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The Player: For NHLers, trade deadline is nothing but stress, tension and awkward goodbyes

The Player
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(The Player is an active member of a National Hockey League team. Anonymous by choice, he will provide insights about life in hockey on occasion throughout the season.)

Monday, Feb. 27 is the National Hockey League's trade deadline, and it promises to be as bizarre as ever. Players around the league will be at once glued to their phones monitoring the activity, and completely scared to answer them. The 'ticker' will rule supreme.

As far as I can tell, the 'deadline' has become something unique to the NHL. In no other sport do we see such a volume of transactions in such a short time during the regular season.  The anticipation and speculation start weeks, even months, ahead of time. The TSN analysts have to report to hair and makeup extra early, so they can devote a whole day to working their cell phones on set.

Most teams fall clearly into one of two categories heading into deadline day: sellers and buyers. For the most part everyone can see the writing on the wall, and the players know where they stand.

If you play for a team that's clearly out of the playoff race by the time the trade deadline comes around — particularly if your team is re-building — your GM might be looking to sell. In simple terms, that means he's looking to stockpile younger (re: cheaper) NHL players, prospects and draft picks.

So if you happen to be old, if you could be considered overpaid; or if you are a pending unrestricted free agent, you might want to keep a suitcase packed by the door.

It's in these instances that management identifies who they believe are its core players, and everyone else becomes expendable — and available, for the right price. In the case of a pending UFA whom the team has decided they will not attempt to re-sign, any return is better than nothing, because that's what you get after July 1st.

I have personally been in this situation a few times in my career.

In one case I was playing for a really good, young team, which everyone believed was close to becoming a contender. We had a few older guys who clearly weren't in the team's long term plans. Some genius had scheduled practice for us at mid-day on the deadline, so we were on the ice while all the last-minute deals were being worked out.

About halfway through practice one of the equipment managers opened the gate and called two players off the ice. By the time the rest of us finished skating and got to the dressing room, they were gone. The whole thing was so matter-of-fact. Both of them knew it might be coming and neither of them seemed to break stride on their way out the door.

Other tales cover the spectrum from the bizarre to the heartbreaking. I have one friend who was playing for an Eastern Conference team that was traveling on a road trip in Western Canada. His team was at the rink getting ready for practice as the deadline was about to pass. TSN was playing in the dressing room when it came across the ticker that my buddy had been traded. Not knowing what to do, he stopped getting dressed and went to go the see the coach.

The coach seemed puzzled to see him in his office. He asked him what was up and the coach had no idea what he was talking about. Obviously some phone calls needed to be made. After some tense (and awkward) minutes it was confirmed that yes, he had been traded.

Thanks for everything. Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

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Another year, there was a team near the bottom of the League standings, which meant that pretty much anything was possible with regard to the trade deadline that year. One of their guys was no longer "young," and was running out of chances in the NHL. During practice on deadline day, he ran into a teammate and hurt his arm. It was sore, but didn't seem overly concerned.

After he left the ice the GM told him he had been traded to a contender. It was a team that had a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs. It would be a great opportunity for him to possibly revive his career. But the new team was concerned about his arm, though.

How badly was he hurt? He went straight for X-rays and they showed a break.

The trade was quashed. He never really got another chance and his NHL career was effectively over.

The trade deadline on a buyer is a completely different experience. Clubs that are buyers might be willing to trade young, up-and-coming talent for older, more experienced players in the hope of winning it all. Just as the League's sellers are looking to stockpile prospects and draft picks, the buyers will use those commodities to deepen their roster or add a missing piece. Pending UFAs are held on to if it is believed they can help the cause.

This scenario can be very stressful for the guys on the teams looking to add at the deadline. The prospect of adding a player or two that might help you win the Cup is exciting — as long as you're not the one going the other way. Ideally for the guys in the room, it's prospects and draft picks heading out the door, but it's not uncommon for the sellers to use their leverage to take roster players in return for what they're offering.

I would say this is a player's biggest fear heading into the deadline.

Imagine that you have come up in an organization and grown into a role where you are a regular contributor for your team. You love the city that you are in, and you love your teammates. As a group, you've worked hard to put yourself in a position where this year might be "the" year. You couldn't be more invested in YOUR team and now you have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup.

At noon on deadline day, you get a call from your GM telling you that you've been traded away in exchange for what he hopes is the "missing piece."

Devastating? I can't imagine. How would you feel if your ex-team then went on to win it all? It happens. In fact it happens almost every year. Just ask Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart.

One season, I was fortunate enough to be playing on a really good team heading into the trade deadline. Everybody knew that were going to be active and there were rumors we were targeting a forward out of the other conference — a big name. I was just getting ready to walk out of my apartment and head to the airport when it came across the ticker that we had indeed landed this guy.

The words crawled along the bottom of the screen: "Team X acquires Player Y in exchange for …two players to be named later."

"Please not me," I thought.

Just then my phone rang, and I almost had a heart attack.

With one eye closed I gently peeked at the caller ID.

My Mom.

I was both relieved and furious at the same time. How can you be calling me right now?! Luckily for me, I wasn't the one headed out the door that day.

However, a few good friends weren't so fortunate.

As next Monday's deadline gets closer and closer, the tension will mount. The sellers will take their time, trying to drive the prices up and squeeze what they can out of their precious commodities.

For some buyers, the prices will get too high, and ultimately they will choose not to trade away their team's future for a chance at winning in the present. Others, though, will decide it is a gamble worth taking.

In the end, the gamble will only pay for off for one team, as it does every year.

Previously by The Player

Why NHL players rejected realignment, and why the backlash was worth it
Mandatory visors and politics of NHL player safety
Can we trust NHL, Shanahan's judgment on hits?

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