Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Adam Foote sheds his Jackets for the Avalanche

This post is for my friend Brian, who roots for his hometown Colorado Avalanche as passionately as I cheer on my Columbus Blue Jackets.

Context: In 2005, the NHL and the players association ended their season-long labor dispute. Teams pursued high-profile free agents. The Blue Jackets made a splash by luring defenseman and two-time Stanley Cup winner Adam Foote from the Avalanche with a 3-year, $14.6 million contract. Foote's signing, plus the maturing of prospects and draft picks already on the roster led then dictator-for-life Doug MacLean to boast that the Blue Jackets could make a run for the playoffs.

Here are comments by Adam Foote on signing with the Blue Jackets:

“A few teams called me, and I got to talk to Doug MacLean here very early that day. He was very energetic and made me feel wanted. I also knew about the city. I knew it was a nice place for my family.”

“I’ve been able to play in Denver and was very fortunate to have a contender. We had a contender there every year. We had a chance to win every night. Doug and I talked about where the team would go, and he made it clear that they want to win here. That made it a lot easier. He made it very clear that they’ll do what it takes to win.”

“It’s a new day, and I’m very excited. From the first phone call with Columbus, there was some feeling there. We didn’t waste too much time. We made a decision quickly, and we’re very happy with our decision. This is my new team, and I’m going to be loyal here. I’m going to give it my all, and I’m very happy to be here.”

On what impressed him about the Columbus Blue Jackets…The first phone call, the enthusiasm, the excitement, to talk to someone and feel you’re wanted. With the change in the league, the CBA, there are so many things out there that no one really knows what’s going to happen with teams all over the league. This is a team that we felt is on the up-rise. They have a great star in Nash, and there’s a lot of good young players. I felt that this was a spot that worked for us. I liked the enthusiasm. The first phone call really was exciting. It’s going to be an interesting challenge for me.

On playing a leadership role with this team…You’ve got some great leadership already in Luke Richardson and (Geoff) Sanderson as well. I think you lead by example. There’s a young team and they’re here to win. I like what I see in their young players. They’re tough to play against. I’m very excited to see what happens and to see where we can take this.

Instead, the wheels fell off of the CBJ wagon. MacLean made shortsighted personnel moves. The team lacked a positive identity (unless "losing", "soft", and "disorganized" are positive team traits to you). When Luke Richardson left the team, Foote was named captain. Eventually MacLean hired a new coach, Ken Hitchcock. MacLean's dictatorship ends in April 2007. Scott Howson, an assistant general manager with the Edmonton Oilers, is named GM in May.

Earlier this year, Foote and Howson met over Chilean sea bass to talk about a contract extension. After signing winger Jason Chimera to a four-year extension, Foote was the only other pending free agent on Howson's radar. (Other free agents: center Sergei Fedorov, who would be traded on deadline to the Washington Capitals for prospect Theo "Baby" Ruth; winger David Vyborny, an original Jacket; defenseman Dick Tarnstrom, acquired by trade earlier in the season; center Michael Peca, still proving he's ready to play after recent injury-plagued seasons with Toronto and New York Islanders; and defensemen Jan Hejda and Ron Hainsey.) The next week, they were to have met, but a Columbus snow storm delayed their meeting. ("Snow storm" in Columbus means it snowed two inches.) Later, the Blue Jackets were finalists in the Brad Richards Sweepstakes (Dallas wins by giving up goalie Mike Smith).

Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets and Foote could not find middle ground for negotiations. CBJ initially offered a 2-year contract worth $6 million and increased it to $7 million while Foote would not budge from a his request for two years and $8 million. (Common sense says $4 million is a bit much for a 36-year-old defenseman.) At the morning skate the day of the trade deadline, a teammate joked, "Think of your legacy, Footer, think of your legacy. Don't sign the (no trade clause) waiver." Did Foote think about his legacy? By 1 p.m. (two hourse before the trade deadline), Foote had waived the no-trade clause in his contract to be traded to Colorado for a first-round draft pick and other draft considerations. He expressed conflicted feelings about leaving Columbus for Colorado, though he had a plane waiting for him at Port Columbus and his equipment waiting for him in Calgary, where the Avs were about to play the Flames. The Flames equipment staff even prepared his sweater in advance of his arrival.

