On Wednesday, Kyle Clifford practised with the Maple Leafs. His sons, Brody, 5, Ryker, 3, and Cooper, 1, joined him.
When he wasn’t taking part in drills, Clifford passed a puck to the boys, each of whom wore matching blue-and-white jerseys with their dad’s name across the back. Even in his gear, Cooper is less than knee-high.
Two weeks earlier, Clifford was traded to Toronto by the Los Angeles Kings, for whom he played eight years. His family travelled from California the next day and arrived in time for his first game as a Maple Leaf at Scotiabank Arena. Afterward, his wife Paige waited in a hallway outside the dressing room. Their sons waited with her, clutching pictures they had coloured for him.
“Obviously getting the kids out here the day after the trade was a challenge because it was a quick turnaround,” Clifford says. “My wife did an amazing job. She is a rock star.”
To be traded is one of the most unsettling circumstances in sports.
At times, trades upset the athlete involved and anger fans. There is a cascading effect, especially when a player is older and married.
Clifford is 29, and self-aware.
“I’m definitely past the halfway point of my career,” the left winger says. “You only have so many chances to compete for a Stanley Cup. Paige and I want to be here. She is on board with what I want in my life and my career.
“When I was traded it caught me off guard. I had invested a lot of time and effort into [the Kings] organization. But I guess if Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anybody can.”
For the time being, he and his wife and children are living in a hotel room.
“I knew if I was traded, my wife and boys would be with me and I would be all right,” Clifford says. “It is a commitment on all of our parts as a family.”
Monday is trade deadline day in the NHL. For that, it is the busiest day of the season. It is the last time a team can acquire players and still have them be eligible for the playoffs. All deals must be completed by 3 p.m. Eastern.
Already, a handful of deals have been made. Alec Martinez, possibly the best defenceman available, was shipped on Thursday from Los Angeles to the Vegas Golden Knights. The Kings, who are rebuilding, are having an open house. Earlier in the week, they sent right winger Tyler Toffoli to the Vancouver Canucks.
One player, Marco Scandella, has been traded twice in six weeks: first, from Buffalo to Montreal, then from Montreal to St. Louis. He barely had an opportunity to unpack before he had another new address.
The Maple Leafs dipped their toes in the waters this week. In more of a tinker than a significant development, they brought in the unheralded forward Denis Malgin from the Florida Panthers. Before that, they plugged holes by summoning Clifford and goaltender Jack Campbell.
The former is a family man and doting dad who earns his keep with clenched fists. The latter is a more reliable stand-in for starting goalie Frederik Andersen.
Over the next few days, possibly dozens of players will change teams. While always talked about, a blockbuster exchange is unlikely. The most coveted player on the market, Taylor Hall, was purloined in December by Arizona from New Jersey.
He is a talented scorer, but it is still to be seen if the Coyotes will reap a reward. Hall’s contract expires following this season – after which he could sign elsewhere. Meanwhile, the team is suddenly sputtering.
Trades are a tricky business and can make or break a season. There are many factors to consider: the size and length of a contract of the player of interest; if he is about to become a free agent; is it worth bringing him in for a short-term rental; and, how much money a team has at its disposal.
The maximum any organization can spend on salaries this season is US$81.5-million. Creative accounting and juggling are assets wielded by well-heeled teams.
In Toronto, Clifford filled a need the Maple Leafs had for a guy with a nasty streak, which its roster was lacking. His role seems incongruous with the fellow who shags pucks with his little boys during practice with his teammates.
But that is the way athletes, including hockey players, are. They can be enigmas.
“I want to get them on the ice as best as I can,” Clifford says as he unties their skates in front of his dressing stall. “They want to be a part of this, and we have to get them out of the hotel as much as possible. They are not in school yet.”
Brody, the five-year-old, dashes around with his hockey stick as his father talks. Then he returns, eyes wide.
“Daddy,” he whispers, “You are only four [stalls] away from Auston Matthews!”
