“Getting over” Dany Heatley has an appropriately pathetic ring to it, if only because at the time of his trade request it certainly felt comparable to being dumped. One year into a six year, $45 million contract that was to make permanent one of the foundational pillers of Ottawa’s Cup Run team, he suddenly and with seemingly little provocation requested a trade. Trades can be amicable and professional (see Heatley’s trade from San Jose just a couple of seasons later), but the suddenness of it, coupled with the very public manner in which it unfolded, made the process a brutal one.
The question today, on the eve of his second return to Ottawa since the trade, is whether the fan base should get over it. Check the poll from that link: most think not.
But the question shouldn’t be whether our feelings should still be hurt. This is professional sports, trades happen, and beyond the semantics of “making a commitment to a city” when an athlete signs a contract, Dany Heatley doesn’t owe Ottawa fans a thing. The better question, I think, is: have we (and by we I mean Ottawa’s management) learned anything from that fiasco? Have we “gotten over” whatever our tendencies were that led to that trade in the first place? Hurt feelings don’t serve much purpose, but lessons learned do, and Bryan Murray made his share of mistakes that summer.
First and foremost seemed to be his lack of patience for the media / public relations game. Look to fairly media-savvy franchises, like Pittsburg, and how they handle touchy subjects like Crosby’s health. We receive regularly scheduled press conferences and videos of his practices, all while management controls the message by reassuring the fan base and deferring to their medical staff. Contrast this with the Heatley Summer of Gossip, catalyzed by the fact that the trade request was leaked, and egged on however inadvertently by the silence from both Murray and Heatley’s camps. The Edmonton trade that never happened then also took place in a pubic manner that was totally humiliating for both Edmonton and Ottawa. There was far too much information, followed by not nearly enough.
These years later, Murray (both Bryan and Tim) and Melnyk still seem more comfortable shooting from the hip, somehow unaware that both the fan base and the traditional media covering the team are hanging on their every word and finding in their every utterance material for a new 500 word column. From a couple of comments on the part of Spezza and Murray, it’s now common knowledge that Cory Clouston was a “bad communicator.” Murray still goes on the record saying the team is one or two pieces away from competing, “especially in the East,” which gives me nightmares of Ottawa embracing the Mediocre Toronto Model of sneaking into the playoffs as a lower seed. Melnyk is an absolute train wreck, contradicting himself and setting all sorts of unreasonable expectations. All this communication, and no semblance of clarity concerning a plan, a method, a goal. If you require a blue collar, traditional hockey guy to have respect in this league, then insulate the players and management from the PR guys. But let PR be the face and voice of the franchise when speaking with the media and the public.
Another lesson learned might have come from Heatley’s No Trade clause coupled with the long term deal, which first diminished the possible trades and then allowed Heatley to nix the trade to Edmonton. There hasn’t been a player good enough to warrant a six year deal, but Murray still gave limited or modified No Trade Clauses to both Chris Phillips, Alexei Kovalev, and Sergei Gonchar. He gave a four year deal to Craig Anderson. This team has been handcuffed by a combination of years outstanding and NTCs.
Lastly, and perhaps most puzzling, is Murray’s faith in the “core” of this team, which led him to offer Heatley such an extravagant deal, which saw Heatley become alienated when not used in a way that he thought appropriate for a core player, and which then led Murray to that strange Chris Phillips extension. Granted that the team captured lightning in a bottle on that trip to the Finals, but Alfredsson is older, Spezza still doesn’t have a legitimate sniper to play with, Anton Volchenkov is gone, and the team hasn’t received anything resembling dependable goaltending. The notion of adding “one more piece” to an untouchable core is the single most damaging thing for this club, and Heatley should have proven that core status is impermanent.
Maybe I’m not giving Murray enough credit. Maybe he’s better at PR than I think, and is saying all of this one more piece stuff to sell tickets. Maybe the deals he’s given out have been deemed by a secret team of advanced metrics analysts to be too reasonable to pass up. Maybe in some universe this core can still compete. But with Dany Heatley coming back – and, I’ve got to say, looking rejuvenated in Minnie – it’s an opportunity to look back and think of how the Murray regime could have handled things differently. If you’re mad about the situation you can boo Heatley, for all the good that’ll do, or you can demand more of the man at the wheel. The Heatley trade will be a major part of Bryan Murray’s legacy in Ottawa, and it should be.