We sports fans are passionate about our teams. We’re also passionate about the players on our teams. We may never meet them face to face, but we care about them ( as in love them and sometimes hate them!) as if we know them personally.
But professional sports is a business. Owners of professional teams have to make business decisions that are best for the team overall. It’s tough to keep emotion out of it, but most businesses don’t run based on emotion and sports teams are no different.
This was made painfully obvious to me (and other Winnipeg Jets fans) recently when our captain Andrew Ladd was traded away.
The Jets have traded other players. In last season’s blockbuster trade, most fans were happy to see Evander Kane leave but sad about losing Zach Bogosian. But even then, I didn’t feel as devastated as I did when Ladd was traded.
It wasn’t a surprise. We’d known since the beginning of the season that Ladd was in the last year of his contract and would become an unrestricted free agent in July 2016. The media reported on talks happening between Ladd’s agent and True North Enterprises, what Ladd was looking for, whether it was in the Jets’ best interests to sign him up again sooner rather than later, with all kinds of pros and cons. They talked about the salary cap and the fact that Dustin Byfuglien was in the same position, and two Jets’ prospects are coming up to restricted free agency and will be looking for big raises. We don’t know much detail about how those talks went, other than no agreement was reached.
As the trading deadline neared, there was more talk, more speculation and more analysis. When the Jets made a deal with Byfuglien, it seemed less and less likely that they would also keep Andrew Ladd. But there were other trade rumours — about our backup goalie Michael Hutchinson after his stint down in the minors, about defenseman Jacob Trouba and Travis Hamonic’s request to be traded to a team nearer to Winnipeg, and others.
When you look at the analysis of Andrew Ladd, I completely understood why it was probably best for the team to trade him. He didn’t play great this season, possibly still recovering from the medical condition he dealt with last year. He’s 30 years old, and asking for a 6 year contract and $6.8 million. I read some extremely detailed analysis of Ladd’s play done by an actuary, comparing him to the team average and the league average in a multitude of categories, and overall, he’s an average player at best.
But there are intangible things, like the message it would send to the team to trade away their captain, their leader. There’s no question Andrew Ladd is a leader, both on and off the ice. He’s a great ambassador of the Jets and the NHL in the community, especially with the charity work he does. He’s well liked and respected by adults and children, men and women. Losing him would leave a big hole in the team.
Even though I knew with my head that trading him was probably the right thing to do, in my heart I wished we could keep him. I kept hoping that maybe there was still a small chance a deal would be done, that maybe there were other trades in the works that would then allow them to sign Ladd. But sadly, it was not to be.
Ladd said all the right things. He maintained he liked Winnipeg, liked the team, liked the people here and he wanted to stay for a long time. And I had the naive thought that if that was really the case, he would be willing to negotiate to make that happen.
It’s a business, folks, and not just for the teams but for the players. Yes, sometimes people make career decisions that aren’t based on money, such as deciding to stay in a lower paying job because it’s less stressful or more satisfying, or you love your boss. But it’s probably unrealistic to think that a pro hockey player is going to settle for less to stay in a small market on a team that’s not playing well and doesn’t have a hope of being a true playoff contender for several years.
And that’s probably why Ladd was asking for so much money and a long term deal– because he wanted to leave. True North made it clear what their long term strategy is last year by getting rid of seasoned players like Tlusty, Stempniak and Frolik (well we didn’t get rid of him, we lost him). They brought up young guys like Petan, Copp and brought back Burmistrov. These guys haven’t exactly delivered. Ladd certainly saw that his hopes of another cup or even another playoff run were dwindling. If he kept his demands high and True North met them, great–money in his pocket. But if they didn’t meet them–well, we know now that Chicago was at the top of Ladd’s list if he had to be traded, and he got just what he wanted.
So I’m really, really sad about him leaving, because I think he’s a good player and a great guy. He’s the only captain our Jets 2.0 has known. He made an impression when he flew up here on his own, right after True North bought the Thrashers, to check out the city, see about somewhere to live and then reported back to the rest of the team it was going to be great. He’s a classy professional. I also feel for the guys left behind, that their captain and leader is gone.
But wait…Ladd may be the only captain we fans have known, but how many of the Jets players have actually played with him the whole time they’ve been back in Winnipeg? Um…eight? Yep. With all those new players on the team, there are lots of guys who’ve only played with him a year. Or two. So…maybe it’s not such a big hole to fill.
The first game after the trade, we saw glimpses of the Jets’ future–Ehlers, Trouba, Scheiffele, and wow, Joel Armia who looked fantastic playing more minutes. We’ll see what this new Marko Dano does. We know Wheeler, more of a veteran, has the leadership skills to step into the captain role. I’m betting on young Scheiffele to wear an A next year. These young guys are getting their opportunity to play more minutes and show their own leadership.
So even though my heart hurt, I’m over it. It’s a business and this is all probably for the best for everyone.