TORONTO – David Steckel thought he was in the clear.
A busy NHL trade deadline came and went last season without his name being mentioned in the wall-to-wall TV coverage. He figured he was staying put in Washington.
And then the phone rang.
“It was a complete surprise for me,” said Steckel, now a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I didn’t find out until like 3:30 and the trade deadline ended at 3, so obviously it was a last-minute deal. When I got the call from my agent, I thought ‘Hey, I didn’t get traded.’
“And then he’s like ‘Actually, you did.”‘
The transaction didn’t stand out among the 16 made that day: Steckel to the New Jersey Devils along with a second-round draft pick for Jason Arnott.
But the move had an impact on a personal level. His wife, Diondra, was pregnant at the time—they’ve since become parents of a baby girl—and suddenly he faced an uncertain future away from the only NHL team he’d ever suited up for.
It’s hardly an atypical situation among players around the NHL, which is why so many will be anxious in the days leading up to Monday’s trade deadline.
“Obviously, if you’re a control freak it’s probably going to be a little tougher than if you were just going to go with the flow,” said Steckel.
Behind closed doors, players follow the action as closely as fans. The majority will keep an eye on the coverage and a growing number will also be following along on Twitter.
“I like to watch,” said Calgary Flames forward Tim Jackman. “It’s always fun to see what teams are doing, how they’re trying to improve and where everyone is in the standings and the way that we’ve been playing. It’s fun to watch.”
The focus on the trade deadline has reached new levels since the lockout. The introduction of the salary cap made it more difficult for general managers to complete moves at other times during the season—centralizing most of the activity in the period leading into the deadline.
In many cities, trade speculation began in early January, a good six weeks before significant moves were made. Teams were labelled either buyers or sellers, only to have those labels revised following winning streaks or losing skids.
“I think at times it can be too much,” said veteran Habs defenceman Chris Campoli, among those hearing his name mentioned in rumours.
A year ago, Campoli was a member of the Ottawa Senators heading into the deadline. By the end of the day, he’d been dealt to Chicago—a move he first heard about while watching television.
“In any other business you wouldn’t see anyone being notified in that way,” said Campoli. “But that’s the nature of the beast and I guess it comes along with the territory. You have to accept that part of the game and I think after going through it a few years now you really do realize that it’s a business.”
That has already become painfully clear in Columbus.
The last-place Blue Jackets are in the opening phase of a massive rebuild that started with Antoine Vermette getting dealt to Phoenix and Jeff Carter to Los Angeles earlier this week. Captain Rick Nash could also be gone before Monday’s deadline.
It’s had a massive impact on those left behind in the locker-room.
“We’re all upset about it here and we know a lot of changes are going to happen,” said winger R.J. Umberger. “The mood with that is uneasy.”
At the other end of the scale, the deadline can come with a shot of adrenalin.
Edmonton Oilers forward Shawn Horcoff fondly recalls March 2006, when former GM Kevin Lowe made a series of moves that helped the team go on a run to the Stanley Cup final. Deadline day proved to be a turning point in that season.
“We got (Sergei Samsonov) and (Dwayne Roloson) and we got (Jaroslav) Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom just before that,” said Horcoff. “I just remember thinking, ‘Man, this is going to put us close.’ I remember being really excited about that.”
But nervousness is a much more common feeling at this time of year. That leaves a number of players currently trying to block out the many distractions at their disposal.
“If you start paying attention to everything that’s written on the Internet and said in the media, it’s going to make you crazy,” said Winnipeg Jets defenceman Mark Stuart.
The one positive about the deadline? All of the speculation gets put to bed once it passes. At least until next year.
With files from Laurence Heinen in Calgary, Sean Farrell in Montreal, David DiCenzo in Columbus, Robin Brownlee in Edmonton and Scott Edmonds in Winnipeg.