Behind the scenes of Sheldon Souray’s move to Edmonton

0-shelly-intro.jpgSheldon Souray meets the Edmonton media this month.
Andy Devlin, nhl.oilers.com

With four defencemen eligible for unrestricted free-agency on July 1, Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey had hard decisions to make this summer.

It would be a busy time, as Gainey by practice does not negotiate contracts during the season. When the dust finally had settled, he had re-signed cornerstone Andrei Markov to a four-year, $23-million contract; traded veteran Craig Rivet to San Jose (just before the Feb. 27 trading deadline) for rearguard Josh Gorges and a draft pick; released Janne Niinimaa to test the market (he remains unsigned); and made two offers – one in May, the other in July – to all-star Sheldon Souray, who finally chose to sign a five-year, $27-million deal with the Edmonton Oilers.

Joining the Montreal blue line for 2007-08 from the Calgary Flames is veteran Roman Hamrlik, who signed for the same four years and $22 million Gainey is reported to have offered Souray on July 2, a day after the NHL’s free-agency period had opened.

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Many believed Gainey should have dealt Souray, a hot commodity given his career-best season, before the trade deadline rather than take the risk of losing him for nothing as a UFA. But with the Canadiens fighting for a playoff spot until the final game of the regular season, the GM chose to keep his power-play quarterback, finally to see Souray sign on July 12 with his hometown team.

In an hour’s talk this weekend from his offseason home in Los Angeles, Souray spoke frankly of his time in Montreal, the things he learned in this city, how contract talks with Montreal, and other clubs, unfolded, and ultimately why he chose to leave his NHL home of seven years and go west.

“This is about the market being what it is,” Souray said. “This is the only time in my life that I’ll be in this position and in a situation to play at home in front of the support of my family.”

Here is the feature on what took place between April 9, when Souray left the Bell Centre two days after the end of the Canadiens season, and July 12, when he signed with Edmonton.

Three clips of audio from the phone conversation:

1. Souray says he leaves Montreal without one shred of remorse (1:49);
2. “Everything was too good” to say no to returning to his hometown (1:20);
3. On watching the Oilers play the Habs as a boy in a good hockey town (2:01).


“I always thought the Canadiens would make it a priority to sign me, and I was hoping and thinking that they’d make a real attempt to keep me. But for whatever reason, they decided that wasn’t the case until it became way too late.” – Sheldon Souray

souray-web-3.jpgSouray models his new sweater, the jersey of the team he loved as a boy growing up in Fishing Lake, Alta.
Chris Schwarz, Edmonton Journal


BEHIND THE SCENES OF SOURAY’S MOVE FROM CANADIENS TO OILERS

Seven-year Habs blue line veteran followed his heart home to Edmonton

DAVE STUBBS
The Gazette

Sheldon Souray spent his spring and summer packing up in one city and replanting roots four provinces to the west.

He bought a house in Edmonton, is closing the purchase of another in Los Angeles, had shoulder surgery and spent the past four months rehabilitating, welcomed a daughter into the world and, a day before his 31st birthday, signed the contract of his life.

The ex-Canadien also puzzled over questions about his former club, finally finding a two-word answer shrouded in the fogs of the salary-capped NHL:

It’s business.

Now, as training camps loom, Souray looks ahead to a new but familiar hockey landscape in Edmonton while considering the experience of seven seasons on the blue line of the Canadiens, in the unique market of Montreal.

“I have memories and friendships that will be with me forever,” Souray said during an hour-long talk from his offseason Los Angeles home. “I was honoured to be part of the Canadiens for a large part of my adult life.

“There are no bitter feelings toward anyone. None. I don’t leave Montreal with one shred of remorse for having played there.

“But,” he admitted, “I didn’t think it was going to play out like it did. It was disappointing how things finally went down.”

Souray was in the driver’s seat, an unrestricted free agent coming off the best season of his career who was a favourite with fans and a leader on the ice and in the dressing room.

He established personal highs in games played (81), goals (26, also the NHL-best for defencemen), assists (38) and points (64); his 19 power-play goals set a league record for rearguards, helping to earn him his second career all-star selection.

If his cannon from the point struck fear in the hearts of netminders, so too was he sometimes feared by his own goalies. Souray was minus-28, and he knows that needs work.

