For those of us on the outside looking in, to be an NHL player represents a dream that we will never get to enjoy. For most of us the thought of getting paid to play a game that most of us play for free is beyond our wildest expectations.
And for those who play in the NHL, they understand that they are living a dream. But for them it is also their livelihood, their source of income, and their job. Admittedly, for this privilege they are paid quite handsomely to perform, but there are other considerations.
Bryan Smolinski has enjoyed a fifteen year career in the NHL. In the next couple of weeks he will become the 220th player to play in 1000 games. But the road hasn’t been a smooth one for Smolinski, who hasn’t been able to enjoy any stability or security in his professional career.
Smolinski is a hockey nomad; a player who has been good enough and skilled enough to be wanted by eight different NHL team’s, but one who has been traded six times in his career.
When the Canadiens signed Smolinski as a free agent this summer Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey explained the attributes that have made him so valuable to so many teams.
“Bryan Smolinski is an experienced centreman with good size who brings excellent two-way ability and face-off skills that will add versatility and depth to our club.”
Drafted with the 21st overall pick in the 1990 entry draft by the Boston Bruins, Smolinski finally made the team in 1992, but his journey was only beginning. He played three years for the Bruins (1992-95) followed by Pittsburgh (1995-96), the New York Islanders (1996-99), the Los Angeles Kings (1999-2002), Ottawa (2002-2006), Chicago (2006-07), and finally with the Vancouver Canucks last spring after being dealt by the Black Hawks on February 26th, 2007 at the trade deadline.
The trade to Vancouver to Chicago was standard operating procedure in today’s NHL. An unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, playing for a team out of the playoff hunt, Chicago traded Smolinski to the Canucks for a second round draft pick. Simply put Chicago had an asset that they could move for a future draft pick.
And most of us didn’t look any further. Unfortunately, for the most part we tend to view these players as assets and we tend to remember that these players are real people dealing with real issues. But if we take a closer look we see that playing in the NHL is not as glamorous as it seems.
A few months earlier, Smolinski’s mother-in-law had been diagnosed with lung cancer. With his family still in shock, Smolinski was forced to move 2,000 miles away, and live out of a hotel in Vancouver. Married with 3 young children, Smolinski had to explain to his children that he wouldn’t be home for a while.
“It’s a chaos of emotions,” Smolinski explained to the Vancouver Province. “You’re not too far away but your family needs that support system and it was very hard, very hard on my wife.”
But being a veteran of the NHL and having been traded before, Smolinski was philosophical about the realities of his professional life. “You just kind of roll with the punches”, explained Smolinski.
Being traded means many things beyond what’s reported in the press. We don’t read about the player and his family trying to sell their old house, find a new house, make new friends, etc… We also don’t read about the effect on the children, the changing of schools, leaving old friends behind, trying to make new friends, etc …
In many aspects of our own lives we all crave a certain sense of stability. During his fifteen year career Bryan Smolinski and stability have never been constant friends.
As a reward for his long career, Bryan Smolinski was able to choose this summer where he wanted to play, after having his destinations being chosen for him for the past fifteen years. An unrestricted free agent is theoretically able to choose where he wants to play. And while the decision rests with him, he can only choose from the team’s that show an interest in acquiring his services.
When contacted by the Canadiens, Smolinski didn’t waste any time, “it took me about 15, 20 minutes to decide to sign here,” Smolinski told the Montreal Gazette, “and that was the time it took to run it past my family.”
This summer there was a tremendous amount of attention paid to the free agents that the Montreal Canadiens didn’t sign. There wasn’t however, as much attention paid to the players who signed with the team. This created the impression that many players simply don’t want to play for the Canadiens. What we didn’t hear about where the players like Bryan Smolinski; players who want to be here.
“I’m excited to be here,” Smolinski explained to NHL.com. “I can remember some exciting games at the Bell Centre, but I was also fortunate enough to play at the Forum. It’s going to be a great honor to wear the CH on my chest. The Canadiens are one of the best organizations in sports. They’re an original six team and have always been great ambassadors of hockey. I’m proud that I can be part of that.”
Much was made this off season about players avoiding Montreal because of the pressure of the media and the expectations of the fans. For Smolinski it was a challenge he looked forward to tackling head on.
“If you’re a player, you should want that kind of atmosphere,” explained Smolinski. “We’re being paid to play this game and we should be expected to play at our best every game. That’s fine with me if they (the fans) let us know when we’re not doing that.”
As for his role with the Canadiens, Smolinski is keenly aware of what he brings to the table and what the Canadiens expect of him
“I’ve always tried to help out in every situation. Whether it is face-offs, penalty kill or power play, I do my best to be a role player. I’ve been fortunate enough to play with lots of great players and learned a lot in my career. Hopefully, I can make that an asset here and help out where I’m needed, whether that’s in certain game situations or with the younger players. I’m here to do my best and help this team.”
When Smolinski signed his one year contract with the Canadiens he also insisted on a no-trade clause. This clause gave Bryan Smolinski something he has never been able to enjoy before in the NHL; security and stability.
For some players, character and professionalism are just words, for others like Bryan Smolinski they represent the traits that he lives his life by, traits that a good hockey team can never have enough of.