TORONTO — This wasn’t the way the Erik Cole era in Montreal was supposed to end.
The player who was programmed to be a Canadien was traded to the Dallas Stars 19 games into his second season in Montreal.
When the news broke early Tuesday evening, I recalled the events of July 1, 2011, when the media gathered around a speakerphone at the Canadiens’ training facility in Brossard and talked to Cole about the four-year contract he had just signed as a free agent.
There was excitement in Cole’s voice as he talked about making the move to Montreal. He grew up watching and listening to Canadiens games as a youngster in Oswego, N.Y. You had the feeling that, while many free agents have struggled with the expectations placed on hockey players in Montreal, Cole would embrace the hockey-mad culture.
And he did. Cole was one of the few bright spots last season as he combined with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais to produce nearly 40 per cent of the Canadiens’ offence. Cole established career highs with 35 goals and 61 points. His decision to sign with the Canadiens stands as one of the few positive highlights in Pierre Gauthier’s undistinguished stint as general manager.
But the big question in sports is: What have you done for us lately? The answer when it came to Cole was: Not enough.
The irony is that Cole was traded after one of his best games of the season. On Saturday night, he scored a goal and added an assist as the Canadiens defeated the New York Rangers 3-0.
Cole’s slow start resurrected the one question that came out of the Canadiens’ decision to sign him: Was four years too long for a 33-year-old player?
That was one of the factors that went into new GM Marc Bergevin’s decision to trade Cole. GMs are paid to take a long-term view and Bergevin is setting himself up for the great unknown in Year 3 of the new collective bargaining agreement.
While the salary cap is set at $64.3 million for next season, it is expected there will be another drop for the 2014-15 season. Bergevin has already cleared Scott Gomez’s $7-million hit off the cap and he’ll save nearly $9 million by shedding Cole ($4.5 million) and Tomas Kaberle ($4.25 million).
Players accept trades as part of the business, but I wasn’t surprised when a Canadiens teammate said Cole was shocked by the decision. Few players had as much difficulty as Cole with the lockout. While some players were surprised the NHL would lock them out when the league was enjoying record revenues, Cole knew what to expect.
If he was unhappy about the lockout, he was even unhappier about the settlement. He felt that if a team agreed to pay him $18 million over four seasons, he should get $18 million.
Cole talked about retiring after this season and that was as much about family as it was his unhappiness over the new CBA. The lockout provided him with quality family time and he cherished it.
Now, Cole faces a decision on what happens to his family. Do they stay here until the children finish the school year or do they move to Dallas? The decisions are part of the unseen toll trades take on players and their families.
“It’s one of those bittersweet things,” defenceman Josh Gorges said Wednesday. “I was with Erik … it was a sombre moment. He’s been a friend of mine. We clicked right away. It’s sad to say goodbye to a good friend, but the flip side is we gained another good teammate. That’s the craziness of hockey. You lose one guy, but you gain another.”
Gorges said Cole was upset, but understands the nature of the business.
“Initially, any time you get traded — and I think back to my experience (traded to Montreal from San Jose in 2007) — it’s shocking,” Gorges said. “The hardest thing is to say goodbye. After he goes and gets in with the guys in Dallas, he’ll be all right. He’ll click in, he knows some guys there. He’s an experienced, top-notch player who’ll find his niche in Dallas.”
It would have been so much sweeter if that niche was in Montreal.
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