But for people in the City of Champions, who watched their beloved Edmonton Oilers fall one game short of the Stanley Cup last spring, shock was the only thing they were feeling Tuesday after finding out the face of the franchise was being shipped out of town.
Ryan Smyth is leaving the only NHL team he’s ever played for after being traded to the New York Islanders for a first-round draft pick in 2007 and prospects Robert Nilsson and Ryan O’Marra.
What once seemed unimaginable for all involved became reality just before the NHL’s trade deadline passed.
“It was probably the most difficult phone call I’ve ever had to make,” Oilers GM Kevin Lowe said of telling Smyth he’d been traded. “In fact, I know it is.
“I used to think that there wasn’t many people that cared more for the game than me but I know one for sure that does. He was shocked. I think we’re all a little stunned.”
Contract talks between Lowe and Smyth’s agent Don Meehan were held right up until 20 minutes before the deadline. When a deal to keep the pending unrestricted free agent in Edmonton couldn’t be reached, Lowe decided to deal his best player for some assets rather than potentially lose him for nothing in the summer.
Even though the deal might make business sense, it’s going to be a tough sell for the people who fill Rexall Place every night.
“I know it’s not a popular move, but in the same breath, this is not a popularity contest,” said Lowe. “This is trying to win Stanley Cups. And I’m not saying that Ryan Smyth can’t play on a Stanley Cup team . . .
“But we’re trying to put all the pieces together to try to win the Stanley Cup. Sometimes you have to take some different routes than people would anticipate.”
Smyth has always been a player worth more than the numbers he puts up on the stat sheet, an aggressive winger who gave his all and was adored by the Oilers faithful. He was also in the midst of a career year, having scored 31 goals and 53 points in 53 games.
The 31-year-old is making US$3.5 million this season and was seeking a long-term deal worth over $5 million a season. While he had repeatedly expressed his desire to stay in Edmonton, Smyth had also said he wasn’t going to give the Oilers a hometown discount.
Even still, there weren’t many people who saw this coming.
“It’s shocking,” said Oilers captain Jason Smith. “Being a teammate of Ryan’s for numerous years and knowing what a great competitor he is, obviously that is someone you don’t want to see leave your team.”
Added defenceman Steve Staios: “I kind of kidded with Smitty a little bit about it as teammates do but I never expected it to happen. It’s pretty shocking. It’s tough to lose a teammate you have had for that long and that has meant that much to our team.”
Smyth didn’t have the look of a player that was about to be dealt during the pre-game skate at Rexall Place on Tuesday morning.
He had a smile on his face while going through drills and joked around with his teammates. While taking off his equipment afterwards in the dressing room, he carefully examined a white board outlining the schedule for Mark Messier’s number retirement ceremony later in the evening. It was an event he wouldn’t attend.
Even though he didn’t see the trade coming, Smyth had tried to be realistic about the situation in recent days, noting that popular players like Messier and Wayne Gretzky had been dealt away from the Oilers in the past.
“Anybody can get traded,” he said.
It is arguably the biggest deal the Oilers have made since sending Messier to the New York Rangers in 1991. While they have unloaded players like Doug Weight, Bill Guerin and Jason Arnott since, none of those guys were as beloved in Edmonton as Smyth.
“This has got to be one of the hardest decisions the franchise has ever made but the reality is, as Kevin will tell you, the hockey team is more important than any individual player,” said Gretzky, now the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. “Time heals a lot of wounds and hopefully that will happen here.”
An Alberta boy from Banff, Smyth was drafted sixth overall by the Oilers in 1994 and had spent his entire career with the team. He scored 265 goals and 549 points in 770 games with Edmonton.
Smyth also won a gold medal for Canada at the 2002 Olympics and appeared in seven IIHF world championships, winning gold in 2003 and 2004. There aren’t many players anywhere with that type of resume.
“I think Ryan offers a lot to a franchise,” said Meehan, his agent. “I think he offers a great deal to any competitive team within the league.”
The Oilers have had a disappointing season, especially after last year’s run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup.
They entered Tuesday’s play nine points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference and were hoping that a hot run to the end of the year would get them there. That seems unlikely now.
“(Dealing Smyth) gives the perception we are in a rebuilding mode,” said Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff. “As a player that is always frustrating. You never want to be in that situation, you only have so many years in the league.
“When you go to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup playoffs the year before it is hard to swallow that you are now in a rebuilding mode the following year. But we put ourselves in this situation and we’re going to have to live with it.”
Lowe doesn’t anticipate that rebuilding stage to last long.
He will have plenty of cap space available this summer to try and lure free agents and intends to do just that. He might even try and bring Smyth back, although that was a topic he couldn’t comment on.
Nilsson was a first-round draft pick of the Islanders in 2003 and had been playing for their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport. O’Marra, who won gold with the Canadian world junior teams the past two years, was a first-rounder in 2005.
The Oilers will also have three first-round selections at this year’s draft in Columbus. But that June day feels an awful long way away, especially because it’s pretty clear the Oilers won’t be playing hockey right up until then for a second straight spring.
“We’re not a better team today with Ryan gone, no question,” said Lowe. “But in the very near future we’ll be a better team.”