I am not angry that John Tavares has decided to play for the team that he loved since he was a little child. And I am not angry that he left New York with little more than a postcard of a message to fans. If he does not want to play for the Islanders, for whatever reason, that is his right.
But, but, but . . . .
It has actually taken me close to 48 hours to process what happened and put into words why it is that I am so angry. Quite simply put, it is that Tavares has now forever changed the game that I love, and I am hopping mad about it.
No, hockey was never a gentlemen’s sport. Back in my father’s day, the guys on the ice used their sticks on one another in free-for-all fights, and he used to tell me, with eyes a gleaming, that he would go to the “old Garden” on G.O. tickets and watch the brouhaha from way upstairs—in the nosebleed seats. My usually meek and anti-violence dad would light up talking about those good ole days.
Nor was hockey a sport for the faint at heart when I was young–when my brother and I watched with shock that our favorite Ranger players were being traded and sent off to the enemy—Boston Bruins. It shocked us and shocked the players. Yes, hockey was a business, even then.
But, this–this is different. When Esposito and Vadnais came to New York for Park and Ratelle, there was some sort of parity in the trade. It was done for the supposed best interest of both teams. And when Wayne Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles two decades later, it was for the good of hockey.
But the John Tavares decision—this was only good for Tavares and the Maple Leafs. There is nothing here for hockey and nothing for the Islanders. And that is what I have a problem with.
Tavares was the captain of the Islanders when he asked not to be traded before the deadline. And he was the captain of the team when he said his heart was in New York. Captains do not put themselves individually over their team. Yet, that is exactly what Tavares did. Not by choosing to sign with the Maple Leafs this past weekend, but by not letting the team know before the trade deadline that he was seriously thinking of leaving. When you accept the captaincy of a team—it means something. It means that you are a team leader–the guy that leads the team into battle—even when you know that you personally might have to make some sacrifices. It is part of the job, part of what accepting the “C” is about. And is part of what it always has been about.
Hockey has always been a team first sport—remember the saying “I play for the crest on the front of my sweater, not the name on the back.” By not telling the Islander powers-that-be that he might leave back in February, Tavares kept the team from getting some value for him. And there was quite a bit of value to be had. He knew that he was at least considering leaving and he should have communicated that directly to team management. It would not have hurt him in any way to do so, because if he got traded at the deadline, he could have always come back as a UFA. Others have done it, why not Tavares?
Instead, what he did was set the franchise back several years. No wonder, the Islander fans are so angry.
It is true what many are saying that it was up to management to trade Tavares when he refused to sign a new contract by February. That Garth Snow and company were foolish and made a terrible decision. But there is an unwritten code in hockey—Tavares, as the team captain, would always keep the best interest of the team in mind when he communicated with management.
But, he did not and what I am afraid of is that hockey changed on Sunday, when Tavares moved off to Toronto. Changed forever, but not for good.
The game has been a business for a very long time, but there were certain unwritten codes that management has abided by until now (e.g., you do not serve up an offer sheet on an RFA to try to “steal” a player from the team that drafted him). But, after Sunday, when management saw the results of following one of those unwritten codes, it is very likely that a line in the sand has been drawn. The gloves will be off and the dominoes will fall. No GM will ever be willing to keep an unsigned player again and risk getting nothing for him.
And when management starts to see players purely as assets, some of the attitude of togetherness and solidarity of our sport will be lost. Some of the specialness that hockey has is in jeopardy. After all, if it’s just a business, and player/management trust is further compromised, it affects fans/ticket buyers. It gives the impression to kids, the future ticket holders, that the ultimate team sport is similar to many other places in life–where it is every man for himself.
And that’s why I am so mad and sad today.