WHL trade requests stir conversation among general managers

From Ryan Pilon to Alex Forsberg, the Western Hockey League has seen its fair share of trade requests from prominent players over the past 12 months.

It is nothing new for players to ask for a change of scenery. Trade requests have been happening for quite some time in junior hockey, but it seems it is becoming quite more common nowadays than it was a decade ago.

It goes without saying that the 22 WHL general managers would unanimously be against trade requests. It, after all, makes their jobs tougher. So it wasn’t surprising at all to hear Kelowna Rockets GM Bruce Hamilton say he’s against players asking for deals. It, however, was interesting to get his perspective because he also knows what it’s like to be in the player’s shoes as he suited up for the Saskatoon Blades in the 1970s.

“I don’t agree with players asking for trades,” says Hamilton. “I don’t know exactly what’s going on with some organizations or the players, but I think when a player signs with a team he owes it to that team to stay with them. Teams put in a lot of work to scout and recruit these players. Before guys had to earn their way out of a team, but now guys are going home until they get a trade. I don’t think that’s fair to the team.”

Red Deer Rebels GM-coach Brent Sutter, who formerly played in the WHL and NHL, has practically the same views as Hamilton.

“I don’t know what’s going through these players’ minds or what’s happening with their teams when they ask for a trade, but I never like to hear of players asking for trades,” says Sutter. “It puts the team in a bad situation when a player asks for a trade who they are building around. And I think some players are quick to want out of a team."

Since the start of the season, the Lethbridge Hurricanes have had the wind knocked out of them with trade requests. First, proven goal scorers Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie walked out on the team before being dealt to the Seattle Thunderbirds. It was a huge blow to their offense as both 19-year-olds scored north of 25 goals the year before. But their trade requests didn’t sting near as bad the third one from Ryan Pilon, who was traded to the Brandon Wheat Kings on Nov 16. As the third overall pick of the 2011 bantam draft, the Hurricanes were building their team around Pilon on the back end. His departure ultimately deflated their rebuild that was already taking too long as it was.

It’s uncertain why the trio of players asked out of Lethbridge; however, taking into account the Hurricanes have struggled greatly this year with a 3-17-2-2 record, it’s safe to assume their on-ice woes are the main reason. In addition, although it’s possible this had nothing to do with it, it’s fair to point out they had a new coach this year, Drake Berehowsky, with the organization letting go of Rich Preston in the offseason.

Last year, the Prince George Cougars went through a similar situation to Pilon walking out on the Hurricanes when Alex Forsberg left the club right before the Christmas break. The 5-foot-10, 180-pound centre was the Cougars’ cornerstone player. His development wasn’t going as smooth as they hoped when they selected him first overall in 2010, but as a young gun just days away from turning 18, there was still plenty of time for him to get back on track to fulfilling his potential.

The Cougars never dealt Forsberg, though. Prince George GM Dallas Thompson held onto him at the trade deadline and WHL bantam draft because he wasn’t happy with the trade market. Therefore, with the start of the 2013-14 season vastly approaching, Forsberg, who finished last year with the SJHL's Humboldt Broncos, decided to return to the Cougars with the chance he wouldn’t be dealt before training camp started.

The Forsberg situation was interesting to say the least. Most teams wouldn’t take a player back after walking out on them because they want youngsters who are 100-per cent dedicated to the organization. But what really makes the Forsberg trade request unique is that it set a precedent for a team not giving a timetable or guaranteeing a trade to a player regarded as an elite talent.

'Bad effect'

From the players’ perspective, they could argue asking for a trade is their right because they can be dealt when they don’t want to pack their bags. But one has to keep in mind that major junior isn’t like The Show. Besides 19 and 20-year-olds getting shipped out at the trade deadline in their last year in the league, there aren’t too many teenage swaps throughout a season. Not to mention, it is now common for players to have no-trade clauses in their contracts for their 16-year-old and sometimes 17-year-old seasons.

“Usually trades only happen when a player doesn’t fit in with a team or something else is going on,” says Hamilton. “Players are often given second chances and they are coached and worked with to try to get them to the level to stay in the league. This is a hard league to play in with a lot of competition, so it’s not always going to work out.”

Hamilton went onto say that he feels players are hurting their chances of getting to the pros by asking for a trade in the junior ranks.

“I’m not sure if players quite realize the bad effect asking for a trade can have on them,” says the Rockets GM. “They are in this league to try to get to the NHL and asking for a trade in junior isn’t going to look good to them. I think sometimes that they hurt themselves by asking for one (a trade). NHL teams don’t like seeing that.”

In would be easy to suggest that a sense of entitlement is connected to players asking for trades. But since every situation has different variables, Sutter believes it’s unfair to make a direct correlation between today’s culture and trade requests.

“I think a big thing is kids are raised differently,” says Sutter on if today’s culture is connected to players asking for trades. “It’s way different world now then it was 20 years ago with the internet, cell phones and social media. They are raised in a very different world. Now I think there are some really good parents out there, but for the most part kids aren’t raised as they used to be.”

Although there are some examples of players on winning teams asking for a change of scenery, the vast majority of trade requests happen within organizations that are going through on-ice struggles. Obviously, losing isn’t fun and is often quite frustrating. There, however, is some long-term upside to playing on a losing team in junior hockey as fighting through adversity builds character and patience.

“I don’t think players have the same internal drive as they used to,” says the Rebels GM-head coach. “I don’t think there’s as much drive day in and day out as there used to be — that’s something I’ve noticed as a difference in generations. So going through the losing seasons is something that’s a struggle for some players.”

Kelly Friesen is a Buzzing the Net columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter @KellyFriesen and contact him at Friesenkelly@live.ca