Spezza has seen the upheaval of trades
In 16-plus seasons in the NHL, Jason Spezza has had 62 teammates traded.
“It can be really difficult,” says the Maple Leafs centre, 36. Toronto is his third team.
“In terms of the emotional side, it varies depending on where you are in your career. Early on, I was happy to see guys moved because I knew it would give someone younger a chance. Later, I found it changed our locker room.
“So there are different levels of feeling at different times.”
Spezza played for the Ottawa Senators from 2002 to 2014 and for the Dallas Stars, to whom he was traded during the off-season, from 2014 to 2019. Last summer, he signed as a free agent with Toronto to play in his hometown.
Over the years, he has been a witness to trades that involved many high-profile teammates, including Mike Fisher, Sergei Gonchar, Dany Heatley, Martin Havlat, Marian Hossa, Alexei Kovalev and Bryan Smolinski.
He remembers feeling troubled when six teammates were dispatched from Ottawa in 2011 around the trade deadline. Fisher and Kovalev were among them.
“You expect trades to happen, but it is never easy,” Spezza says. “That year in particular, it made me feel like we had failed as a group and had let people down.”
In 2014, even though he asked the Senators to trade him, he still wrestled with his emotions.
“You hem and you haw,” Spezza says. “Ottawa was a place where I had been...for 12 years. I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I would never say there wasn’t any angst.”
Spezza said the off-season move to Toronto, while welcome, was the most challenging for him and his wife, Jennifer. They have daughters ages 4, 6, 8 and 10.
“Probably this move was the most complicated,” Spezza says. “I was coming home, but the girls are school-aged now and they had a life and friends in Dallas.”
Jason Zucker was traded from Minnesota to Pittsburgh on Feb. 10. The 28-year-old had played 456 games for the Wild since making his NHL debut in 2012. He is the first and only Nevada-raised player in NHL history.
“There were rumours going around but I didn’t really know if a trade was coming,” Zucker says. “It was hectic for sure.”
He and his wife, Carly Aplin, a sports TV and radio host, have three children between them. Their oldest is in fourth grade.
“It was bittersweet when I heard,” Zucker says. “I was excited for an opportunity to come to an organization that has a chance to make the playoffs, but Minnesota has been my home for eight years.”
Zucker and his wife woke up their eldest daughter to tell her he had been traded.
“Typically, I bring her to school so I wanted to explain everything,” he says.
He said it was always difficult to watch teammates leave after they were traded.
Jared McCann, a Penguins centre, is 23 and has been traded twice. A year ago, he and teammate Nick Bjugstad were acquired from Florida a few weeks before the deadline.
“I had no idea at all anything was going to happen,” McCann says.
He had gone to a morning skate in Sunrise, Fla., went home and was napping when Bjugstad called. “Do you want me to get your stuff and bring it from the rink?” Bjugstad asked, startling him. Until then, McCann had not heard the news.
Previously, he was traded from Vancouver to Florida.
“It is difficult,” he said. “A lot of things go through your mind. You wonder, ‘What did I do wrong?’ and ‘Why did they do that to me?’ ”
Gretzky’s trade was the biggest of them all
The most seismic trade in hockey history, and perhaps in all sports, occurred on Aug. 9, 1988, when Wayne Gretzky and two Edmonton teammates were sent to Los Angeles for two players, three first-round draft picks and US$15-million.
The thought that Gretzky, arguably the most revered player in NHL history, was being sent to a U.S. team so appalled Canadians that an attempt was made in Parliament to derail the agreement.
“Everyone in Edmonton wanted to hang me,” Peter Pocklington, the Oilers owner at the time, said this week by telephone from his home in California. He is 78. “I’m sure they’ll put, ‘You ass, you traded the Great One’ on my tombstone.’ ”
Pocklington says that, like other Canadian NHL teams, the Oilers were badly hurt by a soft Canadian dollar. (All NHL players are paid in U.S. currency). He also said the team’s television contract was very minimal and that, in such a market, there was only so much he could charge for tickets.
He knew he would no longer be able to afford Gretzky when his contract expired.
