Everything that’s happened with respect to Mikael Wikstrand and his relationship with the Ottawa Senators organization has left me with a palpable unease.
When Wikstrand bailed on training camp without even leaving a goodbye note in September, it painted a picture of a young man who felt strongly that playing hockey in North America was not what was good for him as a person at that time. Details were sparse initially, but eventually Wikstrand tweeted that he left Ottawa to be with a seriously ill family member. The Senators responded by suspending Wikstrand and denying him permission to play in the Swedish Elite League.
Roughly a month later, Wikstrand revealed that his brother was suffering from leukemia and that he wanted to spend as much time with him and the rest of his family. Bryan Murray and the Senators for their part said that Wikstrand’s status was unchanged, and Murray also chose to parse the particulars of the difference between being 3 hours away and being 8 hours away.
The latest development from today is that we got some more comments from Randy Lee reiterating that nothing has changed, while also casually dropping words like “contract” and “signing bonus”.
I think that it’s perfectly reasonable that Mikael Wikstrand would decide that the needs of Mikael Wikstrand the Person are more important than the needs of Mikael Wikstrand the Athlete. The Senators, for their part, have been very upfront that they wanted Mikael Wikstrand the Athlete playing in North America this season.
Should the athlete and the person be treated as separate? It’s certainly been proven possible to do what’s best for both at the same time. Within the Ottawa organization, Bryan Murray has talked about how he traded Mike Fisher specifically to Nashville because that was what was best for the person and for the athlete. More recently, Travis Hamonic has requested that he be traded to the Western Conference for personal reasons, and the New York Islanders are actively trying to accommodate this request. In situations where a player’s personal and professional life overlap, finding a compromise between a player and team can be done, and is certainly possible in this case.
What gives me pause is that Mikael Wikstrand is still at the point of his career where he is considered an investment. The Senators have invested scouting resources and financial resources in him, and it will still be a couple of seasons until the club has a chance of seeing those investments recouped. In the case of the Fisher trade, the Senators received something in return. By having Wikstrand play and develop in a weak league, the Senators receive very little except increased risk.
I do not feel strongly that the Senators should allow Mikael Wikstrand to play in Sweden. If anything, I tend more towards the organization’s side on that matter. Developing NHL prospects in Sweden seems to be an exercise in diminishing returns after a certain point, and the Senators think that Wikstrand has reached that point. However, I do feel strongly about the following things:
1. Everyone needs to stop playing politics with a young man’s cancer.
It is absolutely not cool that somehow Mikael Wikstrand’s brother is now just a side-note in The Ongoing Saga of Mikael Wikstrand. I do not think that Mikael Wikstrand’s brother’s illness should be used as just another piece of calculus in the math of Where A Senators Prospect Should Play Hockey. Mikael Wikstrand is not really the protagonist of this story right now; his brother is. Using this illness to win a PR battle is deeply gross on a number of levels. “Prospect X’s family member has cancer. How does this effect Prospect X’s contract status?” is terrible rhetoric because it completely glosses over the fact that someone has cancer! There are bigger things than Binghamton’s blue line at stake here.
Also, while I’m here I just want to say f**k cancer, and love and support to the Wikstrand Family from the Welcome to your Karlsson Years Family.
2. The Sens organization needs to make a decent, empathetic statement, and then shut up.
As Randy Lee testily remarked in his interview with TSN1200 today (skip to the 13:00 mark), it’s true that the Ottawa Senators are more familiar than most with cancer and the challenges it presents to patients, friends, and family alike.
It’s also true that if I can accurately portray your statement regarding cancer as “testy”, you need to stop talking.
What the Sens org needs to do, and what I can’t believe they haven’t done, is make a brief statement making it clear that they support the Wikstrand family at this difficult time, and that they look forward to having Mikael back with the organization at such a time that he deems it appropriate to return to hockey. Then, and I cannot overstate the importance of this next step, the Sens org needs to shut up. It doesn’t matter how badly (or not) Mikael handled his departure from the team in September. The Sens organization needs to just leave that stuff in the past. Bringing it up only serves to make them look callous and unsympathetic, and it’s not really appropriate to publicly drag a player for caring too much for his ailing brother. Also, have I mentioned how gross it is to use cancer to win a PR battle yet? Get it together, Senators.