On April 9, as Canadiens players drifted out of the Bell Centre into the offseason, he said, “The priority is to give Montreal a real good chance of signing me. There’s three months before anything has to be done. Montreal has been really good and I hope our relationship continues.”

But on July 12, Souray signed a five-year, $27-million deal with the Edmonton Oilers.

It is, he says, “a pretty huge dream realized,” pulling on the jersey of the club he cheered for as a boy growing up on the Métis land of Fishing Lake, Alta.

“I remember as a boy, my father jumping out of his arena seat and screaming at a Canadien, telling him he was a bum,” he said. “I was embarrassed by it, but that was the rivalry.”

The summer’s contract negotiations taught him a great deal about hockey as it’s played off the ice – of clinical decisions, once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, windows which close as quickly as they open, and of assumptions that are better left unmade.

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Souray (right) with his good friend Craig Rivet in an advertisement produced by the NHL. Souray has traded in his Canadiens jersey for that of the Oilers, and Rivet now wears the teal of the San Jose Sharks.
Courtesy National Hockey League

“When I left Montreal (in April), I was still thinking there was a good chance I’d be back,” Souray said. “But I also knew they had a lot of people to sign, and I was prepared to live with their decisions.

“I felt confident about my place in the organization. I thought I brought a lot more to the team than just what I did on the ice. I thought I had a certain amount of influence in the dressing room.

“I always thought the Canadiens would make it a priority to sign me, and I was hoping and thinking that they’d make a real attempt to keep me. But for whatever reason, they decided that wasn’t the case until it became way too late.”

The Canadiens made Souray two contract offers – the first on May 29, one day after the club had signed defenceman Andrei Markov to a four-year, $23-million deal, the second on July 2, a day after the NHL free-agency frenzy had begun.

Over lunch late last November, Souray said that, if he were Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey, his first free-agency duty would be to lock up Markov. He still stands by that.

“That’s a good decision on their part,” Souray said. “Markie is a great defenceman, and it’s good for him and for the team. Once he signed his deal, the writing was on the wall.

“They made me an offer the day after he signed, and that’s fine. I wasn’t expecting to be the first guy. I expected only that they’d make me an offer that was going to be what we felt was going to be competitive with what the market would be.

“And that never happened.”

The May offer was for three years and a total of roughly $12 million, though neither Souray nor the Canadiens will confirm that; by policy, the club does not discuss negotiations, or even attach figures to signed contracts.

On June 5, Canadiens owner George Gillett Jr. said his club had made Souray “a very responsible offer, not one that anyone needs to be embarrassed about.”

Souray, as it turns out, did blush. And not in a good way.

“I say this with hindsight and no ill feelings,” he said, “but it wasn’t competitive. It wasn’t anywhere near what we felt we would get, both in term and in dollars. It was much, much less. It wasn’t like we were close.

“With Markie, Montreal was setting the market. I wasn’t saying I thought I was worth this, or thought I was better than I am. It’s not like Detroit set the market and Montreal had to follow.

“If you’re selling a Cadillac that’s worth $10,000 and someone offers you $2,000, do you respond by telling them that you want $16,000 to try to get them to some place in the middle? It doesn’t work like that. It’s better that you say, ‘Thank you, have a nice day.’ ”

Souray and his agent, Paul Theofanous, pretty much said that, and waited for July 1.

The only contact the player says he had with the Canadiens between April 9 and the end of May was the club inquiring about his left shoulder, which was arthroscopically repaired on April 20.

“My injuries were becoming a problem with them,” Souray said. “They wanted me to be healed before they made any decisions. That was a funny thing, because I’ve played my whole career with injuries. I played a month with a broken wrist, I played in the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder. I don’t think my injuries were ever anything that hindered my performance. I dealt with them and we moved on.

“But the (contract) talk wasn’t so much, ‘We want this guy, how can we get him on our team?’ It was, ‘Well, he’s injured.’ So right away, the feeling was more negative than positive.”

When the free-agency window opened on July 1, the Canadiens aggressively pursued Buffalo Sabres co-captain Daniel Brière with a six-year, $42-million offer. He turned them down for Philadelphia. New York Islanders forward Ryan Smyth also passed on Montreal, spurning a reported four-year, $27-million offer before joining Colorado.

A day later, the Canadiens offered Souray a four-year deal commonly reported to be worth $22 million, numbers he says “are close.”