“There was a lot of pressure to do what I did,” Pocklington says. “You don’t create wealth out of the air. I had no choice. It took me six weeks to come to terms with my emotions. It took me that long to come to grips with the fact that I had to do it. I was his biggest fan. I loved the guy.”
Gretzky cried during the news conference in Edmonton where his trade was revealed.
“The one thing I regret is that when he shed a tear, I should have gone over and put my arm around him and said, ‘Wayne, it’s off. Never mind.’ ”
Kevin Lowe, the the vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, was one of Gretzky’s teammates at the time. He won four Stanley Cups with Gretzky, and two others.
When Gretzky was traded, Lowe was on a golf course in Newfoundland playing in a charity tournament run by Bob Cole. He was playing in a foursome with Marty McSorley, who also got shipped to Los Angeles in the same deal.
“He got called to the clubhouse for a phone call and never came back,” Lowe says.
While shocked, he says he did not feel angry or emotional.
“I always subscribed to the theory that hockey is a business and I guess that cemented the theory for me,” he says. “But there were guys that really took it hard on the team to the point that it affected their performance.”
It’s not personal, it’s strictly business
The emotional wreckage that occurs when a player is traded cannot be underestimated.
Ray Ferraro, who accumulated nearly 900 points while playing for six teams over 21 seasons, gets riled up when he talks about trades.
He was traded at the deadline three times. The one that stung the most happened on March 14, 1996, when the Kings acquired him from the New York Rangers for McSorley and Jari Kurri.
“I had just signed a contract extension the previous July,” Ferraro, 55, says. He is currently a broadcaster for TSN and NBCSN. “I was not happy to go to a team that was completely rebuilding. The whole thing didn’t sit well with me.”
Ferraro was at home when Colin Campbell, the Rangers coach, called him and told him he was headed for a new team. The next morning, he was on a plane headed for Los Angeles.
“People say it is part of the business, but until it happens to you, you don’t understand,” Ferraro says. “It stinks.”
In his final season, he was traded from Atlanta to St. Louis, and he appreciated it. The Thrashers were headed nowhere and the Blues were on their way to the playoffs.
Traded during a game, he called St. Louis general manager Larry Pleau immediately afterward.
“He told me, ‘We need you in the lineup tomorrow,’ ” Ferraro says. “I asked if I could at least wait to travel until after I saw my kids the next morning before they headed to school. I left and was gone for six weeks until the end of the season.”
Even though the circumstances were better, it was still a difficult transition for him.
“I got to St. Louis and didn’t really know anybody,” he says. “It is a strange part of a hockey player’s existence. You walk into the dressing room and don’t know anything about most of the guys or how the dynamics work, and then you try to assimilate into a team dynamic you know nothing about.
“And hockey is the easy part. The game is the game. But when it comes to your life, nothing is the same. You live in a hotel room, your family isn’t there, your teammates don’t know you and the games are super important.
“That is your life.”
‘Everything in your life changes’
In the biggest trade the Maple Leafs have made in years, they sent Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh for three players and a draft pick on Canada Day in 2016.
One of the most significant players they have acquired recently was Jake Muzzin, a defenceman they landed from the Kings with a few days left in January last year.
He had spent parts of eight seasons with Los Angeles and won a Stanley Cup there in 2014.
“It’s hard emotionally,” Muzzin says. “What I felt at the time was that I had given everything I had to the team and organization. It shows you how quickly hockey is a business.” He and his wife Courtney arrived in Toronto with 20 suitcases, and lived in a hotel suite with three dogs, including a 120-pound St. Bernard named Daryl. Courtney was 7½ months pregnant.
“My wife suddenly had to meet new doctors and get comfortable with them,” he says. “There was a lot of uncertainty. We didn’t have a house for our child. I didn’t have a winter coat and had to get one. When they told me I was traded, I asked, ‘Are you kidding me?’
“You feel a little angry. It’s not that you are getting traded from one team to another. It is much bigger than that. Everything in your life changes.”