By Alexander Cole
For some, July 1 is a day to celebrate Canada’s confederation. For others who don’t feel quite so patriotic, it’s moving day. If you’re American, July 1 is the day you stock up on fireworks in preparation for the most flamboyant display of red, white and blue known to mankind. If you’re a fan of the NHL, July 1 is the most important day of the off-season.
If you aren’t a big hockey fan, you may be asking yourself why? It’s simple—July 1 is free agency day. It is the day when unrestricted free agents, in other words, players who are looking for contracts, are able to negotiate new contracts and move on to bigger and better things, if their performance warrants it.
As the league’s salary cap gets larger, teams spend increasingly exorbitant amounts of money on players who may or may not deserve the high price tag. Free agency has the potential to let bad teams get better and turn good teams into dynasties. It is a day when teams will also make trades to free up salary cap space so they can take on the free agent of their dreams.
July 1 is a day of exhilaration and frustration for those who hang on every decision their favourite team’s General Manager makes. On a day when almost everybody in Canada is out and about in their city’s downtown core, participating in parades, the over-obsessed sports fan is bundled up on their couch. They are equipped with a bowl of popcorn and a cold one, tuning in to TSN’s all-day “Free Agent Frenzy” special.
Free agency is especially exciting when a high-caliber player is on the market. In 2016, players like Kyle Okposo and David Backes were some of the biggest free agents available. While these players are far from superstars, their contributions to the teams they have played for have been significant enough to warrant big contracts. Players like Backes and Okposo are so highly sought after that teams will trade away core players to afford them.
The drama brought on by the decisions being made throughout free agency is why it is such a popular event. It is an event that makes every hockey fan consider what they would do if given the position of General Manager. It’s one of the things that makes Free Agent Frenzy so interesting.
Fans react to these decisions in fascinating ways. The best and most recent case study we have to demonstrate these reactions is the P.K. Subban trade. Subban was traded on June 29 to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Shea Weber. Subban was by far one of the most celebrated players in the league and especially so in Montreal. The man had pledged to raise $10 million for the Montreal Children’s Hospital, and was widely considered the best and most exciting player on the team. Despite all of that, Subban was traded in exchange for an aging Weber, who, by all accounts, is still an elite defenseman.
The reaction to this trade speaks to the passion of not just hockey fans, but sports fans in general. As soon as the news broke, fans took to social media to voice their disgust over the trade. The hottest takes made it to the top of hockey fans’ social media timelines, continuously feeding their anger. Many fans pledged their allegiance to Subban’s new squad, while others said they would rather support the Habs’ biggest rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Statements that are seen as sacrilegious in the eyes of a sports fan were made in protest of what the Montreal Canadiens did. For many, the Habs had traded away their future, and in doing so, they traded away the support of their loyal fanbase.
Days after the Canadiens traded Subban because it was speculated that he was a problem in the room, the team acquired Alex Radulov through free agency. This was a move they were only able to make due to the cap space freed up during the Subban trade. Once again, just days after one of the biggest trades in franchise history, fans were up in arms over the acquisition of a player who has been criticized his whole career for clashing with teammates and coaches, while also having a lack of motivation. What started out as a day of hope and redemption for Habs fans quickly turned into the ultimate display of hypocrisy.
Outside of hockey, other major sports teams in North America have their own free agency days as well. Most recently, just three days after the NHL’s free agent frenzy, was the NBA’s. This year, the biggest free agent available was Kevin Durant. Durant was the clear cut star of the Oklahoma City Thunder and everyone in the basketball world anxiously awaited his decision to either stay with the team, or move somewhere else.
After meeting with multiple teams and endless speculation, Durant chose to create a super team with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors, leaving former superstar teammate Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder in the dust.
Much like the Subban trade, Durant’s decision created a social media firestorm. Videos of disenfranchised Thunder fans burning their Durant sweaters appeared online. The Durant hate train was in full swing as Thunder fans decided they were no longer supporters of the man who had carried the team to the NBA finals.
The reaction to Durant’s decision was eerily similar to the vitriol spewed when LeBron James made his decision to take his talents to South Beach. Much like the Durant decision and the Subban trade, James’ decision was made because of free agency.
So what does this all mean? What does it mean, when, after a star player leaves the city that embraced them, that very city riots and goes off the deep end?
The answer is simple: sports fans are some of the most passionate people in the world. It may be laughable to some that a bunch of millionaires who play sports for a living are held in such high regard— but they are. This is because these world class athletes represent hope for the cities they represent.
When LeBron James came back to Cleveland and helped the city get its first sports title in 50 years, it justified the anguish fans felt when he first left. When James brought the NBA trophy back to Cleveland, the whole city was uplifted. It shook off a curse that was building up in the city for years, and removed the burden of pain from the fans that supported its team.
Trade deadlines and free agency are a testament to the will of the sports fan. It is an indication of the passion behind wearing the jersey of your favourite player. Ask any sports fan and they will tell you that their dream is for their city to bring home a championship. Free agency allows any city to become a contender. And when a team fails to make a big move, or fails to keep its star player, the city behind that team falls apart.
Being a sports fan in the 21st century brings with it a subconscious feeling of entitlement that can never be shaken off. Free agency is a manifestation of this entitlement. When arbitrary expectations are not met, the whole world crumbles beneath the feet of these sports fanatics who have put so much time into following their teams.
As over-dramatic as it may seem, free agency adds complexity to sports, and, when you peel back all of the layers, you’re left with the hope of the common sports fan. Even if that hope is based around a team that is completely hopeless.