A Different Take


    Somewhat understandably, a great number of people will be upset with what ended up unfolding (or not unfolding) as Trade Deadline Day progressed, in particular with regard to Tomas Kaberle.

    A new twist in the latest “will he or won’t he” saga involving a star player for the Toronto Maple Leafs kickstarted a ravenous day of trade rumours, one which ended disappointingly for all those who dared to believe that a King’s ransom was just around the corner.

    However, things are never quite so simple as they first seem.  And where some are seething with rage, others are basking in the glow of a new-found respect for the class displayed today, for all of us to see, by both the player and the general manager in the face of the onslaught which predictably ensued.

    Many would argue that things weren’t supposed to go the way they did today.  For fans of the Maple Leafs, the day started out with a rather peculiar statement from Kaberle’s agent, Rick Curran, that the player was willing to consider waiving his No-Trade Clause if the right offer came along.  In retrospect, perhaps it would have been better – at least in terms of the volume of venomous commentary in the day’s aftermath – that the agent had said nothing at all.  But, perhaps no amount of cloak-and-dagger would have prevented word of such a momentous change in Kaberle’s stance from escaping. These things have a way of leaking out on their own anyway, I suppose.

    A few hours later, Kaberle himself was quoted reiterating the claims made earlier by his agent.  Word began to circulate of an arrangement with GM Brian Burke, whereby if an offer came in from one of Kaberle’s preferred teams Burke would alert Kaberle to consider the deal. With fresh fuel poured onto the fire, rumours naturally began to arise, with names first mentioned as possibilities becoming realities in the minds of many, through the power of sheer repetition.  If something is said enough times, over and over, does it not begin to seem like it must be more truthful?

    (That was the basic modus operandi of the entire Bush administration – and he made it through two full terms!)

    At the end of the day Kaberle remained a Leaf, and accordingly the rumour mill went into overdrive, switching from possible trade packages and teams to the reasoning behind why a trade never did materialize.  Two camps emerged among sources at this point: those who suggested Kaberle declined to waive his NTC, and those suggesting that a deal simply couldn’t be worked out in the first place.  Both remain firm in their stance at the time of this writing.

    The “Kaberle did it again” camp was adamant that a deal had been worked out with a particular team, and when the Leafs approached Kaberle about it, he decided he did not want to waive his NTC.  Which was fully within his rights. After all, Kaberle did not at any point say he would actually waive his NTC or approve a trade; he simply said he would consider the option. At the point where trade talk was declared finished, this scenario was the prevailing version of events among many sources – and the natural assumption of many fans.

    Shortly thereafter, some sources began to claim that Kaberle was in fact not approached by the Leafs at any point, and that a deal just simply couldn’t be consummated with any of teams he was willing to consider.  Whether that was a matter of the asking price being too high, or teams not wanting to part with a specific player or pick, or simply the target teams deciding to back away from discussions about Kaberle altogether, we may never know.  But as cooler heads began to prevail, this particular version of events began to overtake the former in the minds of many.

    Burke, in his press conference at day’s end, suggested as much in his telling of the day’s events.  At the time, I wondered if perhaps he was protecting his player (I won’t deny that I was firmly in the first camp, based on information I was receiving).  But the more I thought about about it, the more I began to question and the more I wondered if we – if I – had simply got it wrong.  Indeed, perhaps there is more to what Burke was saying than our own inner cynics may want to allow us to believe.

    What is the point of this re-reading of the days events, you may be asking? I’m getting to that.

    For much of the season, we have heard Burke reiterate his stance on players with NTCs in their contracts. For an even longer period of time, we have heard Tomas Kaberle reiterate his stance on wanting to remain in Toronto.  Most of us took these reports with a grain of salt, shrugging them off as “well, what else are they supposed to say in this situation? Hands are tied.”

    But today was different. Today presented an opportunity for Burke to shop Kaberle (albeit in a limited fashion) at the trade deadline, when his value ought to be highest.  If he really did want to move Kaberle to kickstart a rebuild, why hold out for a level of return which wasn’t in the offing if the teams were still offering the sort of return that could contribute to the rebuilding phase? Especially if the consensus on moving him later (e.g. at the draft) is that a deal at that time would yield far less in return?

