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The Canadian Conundrum


When Dion Phaneuf was traded earlier this month, I was surprised.

Not that Ottawa got him, nor that Toronto moved him. What surprised me was the fact that Phaneuf had placed Ottawa—a Canadian team—on his list of destinations to which he would sanction a trade.
I’m willing to bet that two thirds of the NHL players with no-trade or no-movement clauses in their contracts do not list Canadian teams on their roll of approved trade locations. This is a huge problem for teams in Canada trying to build a winner.
There are three routes to a rebuild: draft, free agency and trades. In the current collective bargaining agreement, for all its owner-friendly elements, players control two of the three. I’m happy for the players—they ought to be paid equal or more salary than whatever the next best offer for their services would be. That, and the ability to sell tickets, would establish their market value.
But the players did not stay in the fight for those rights in their 2005 CBA negotiating loss to management, and so their last levers of control are the rights to push for no-trade and no-movement clauses or to use free agency at some point in their career to control where they play—and that’s a major stumbling block for the Canadian franchises.
You look around now, and every Canadian coach is either on the hot seat or well down in the standings. Mike Babcock, reigning Jack Adams winner Bob Hartley, Michel Therrien (who would have been everyone’s coach-of-the-year front-runner two months ago); they all look rather inept.
Mike Richards
It’s not the coaches. I watched Los Angeles at Washington the other night with former Kings Mike Richards and Justin Williams in Capitals colours—both free agent signings—and thought about L.A. and the players they’ve netted in trades, such as Jeff Carter, Milan Lucic and Marian Gaborik. I just so admired the lineups and cannot wait to watch the post-season, but I realized how tough it would be for the Canadian teams to access similar players.
The Chicago Blackhawks have overhauled their roster repeatedly, because players are willing to go there. Each time they run up against the cap and dismantle a champion in Chicago, somebody else benefits—and it is usually an American team. Dallas plucked Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya from them last off-season.
Why do players select U.S. destinations? Weather (for the family left at home while the player goes to work) and taxes are two pretty obvious reasons. More importantly, the players know their chances of winning are greater in American cities simply for the reason stated: that most good players—the ones with enough leverage in contract negotiations to insist on no-trade or no-movement clauses—will have excluded Canada from their list of desired destinations.
The biggest reason players do not wish to play in Canada is that, as Jean Beliveau once said, “The hardest part of being a professional hockey player is to not think about the game.”  
Players in Montreal hear morning, noon and night that without Carey Price there is no hope. They hear it’s P.K. Subban’s fault, or Max Pacioretty’s. And even if they ignore the chatter, they see the pressure of their job in the faces of everyone looking back at them.
The game is inescapable in Canada. The chance to go golfing, to find a quiet section of the city where the customers in the cafes couldn’t care less, to scan a horizon not filled with mirrors of your supposed meaning; these opportunities do not exist in our hockey-loving culture.
I recall Patrice Bergeron, who wears defeat like a cloak of anvils, on the day of Game 7 of Boston at Vancouver in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final. We showed Patrice standing in the sun that afternoon out by the Pan Pacific overlooking Coal Harbour, taking a moment to relax. Teammates Zdeno Chara and Andrew Ference were over on Denman Street eating sushi. Craig Simpson, Jamie Sale and I were strolling through Stanley Park.
Think the Sedin twins or Roberto Luongo had that chance? And even if Game 7 was played on the road, as Calgary and Edmonton discovered in in 2004 and 2006 respectively, the rapture of the national expectation at once fuels and smothers you.
It would be nice, through the nine weeks of playoffs, to have the refuge of anonymity.
So, great players will get drafted to Canadian teams, and the those players not in possession of no-trade or no-movement clauses will get shipped to Canada. But for the most part, two of the three primary building blocks of a winner—free agency and trades—will favour the U.S.-based teams.
The new deal is the cause of a great depression in Canada, but this is our little war. And, thankfully, there is still that draft.