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The Dany Heatley Debate

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Is he a villain or a misunderstood victim?

Montreal Canadien v Ottawa Senators Photo By Dave Sandford/Getty Images

Last September, TSN’s Ian Mendes noted the ten-year anniversary of the infamous Dany Heatley trade with an article suggesting that maybe it was time to give forgiveness. The responses at the time were a mix between an absolute “no” and others suggesting that maybe Heatley was ahead of his time.

After the dismantling this franchise has been through in the decade since, few had any sympathy or defence for the team. But is Heatley really in the same boat as fellow departed players such as Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Erik Karlsson?

A little over a month ago, Mendes once again opened the Heatley topic with this little teaser:

Less than a year after the article, the responses were a bit softer between wanting to know why he left to some even reminiscing about his time in Ottawa.

The whole situation begs the question: why is it such an evil thing for a player to ask for a trade? Why are some players like Kyle Turris or even Spezza defended for it yet Heatley continues to be crucified on the matter almost eleven years later?

Let’s take a look back at the Heatley trade to see if it was truly as unforgivable as we remembered.

When Heatley’s time in Ottawa was coming to a close in 2009, the Senators were the proud owners of one of the best forward lines in the NHL, with Heatley playing alongside Alfredsson and Spezza. His request for a trade seemed out of place and in a way came across as a threat to the viability of the franchise. He was painted as an arrogant and selfish player, ungrateful for everything the Sens had done for his career. After four years, why wouldn’t he want to continue playing in a city that absolutely adored him? He was an All-Star, he was untouchable, and most importantly he had five years left on a lucrative six-year deal the Senators generously gave him.

When Heatley was asked to give a reason for his demands, his response was that he wasn’t satisfied with the role given to him by at-the-time head coach Cory Clouston. Heatley wanted to play his own game, his own system and on his own terms. He didn’t take a liking to his reduced point production (down to 0.88 P/GP from 1.15 the previous season), even if it meant that Clouston was trying to develop the team to be more well-rounded at both ends of the ice. Many found it selfish from Heatley as he was only interested in playing a game that glorified his own stats, painting Clouston as somewhat of a victim in this situation.

To make matters worse, the team was forced to pay him a $4 million bonus right after he requested the trade. It left a bitter taste in the mouths of many including owner Eugene Melnyk, who later exercised his favourite hobby by taking Heatley to court and settling for an undisclosed amount.

All the surrounding factors of the trade were against Heatley. All the team had done was try to bring in a coach with a new perspective, and he was demanding to leave. How could any fan side with him? He took all his glory and a $4 million cheque and went to the San Jose Sharks, even going on to win a gold medal with Team Canada at the Olympics.

The Senators weren’t the same for a while after the trade, and Clouston’s tenure didn’t last very long either. As for Heatley, his production severely suffered, and he ended up moving around several teams before ending his once illustrious career in Germany. Many viewed it as an appropriate progression for a player who had no right wanting to leave the team he no longer felt comfortable playing for.

Let’s look at the other side.

The Senators saw many changes after the Heatley trade, and while some were a result of the void left by Heatley, the return of Milan Michalek proved to be more than a capable asset. Clouston eventually proved that while his idea of an offensive but defensively responsible team seemed sensible, his execution wasn’t effective, quickly losing the attention and trust of the team.

While I don’t think players should dictate the management’s direction of the team (unless you’re Jack Eichel apparently) was Heatley right about his concerns with Clouston’s coaching style? Was Clouston unjust in breaking up the trio of Heatley, Spezza and Alfredssson? Was he really the reason behind the eventual rebuild that happened shortly after, or was the team headed in that direction anyways?

The Senators took a gamble back in 2005 to trade away a key player in Marian Hossa to acquire Heatley, and while Hossa went on to have a storied career, Heatley didn’t disappoint in his Ottawa tenure as a key component in one of the best playoff runs in franchise history. He was well liked by his peers and was always a great representative of the team during the All-Star games and international tournaments. He signed a six-year deal with a team he thought would continue to compete at the level of the 2007 playoff run, then all of a sudden the team’s entire direction shifted.

Was it selfish for him to jump ship and leave the Sens to pick up the pieces? Maybe so, but Heatley had a different vision for his career. What if Melnyk was beginning his reign of incompetency and Heatley’s party recognized where things were headed?

Whatever side you choose, there’s no right answer and I’m sure the question will continue to pop up. A few years later Spezza quietly asked for a trade under similar circumstances where he felt stuck on a team that had no direction, in a city that got used to putting the blame on the cheerful centre. I doubt anyone views Spezza as a villain to this day nor does anyone have issue with Turris wanting out of the Coyotes for similar concerns to Heatley.

The Sens have had ample gifts handed to them from Heatley, Spezza, Turris, Karlsson and Mark Stone, and with every chance they had to build a long lasting legacy they found a way to destroy it. Yet Heatley is still paying for a decision that is now looking like a normal course of action for many players.