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'Look out for yourself': How some NHLers have taken more ownership over their careers

Matthew Tkachuk Matthew Tkachuk - The Canadian Press

Jack Eichel needed a change of scenery. Matthew Tkachuk felt the same.

Auston Matthews, meanwhile, was happy to sign on the dotted line for the next four seasons, just not seven or eight.

Unlike the other major North American sports — the NBA, NFL and MLB — where athletes have historically been more vocal in pushing their own interests, hockey players have, in general, toed more of the company line.

Get drafted, sign a contract, sign another contract, maybe one more, and spend a large chunk of your career with one team, regardless of the situation.

That's changed, at least in some instances, across the NHL in recent years.

Eichel forced his way out of Buffalo, Tkachuk made it clear he wasn't going to stay in Calgary, and Matthews bucked the trend of stars signing long-term when he re-upped with Toronto.

"Our league's been more of the classic old-boy network, fall in line, and make sure everyone else is happy," Eichel said. "Sometimes I think personal happiness can be lost."

The centre sought a trade away from the Sabres that landed him with the Vegas Golden Knights in November 2021 following a standoff on the path forward following a neck injury. He eventually got his ticket out of town, along with the type of surgery he desired.

"Important to make sure you're in a good place," said Eichel, who won the Stanley Cup with Vegas in June. "Pushed pretty hard for what I wanted. Hopefully more players feel like they can control their destiny."

Tkachuk, meanwhile, informed the Flames he didn't intend to re-sign in Calgary, which prompted a July 2022 trade to Florida. The winger made the Cup final in his first season with the Panthers after agreeing to an eight-year contract.

Matthews could have signed an extension with the Maple Leafs through 2032 this past summer, but instead landed on a four-year pact that expires in 2028 — and keeps his options open.

"Players now are believing in themselves more," Tkachuk said. "Starting to take more ownership."

Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who's on an eight-year term in Edmonton that runs through 2026, said it's good to see other players doing what they feel is best.

"You look at basketball where it's very much a players-run league," said McDavid, eligible to ink an extension in July 2025. "You see in football, guys sit out even if they have a year left to get the deal that they want. Players are starting to take back a little bit of control.

"Some (NHL) guys are going about it a little bit differently."

Washington forward Tom Wilson signed long-term with the Capitals, but has no issue with players seeing what's out there.

"For so long, hockey culture was, 'Just keep doing the same things,'" Wilson said. "You've got to look out for yourself."

Added Flames centre Nazem Kadri: "A player (is) the product. He should have a say in where he goes."

Traded twice before suiting up in the NHL, New York Rangers defenceman Adam Fox said stars in the game are understanding their own power.

"You don't get your whole life to play hockey," he said. "Starts at the top with those top guys."

And it's not only about money or sunny destinations.

Rangers captain Jacob Trouba took heat from Jets fans when he requested a trade out of Winnipeg to New York in 2019 to help advance his now-wife's career.

"No bad feelings toward Winnipeg," he explained. "Sometimes you gotta be selfish and do what's best for you and your family, which I don't think is crazy."

Chicago Blackhawks defenceman Seth Jones said athletes have taken a page from teams and leagues.

"Organizations will always put themselves first," he said. "The Blackhawks have been around 100 years. There's certain players that stand out through that, but the Blackhawks remain."

Kings captain Anze Kopitar has been with Los Angeles since 2006 — including two Cup wins — and is signed through 2026.

Spending nearly two decades with one team might not be the way forward for future generations.

"Don't want to sound cheesy, but maybe it's not the way to go anymore," he said of his path. "Maybe guys don't want to lock themselves into a longer contract, just because they're not sure if they want to stay or not.

"And that's OK."


The New York Islanders woke up on Feb. 26 nine points back of the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. After recently ripping of seven straight victories, head coach Patrick Roy's team now sits above the wild-card cutline.


The NHL and NHLPA announced the completion this week of an educational tour led by members of the league's player inclusion coalition. The locker-room discussions involving all 32 teams were led by NHL alumni Mark Fraser, Georges Laraque, Jamal Mayers, Al Montoya and Anthony Stewart.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 13, 2024.


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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.