The Trade Deadline Doesn’t Matter Anymore

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

Call it the tail wagging the dog. Ratings driving content. Not content driving ratings – as it should be, as it is the only true long-term strategy. Even though the obviously painful thing about the ‘long-term’ is that it requires patience. It doesn’t pay off right away, not today.

The ‘Trade Deadline’ is one of hockey’s biggest made-for-TV events. It’s not even an event. It’s a whole day dedicated to swirling the shake while the camera stays on the cup. Like the World Juniors, the first day of Free Agency (July 1st, annually), and the NHL Draft, it’s one of those television beer paddles that started organically – created out of interest and to suit a craving, the consumers’ demand – but is now drowning in supply, like a book you buy to place in your shelf or a degree you get just to frame for your wall. The ‘trade deadline’ was once what it actually was – a deadline, with urgency and implications and everything. Teams waited to make their season- or era-defining deals because they either legitimately weren’t sure if they should do it until then, or because they were so many buyers and sellers it was a given something would happen.

And the cameras started rolling. Why not? Sports fans love talk and rumour and dissection as much as they love the actual face-offs and shots and saves. Like the 24-hour circle-jerk of news that leads up to an American election, coverage of the trade deadline eventually swallowed the deadline itself.

This worked for TSN and Sportsnet and the rest for a while. But the product is stale, the programming is boring, and the only can’t miss moment from last year’s show was Jennifer Hedger getting harpooned with a t-shirt cannon. The hosts of the shows admit as much – TSN’s Ray Ferraro and Bob McKenzie flog and mock the deadline during every radio appearance they make before the trade deadline, and the network’s on-air hosts like James Duthie and Gord Miller routinely do the same when the deadline show is live.

Why does the deadline suck so much? Because, frankly, it doesn’t matter.

There was never much sense for general managers to wait until the last possible day or hour to make a really important deal. And there certainly isn’t much sense in waiting until that day or hour now… every other team is looking to do the same thing, and the players who were available or desired in February and March were probably available and desired months earlier. Smart GMs make those moves in the gravity-starved days of summer. They’re proactive and they’re early birding – they set trends instead of following them; they make tomorrow’s trade today.

Last year’s show seemed like an all-time low for televised activity, but the run-up to the 2016 trade deadline was actually pretty decent: Daniel Winnik, Brooks Laich, Kris Versteeg, Eric Staal, Justin Schultz, Jiri Hudler, James Reimer, Andrew Ladd and others were all dealt just days before rosters froze, with draft picks and other key cogs (Roman Polak and Nick Spaling were traded to San Jose on February 22nd and helped the Sharks inch into a Stanley Cup Final, for example) trading places and zips.

If those had all happened on the actual final day, TSN and Sportsnet would have complained they couldn’t tweet or type or televise that fast.

It was a flurry of activity – it just didn’t conform.

And now, hopefully, gravity will return. The news will demand the coverage; the coverage won’t dictate the news.