    That got me thinking that perhaps it was a tad premature to jump on the “let’s blame Tomas” bandwagon. Naturally, it was easy to do given the situation, the hopes of Leafs‘ fans for a King’s ransom in return, and the previously-nixed Jeff Carter trade. The origins of the speculation were understandable, as was the degree of dismay among fans when nothing came of the rumours.  Understandable, but also, unfortunately it seems, incorrect.

    And perhaps, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which camp you or I were (or are) in, when it comes to this latest chapter of the Kaberle Saga.

    Consider the following.

    We were witness to something today that is rare, in this age, in the world of sports.  Honesty, loyalty, and words meaning something more than simply being the right quote to give at the time.  For those in the “Kaberle nixed it” camp, you saw a player give up a chance to join a contending team, and a chance at Stanley Cup, to remain in the city he has called home for his entire NHL career.  He was true to his word, every step of the way, and how many athletes can you truly say that for?  And for those in the “a deal was never made” camp, you witnessed a GM stand firmly by his principles, refusing to take less to make a deal happen and instead reaffirming his greater principles of loyalty to his players, of honoring their agreements, and of, quite simply, the importance of the greater good.

    It would have been easy for Kaberle to accept a trade and have a shot at winning the Stanley Cup.  But staying in Toronto, and being a part of building a winner here, was more important. Indeed, he hinted at as much in his own comments, suggesting that the reason he approached the team about three possible destinations was because they had been so fair to him, he felt he owed it to them to at least present the opportunity for Burke to try to make a deal.  A classy and loyal showing on the part of a player who had every right to simply say “no, I’m not going anywhere.” But he didn’t. How often does that happen?

    Similarly, it would have been easy for Burke to agree to lower his asking price for the sake of getting what (according to the rumours) would have still been a very good deal for his player.  But he did not do that. And those suggesting that Kaberle was not presented with an offer from one of his approved teams offer a simple reason why: it never got to that point to begin with.  Burke was loyal to his player; he pursued a deal with those teams, but at the end of the day nothing came to fruition.  During his press conference, he looked (and sounded) relieved that Kaberle – a player he did not want to move in the first place – was still a part of his team.

    You may not want to admit it now, and you may not wish to admit it tomorrow, but one day you will look back and realize that today we all watched something rare, something unique – something special – unfold.  Something that simply does not occur in the finance-focussed reality of a professional sports league.

    The script says the star player should be traded in this situation, regardless of whether he wants to stay.  The script says the GM of a losing team is supposed to build for the future.  But Kaberle was not traded, and during the press conference Burke hinted at talk of an extension to his contract.  In his view, honouring a commitment made to a player in good faith – regardless of who made the commitment – is perhaps the most important aspect of team-building.  Not the names on the roster, but the characters wearing the jerseys, and the human beings beneath.  It has been written on numerous occasions that Burke’s teams are like family to him, and he treats his players as such: witness the way he approached thanking Alexei Ponikarovsky for all his years of service as a prime example of who Brian Burke is and exactly what he is all about.

    And how many general managers fit that description, throughout the professional leagues of the major sports?  But that’s what makes Brian Burke, well, Brian Burke.

    No matter where you come out on what went down today – ultimately it doesn’t matter as the truth, as usual, likely lies somewhere in between – the bottom line is the Leafs still have in their possession one of the top offensive blueliners in the game in Tomas Kaberle.  You may not like the fact that he remains a Leaf, and that is your right.  However, I can guarantee you that every player in that organization has a new-found respect for his GM, and want to play for – and win for – the guy who does things the right way, who treats his players the right way.  In the profit-driven, results-oriented world of professional sports, one would imagine it to be near-impossible to place such things as loyalty and player commitment at the highest priority.  Yet Burke makes it seem easy.

    That’s something special, folks.  Enjoy it, because you won’t see much of it most anywhere else in the world of sports.

    Looking forward to your thoughts as always,

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