By then, he had similar or better offers elsewhere – eventually a half-dozen or so serious offers, Souray says, before Edmonton came out of nowhere, “not even kicking the tires” until July 11 – and felt he had slipped well down the Canadiens’ list of priorities.

“By that point, I think it was done (with Montreal),” Souray said. “There was no urgency to jump on it. So much and so little had happened with Montreal from April to the beginning of July, my attitude had changed.

“You’re getting offers from other teams and (on July 2) Montreal says, ‘Take it or leave it,’ after they had been turned down by other free agents. I had plenty of options at that point, and it seemed I was more Plan E or Plan F for the Canadiens at this point.”

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Canadiens mascot Youppi! joined Kimmo Timonen, then of the Nashville Predators, and then-Canadien Sheldon Souray to hand out medals last January during an NHL Street All-Star tournament at Runyon Elementary School in Dallas. It was Souray’s second all-star selection.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for NHL

On July 3, Gainey told the media his talks with Souray were finished. The previous afternoon, Calgary free-agent defenceman Roman Hamrlik had signed with the Canadiens for, coincidentally or not, four years and $22 million.

“If the (July 2) offer had come in mid-June, absolutely, I would have seriously considered it,” Souray said. “But once they started scratching off their checklist and I was sitting at No. 7 or No. 8 on their list, after the time and energy I’d put into the team, I wondered how I could go back with an easy feeling and know that I was ‘their guy.’

“To put seven years into the organization and leave everything I had on the ice, and then say, ‘Wow, I guess this is how highly you’ve thought of me all along?’

“I’m not speculating, these are the facts,” he said. “Guys are rewarded when they go to free agency because they’re taking a risk for having waited it out, not knowing what the system holds for them. It didn’t make sense on July 2, with other offers, for me to tell the Canadiens, ‘OK, let’s try to work something out.’ ”

Ultimately, Souray says, he didn’t sign the richest offer. And he understands how people cannot fathom an athlete turning down a $22-million contract.

“But this is about the market being what it is,” he said. “This is the only time in my life that I’ll be in this position and in a situation to play at home in front of the support of my family.”

Edmonton will be a shorter hop from Los Angeles for Souray’s ex-wife, with whom he remains friendly, and their two daughters. His parents, sister and his large, extended family live in Edmonton or nearby.

“For me, it’s not just about the money, or living where you can drive your convertible all year long,” he said. “I’m a hockey player, and I’ve always enjoyed being in a city where hockey was a priority. I didn’t want to go somewhere where my heart wouldn’t be in it.

“When Edmonton came into (talks), I honestly couldn’t believe that they’d be serious about spending that much money on a guy like me. It was a no-brainer. Everything was too good.

“It took me two minutes to say yes. I told my agent, ‘Have the papers faxed to sign before they change their mind.’ ”

Souray lived soaring highs and bottom-scraping lows during seven years in Montreal, growing as a player while enduring injury, uneven play, trade rumours and the very public, ugly breakup of his marriage.

Still, he sees a sunset in this city, not a storm, as he takes a final look back while setting off in a new direction.

“I’ll never forget the experience of Saku’s return to play in the (2002) playoffs,” he said of the cancer recovery of his friend and Canadiens captain, Saku Koivu. “That went much deeper than hockey.

“You don’t forget the friends you make, some of whom become father figures or like brothers when a lot of your time is spent alone.

“There were times I could have asked for a trade, when I felt that could have been the easy thing to do. But I love the city and loved playing there too much to do that. I learned that if you can make it in Montreal, you can make it anywhere.

“I have no hard feelings. Everything there happened for a reason, and I’ll not sweep any of it under the rug. I have Canadiens jerseys which I’ll hang in the games room of my new home in Edmonton.

“I wish the Canadiens luck. I have some great friends there – Bob, Carbo and Kirkie are all great guys,” he said of Gainey, head coach Guy Carbonneau and assistant Kirk Muller. “Bob is a tremendous hockey man, and I have great respect for him and his coaches.

“I wish only that we’d have been able to win the Stanley Cup. Sak and Rivs (his friend Craig Rivet, now of the San Jose Sharks) and I often asked, ‘Would there be a better place to win the Stanley Cup than Montreal?’

“A lot of blessings have come my way this summer. Now I’m back in Edmonton, a blue-collar town where they want you to work hard and leave it all on the ice. That’s what I plan to do.”

dstubbs@thegazette.canwest.com

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