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NHL Trade Rumors: A Fantasy Game
Iginla for Nedved? Nolan for Tucker? Dish up any NHL trade rumor you like. Somebody is waiting to believe it.
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"I'll tell you what's wrong with the Rangers. It is the KIND of superstars they acquire. All of them, ALL OF THEM, have never been dominant NHL players, that rise to the occasion in the playoffs, contribute defensively, and most importantly, play the system. "
CLEGOUT

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"Are the Flyers trading Roman Cechmanek and Simon Gagne? I overheard my friends talking about this, but I didn't believe it was true."
- email from Andrew, December, 2002.

NHL trade rumors, eh? Fans love 'em. It's fun to mix and match the names, dream of alluring possibilities and combinations. It's especially fun if your team is short on scoring, thin on defense or leaning on a goalie with a bad case of the yips. Just about every lineup answers to one of those charges. In a 30-team league where the line dividing contender and also-ran appears thinner than ever, the NHL trade rumor becomes all the more irresistible.

Beat writers remain primary sources of gossip, guesswork, disinformation and the strategic leak. But in a vast, expanding sports media wasteland, the tall tales flourish like never before. Phone-in shows, panel discussions, postgame updates, "insider" reports, chat rooms and message boards percolate across the continent, desperate for anything new.

What all the talking heads and well-connected columnists cannot do, however, is answer Andrew's question. At the time of his email, Gagne was hurt and Cechmanek was supposed to be Philadelphia's playoff goaltender. As it turned out, neither of them went anywhere until the end of the season, when Cechmanek was dumped (he was out of the league by 2004).

"Sportsnet has learned that a deal between the New York Islanders and the Boston Bruins involving unsigned restricted defenceman Kyle McLaren is imminent."
- Lead story at Sportsnet.ca, January 9/03.

Of course, no such trade ever happened (McLaren landed in San Jose two weeks later). When it turned out the deal wasn't so imminent after all, the story disappeared and Sportsnet's TV experts weaseled their way out of it with a good deal of muttering and harrumphing: "Yes, well, these things are very complex. Ah, delicate business, you see, quite delicate. Financial and contractual issues, you understand. Hak-kaff."

For most of us, imminent means, "about to happen." But the slippery lingo of sports reporting is much harder to pin down. In the shady world of NHL trade rumors, a world of "sources say" and "insiders believe" and "there are reports that," even the unqualified statement is dubious.

"The mere fact it is in Larry Brooks' column renders it suspect."
- Veteran NHL executive Brian Burke, responding to a rumor reported by Brooks in the New York Post.

It's safe to assume that few trade rumors have any grounding in reality. And even fewer ever get to serious discussions. And of those, how many result in completed trades?

If media outlets were a little more discriminating, the NHL trade rumor racket would be a little more helpful. But they don't hold back, whipping up a blinding storm of chitchat, nonsense, flimsy deductions and "imminent" deals. Larry Brooks is one of many hockey reporters who seem willing to print just about anything.

"Sometimes getting nothing in return for a player is better than getting something."
- Eric Duhatschek, Globeandmail.com.

The media has done a good job of exposing the machinations behind NHL flesh trading, making most of the current rules common knowledge:

  • Teams aren't just trading players. They are trading contracts. This was always the case, but many trade rumor junkies didn't pay much heed to the financial implications of trading until 2005, when the salary cap era began.
  • In some cases, a team is happy if someone will simply take an expensive underachiever off its hands, no matter what the return.
  • If a player's contract is up and the team is tanking, he is a good candidate to be dealt at the trading deadline. This is especially true if he is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. For the team acquiring such a player there is the added bonus that the bulk of his wages for the season have already been paid.
But while these guidelines may be helpful, they also encourage the fabrication and supposition at the heart of most NHL trade rumors.

"What's the media supposed to talk about? People want to read about this stuff. If I was selling papers, I'd do the same thing."
- Jaromir Jagr, before bening traded by the Washington Capitals

Jagr is right, of course, which is why there is little to be gained from criticizing Sportsnet, Larry Brooks or anyone else for running hopelessly inaccurate trade rumors. Accuracy isn't the point and the journalistic standards so many reporters like to drone on about do not apply. NHL trade rumors sell, ergo NHL trade rumors are good. That's about as deep as it gets in the newsroom.

For the fans, it's all about hope. Given that teams are plentiful and championships scarce, most sports fans have to live for the future. What might be is often far more attractive than what is. No wonder NHL trade rumors - the more outrageous the better - exert such a grip on the hockey fan's imagination.

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