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OTBH: We Have a Trade to Announce

A historical catharsis.

Sprague Cleghorn, tradebait.
Sprague Cleghorn, tradebait.

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time, there was a player. He was hockey player's hockey player -- tough but talented, beloved by his teammates and by the fans, captain of his team. He played ‘the right way,' and he was coveted by teams across the league who were jealous of his grit and his veteran experience, all the while being assured publically by team management that he would be with the team until the team was no more.

Once upon a time, a player was traded.

This story could be one of many in the history of the NHL, and though the details may vary, the narratives in each case contain odd similarities. If the above information was all you knew, you might think I was talking about Ray Bourque. You might think I was talking about Brenden Morrow, for that matter. Both fit the brief outline sketched out above, and both would be worthy stories to tell (if ones that have been told many, many times and/or very recently).

These are the sort of trades that can rock an organization -- two organizations, in fact, as both teams involved in the trade are making a sort of statement. They might be saying ‘all-in' or ‘rebuild' or ‘shake-up' or ‘missing piece,' but a team doesn't trade their captain lightly, in most cases, nor does one acquire a player like that without a specific plan in place. These trades are, to greater and lesser extents, transformative for all involved.

Once upon a time, a player named Sprague Cleghorn captained the Boston Bruins.

He was acquired from the Canadiens (where he had played for 4 seasons, winning the Stanley Cup twice) in 1925 and quickly became an integral part of the fledgling Bruins team. He was even named assistant coach in 1927. Art Ross clearly considered him untouchable, as he told the Boston Globe in December of 1926:

Sprague Cleghorn, captain and defense man of the Boston Bruins, can remain with that club as long as it is in existence. This was the sum and substance of a statement made here today by Manager Art Ross, referring to an attempt made recently by Manager Odie Cleghorn of the Pittsburgh Pirates, to give Conacher for Sprague Cleghorn... "I want every club to know that Sprague will never be sold or traded by us. When he is forced to quit actual play, he can have a bench job with the Bruins if he wants it."

Less than two years later, in June 1928, Cleghorn was put on waivers, and in October of that year was traded for cash to the CAHL Newark Bulldogs, where he became manager-coach. He had gone from untouchable, from captain and team leader, to out of the NHL in under two seasons. For the Bulldogs, a brand new CAHL team, the moved established legitimacy and secured veteran experience and toughness. For the Bruins, the cash they acquired probably helped them with later acquisitions, such as Toronto center Bill Carson, who they traded for in January 1929 for $25,000. The team that missed out on Cleghorn originally -- the Pittsburgh Pirates, coached by Cleghorn's brother -- was also impacted by the trade (or rather, by the lack of it), missing the playoffs that year and in all but one other year for the balance of the team's existence.

(note: Cleghorn was a douchebag. He was an extraordinarily dirty player, and more importantly, a terrible human being who was arrested for beating his wife in 1918. I do not any way want to glorify him, I only want to use his trade as an example of how the narrative around a player/trade develops.)

The Newark Bulldogs folded after that season, and Cleghorn bounced around coaching in the CAHL, the NHL, and other leagues for a few years. The Bruins, on the other hand, went 26-13-5, won the Division, and played the Rangers in the Stanley Cup final. On March 29, 1929 (84 years ago today), the Bruins completed a two game sweep of New York to win the Stanley Cup.

For both Cleghorn and the Bruins, the trade was indeed transformative. Cleghorn moved on to coaching and managing, which would be his career for the next decade. The Bruins were able to enhance their team in a way that led to success in that and in subsequent seasons (the late 1920s into the 1930s were good times for the Black and Gold). As for the Pirates, they ended their run as an NHL franchise in 1930.

Once upon a time, a player was traded. Games were lost, games were won, successes achieved and failures endured. We tend to take a teleological view of the past, in sports. A trade of a key player has import, and triumphs/falls from grace are tied inexorably to events of such import. In three months, we will say to ourselves that the trade of Jarome Iginla was transformative, for the team trading away, the team trading for, and the team that missed out, and the successes and failures of all three teams will be judged, by some, in light of it.

Would the Bruins have won the Stanley Cup in 1929 without trading Cleghorn? Would the Bulldogs had folded if another person had been manager-coach, and would the Pirates have made the playoffs if they had succeeded in acquiring him originally? Those questions are unanswerable, but the stories of each of those teams were changed, in ways big and small, by the fact that he was traded when he was, to the team he was. The trade, for better or for worse, changes the nature of the story we tell.

At the end of the 2013 season, we will be telling stories, too. It remains to be seen how many of them start, "Once upon a time, a player was traded."