Boston Bruins fans were stunned when they heard about the recent trade of Joe Thornton to San Jose. They weren't the only ones.
"I'm guessing the trade was made really quickly, because you can never keep those things quiet," Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke said. "Nobody, not the press, not the other (NHL general) managers knew about it. All of a sudden it was done."
Thornton, 26, was a franchise player. The first overall selection by the Bruins in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, he collected 160 goals and 421 points through the 2003-04 season. But the Bruins were off to a disappointing start in this P.L. (post lockout) season. They have the only losing record in the five-team Northeast Division.
In return for Thornton, Boston received defenseman Brad Stuart, speedy winger Marco Sturm and journeyman forward Wayne Primeau, the younger brother of Flyers captain Keith Primeau.
"Thornton, rightfully so, is the best of the four players," Clarke said, "but the other three guys are good players. Boston probably filled some holes that they needed (filled), and they probably got (Patrice) Bergeron back in the middle where they wanted him.
"I think you read too much into it if the suggestion is that one player wasn't playing the way he's supposed to."
While Thornton was productive, he didn't record a point in a seven-game 2004 playoff series loss to Montreal. Also, with the new NHL rules giving forwards more freedom in front of the net, reports indicate that Thornton regarded the area in front of the opposing goaltenders as if it were the treacherous road from the Baghdad airport to the city.
"It's definitely a shock," Thornton said after the deal. "Obviously, when you don't win, things are going to happen. That's what happened (in Boston). I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed. I signed a three-year deal, and I wanted to stay here. I know a couple (Boston) teammates are disappointed as well."
Such major trades frequently serve as wakeup calls to teams. "If Joe can go, anybody can go," Bruins goaltender Andrew Raycroft told the Boston Globe. "I'll be waiting by the phone."
Although a major trade can leave players numb, they usually adjust quickly. On December 14, 1972, then Flyers GM Keith Allen swapped defenseman Brent Hughes and winger Pierre Plante to St. Louis for Andre "Moose" Dupont and a third-round draft choice on the day the teams were facing each other at the Spectrum. The trade was particularly hard on Hughes, who was a popular player with the Flyers.
"(Hughes) and I were good friends," said Clarke, then the Flyers captain. "I felt bad for him, but it's not going to make me feel good if we lose. Players adjust real quickly. It might be their best friend, and they might be (upset) about it, but that doesn't mean they'll play poorly."
Dupont, who played for Flyers Coach Fred Shero with the New York Rangers' farm team in Omaha, went on to help the Flyers win two Stanley Cups. Shero told a great story about helping the French-speaking Dupont learn English. After prepping Dupont to order breakfast in English, he asked the waitress for "two eggs, side by each, and a pair of toast."
Later, Dupont's English improved significantly.
In the "new NHL," it's more difficult to wait for teams to improve.
"We're into immediate self-gratification," Nashville Predators GM David Poile said. "The dollars are high and the exposure with media and the Internet (is greater). Teams can't be as patient. Boston and San Jose were both rated very high in (preseason) predictions. Maybe, unfortunately, you're going to see more big trades, not just in hockey but in all sports, because of the pressures.
"Teams hope for, and believe in, fan attachment to players. The more success a player has had on your team and the longer he's lived in the community, the harder it is to make a change. But the wild card in our business is whether we're winning or losing."
Many GMs in all sports prefer to make deals with counterparts they are comfortable with. However, Poile, previously was GM of the Washington Capitals, and Clarke agree that with 30 teams in the NHL and playing an unbalanced schedule, it's more difficult to form comfortable associations with other GMs.
"It's harder to build relationships with managers," said Poile, the son of the late Bud Poile, the Flyers' first GM. "We only play 10 games out of our conference, so our knowledge of the other conference is going to be a lot less. It's a lot harder to make trades."
While some shrewd general managers in all sports often give the impression they are trying to outsmart their counterparts when making deals, Clarke insists that isn't part of the philosophy of trades.
"Ideally, you hope the other team gets what helps them and you get what helps you," Clarke said. "There's no point in hoping you beat somebody (in a trade). I don't think you can ever go into a deal thinking your team is smarter than the other team."
The nature of a GM's job is, they have to be thick-skinned. But there's also room for compassion. The Patrick Sharp-to-Chicago deal is an example of a GM not holding back a promising young player. It's likely that Sharp, 23, probably wouldn't be more than a third- or fourth-line player for the Flyers.
"We really liked Sharpie and we developed him," Clarke said. "(But) we didn't have room to give him the ice time he needed to be successful. He's a player who needs to play on the first two lines and get power-play time. We didn't have that for him."
Matt Ellison, the player obtained from Chicago for Sharp, is a versatile player as Sharp is. "He's a good faceoff guy, he can play the wing (and) center and kill penalties," Clarke said. "He's one of those guys who can move up and down the lineup as needed."
The first major trade Clarke made as Flyers GM was one of his toughest. In January 1982, Keith Allen, the Flyers' longtime GM, had obtained Darryl Sittler from Toronto. Sittler, one of the NHL's premier players, and Clarke were teammates until the end of the 1983-84 season. What a treat it was for Flyers fans to watch two future Hall of Famers on the same team.
Sittler had battled the Flyers in memorable Stanley Cup playoff series. Finally, he was on their side.
Clarke retired and was named the Flyers GM on May 15, 1984. On October 10, following the annual new-season welcoming luncheon for the Flyers, Clarke traded Sittler to Detroit for Murray Craven and Joe Paterson. Sittler seethed as he packed his bags for the Motor City, where he played just one season and retired.
"That was really hard," Clarke recalled. "I was young (as a GM), but we had experience around me. (Detroit's) Jimmy Devellano came to us and wanted Darryl. We felt we were going with a little younger lineup. Mike Keenan was taking over (as coach). Our scouts really liked Craven and Paterson was really good for us in the playoffs that year. It turned out good because we got about 10 years (1984-91) out of Murray and we went to the finals (in 1985).
"Darryl was very bitter. He got mad and didn't say much. Had we not made the trade, he probably would have been captain."
Anyone who wants to make a lot of friends shouldn't set general manager of a major league team as a career goal. Still, it's a fascinating job. There's never a dull day.
Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.
Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of ``Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of ``The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.
He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.