Professional sports are a job, but in many ways very much unlike other jobs. Your teammates are more than co-workers; you work together, but you also socialize together, travel together, practically (and sometimes literally) live together. For half of the season you’re on the road together, sharing every meal and nearly every minute in and out of the “office.” Even for the other half of the season, especially in hockey, “home” is half a world away from where you’re actually from, so your teammates are the only constants.
Except, they’re often not very constant. Professional sports also differ from the real world in that your co-workers—your friends—can be sent to go live and work in some other city at the drop of a hat. That’s when they try to tell you “it’s a business.”
After New York’s 6-5 overtime loss to the Capitals on Sunday, Rangers lifer Henrik Lundqvist was asked about Mats Zuccarello, who the night before had been traded to Dallas for a pair of draft picks. Zuccarello and Lundqvist had been teammates since 2010, probably longer than you’ve known many close friends.
“It’s tough ... a good friend ... sorry ... I can’t do it.” Damn, Hank.
These are and will continue to be tough days for Lundqvist. For the second trade deadline in a row, the Rangers are being stripped and sold off for spare parts: last year it was Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Rick Nash, and Michael Grabner, while Kevin Hayes and Adam McQuaid are expected to be moved today.
Lundqvist has been a Ranger since 2005, so he’s been through highs and lows, but probably none quite so personally existential as this. The current rebuild is still in the stockpiling-picks phase, so there’s little reason to believe New York will be challengers in the next couple of years. That timeframe is relevant to Lundqvist, who will turn 37 next weekend and is putting up the worst numbers of his career. He’s signed through 2021, with a no-movement clause, but it’s impossible to envision his and the Rangers’ competitive windows being open again at the same time. Lundqvist is a sure-thing Hall-of-Famer, but that all-elusive Cup, if it exists in his future, does not exist in New York.
I don’t know if or how much that weighs on him, but that’s another way pro sports differs from a normal job—every year, players on 30 teams fail. That just means athletes have to measure professional and personal fulfillment in ways other than championships. This is horribly clichéd, but it’s a cliché because it’s true: Sometimes the victories are the friends you make along the way.