The Blue Jackets played without emotion the day after the deadline. By Saturday, a story was emerging that Foote had orchestrated his return to Colorado and played the Columbus - the city, the Blue Jackets organization, and its fans - like a fiddle. Here's a sampling:

Michael Arace, The Columbus Dispatch:

Thoughts that have remained dormant for years have worked to the front of my brain this week. Wisps of memory have emerged, unbidden, and they're telling me that we've all been played by Adam Foote, that he is not the leader of men that he purported to be, and not just because he quit the Blue Jackets. ...

Lesson No. 1: Foote said he put his Dublin house on the market last summer because he wanted to "downsize." What he didn't say was he was hunting for a smaller house in the greater Denver area.

Lesson No. 2: Foote professed shock that he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche -- yet he rigged the game for just this outcome. ...

Here's is some educated guesswork:

Foote regretted the day he signed a free-agent contract with the Blue Jackets in 2005. He always planned on retiring in Colorado, something he revealed this week during contract negotiations. No doubt, he will sign for less money than the Jackets were offering ($3.5 million a year) when he gets his final contract with the Avalanche this summer. Maybe a part of him wanted to finish the job here, but more of him wanted to get back to the high desert plain.

Fine. But at least be a man about it. When you're the captain and you dump your teammates and slight a city and its fans, be honest about your actions -- especially after you've cashed $12 million worth of checks. Don't hide behind a contract demand that was never going to be met. Don't profess to be shocked at a trade when you know there's a private jet waiting at the airport. And don't talk about 'downsizing.'"

Aaron Portzline, The Columbus Dispatch:

The Blue Jackets have had four captains since they joined the NHL in 2000. They're still searching for their first good one.

But the events of Tuesday, the NHL's trade deadline day, sent a chill through the entire Blue Jackets organization, and Foote is now seen as more fraud than leader.

It's believed that Foote and his agent, Rick Curran, set their contract demands at a height they knew the Blue Jackets wouldn't accept.

Proof: The Blue Jackets moved up from their first offer of two years, $6 million to two years, $7 million, but Foote and Curran refused to budge from their initial demand of two years, $8 million. When Howson suggested to Foote that the sides continue negotiating beyond the trade deadline -- that the Blue Jackets' playoff hopes, faint as they are, deserve a hearty attempt -- Foote responded in a way nobody could have predicted.

According to numerous NHL sources, Foote threatened to be "a bad teammate, a bad captain and a bad player" the rest of the season if he weren't re-signed or traded to his preferred destination -- the Colorado Avalanche, where his best NHL years were spent.

The Blue Jackets made a final plea, urging Foote to consider all that the Blue Jackets' ownership group, the coaching staff and the fans had done for him the past three seasons.

Again, according to sources, he responded by saying that he "doesn't owe anybody anything." With that, Howson had no choice but to deem him un-captain-worthy and seek a trade. That he got a first-round draft pick out of the Avalanche is almost remarkable.

Lindsay Dudas, letter to Ray Stein, sports editor for The Columbus Dispatch:

Editor: I am an overpaid NHL player and I wear a "C" on my jersey. In the last year of my contract I sell my house and publicly tell everyone I just want to downsize. Then, while my team is sniffing the playoffs, I tell the organization that I want another overpaid contract, which I know that they will not agree to.

Once I find out that I am not getting my overpaid contract, I tell the team that I do not feel I can play for them because I do not know where I am going to be next year. What I am really saying is, "I do not want to be here and I want to handcuff my team by limiting their trade partners, and I only want to be traded to Colorado. By the way, I want to play for them the day I am traded, since I have already shipped my gear there." Who am I?

Having worked for a few dysfunctional organizations (and people), I empathize with Foote. However, hockey has a quirky dichotomy, balancing the interests of the individual (salary, contracts, new challenges, etc.) with the interests of the team (chemistry, winning championships). Foote thought he wanted money, but realized he wanted “home”, meaning Colorado.

There’s a great line in the Book of Matthew. "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matthew 6:24). Foote chose money and came to Columbus. Now he has chosen “home” and returned to Colorado. He has revealed his true character, and through this adversity he may have brought the Blue Jackets closer together. Perhaps his departure could be the catalyst that brings the Blue Jackets to the brink of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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