The business of bawling

Do you know what it takes to make a hockey player cry?

A hockey player won’t cry if you hip-check his head into a wall. He won’t cry if a slap shot finds its way underneath his eyelid. He even won’t cry if an opposing player pulls a Happy Gilmore and tries to stab him with the blade of his skate.

Do you want to make a hockey player cry? Trade him, and you’ll turn on the faucet to his eyes. That is what happened to forward Ryan Smyth, who was traded last week from the Edmonton Oilers to the New York Islanders. Smyth had been with Edmonton since they chose him in the sixth overall pick of the 1994 NHL Draft.

He was a beloved player in the birth place of hockey. At the Edmonton International Airport, Smyth spoke to reporters moments before boarding a flight to New York. He stammered out a “thank you” to the Edmonton community, pausing at every other word to sniffle through his mucus-filled nostrils.

“I have to do my best now,” Smyth told reporters, “to make the playoffs, win the (Stanley) Cup and bring it back to Edmonton ... because that’s where my heart is.”

Smyth couldn’t finish the word “Edmonton,” succumbing to the tears that had formed flush around his eyes.

While Smyth was sad, wide receiver Joe Horn was angry.

Horn had spent six seasons with the New Orleans Saints. He joined the team in 2000 and quickly helped the Saints win their first playoff game in franchise history. During the Hurricane Katrina-forced exile in 2005, Horn was the spokesman for the team. That year the Saints represented a team unwilling to quit for a city unwilling to close shop.

Soon, the worst of times announced some of the Saint’ best times. Their forgettable 3-13 record in ’05 turned into an unforgettable 10-6 season in ’06. Under first-year head coach Sean Peyton, the Saints announced their arrival as a top team for years to come. But Horn won’t be along for the ride. The Saints released him last week despite the veteran’s plea to stay on the roster.

“If I felt I was wanted here, I would have played for $2.50,” Horn told reporters.

Instead, he is forced to turn in the fleur-de-lis. Today, he is just another homeless resident of New Orleans.

Having found his fourth home in four years, quarterback Jeff Garcia now feels duped. Last season, Garcia took over at quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles after star quarterback Donovan McNabb’s season-ending knee surgery Nov. 19. Garcia took a 5-5 team under McNabb and led them to their fifth NFC East title in six years.

In the offseason, Garcia had hoped the Eagles would make an attempt to keep him on as a back-up. Instead, the Eagles agreed to a three-year contract extension with third-string quarterback A.J. Feeley. Garcia had fallen in love with Philadelphia’s fans and hoped to stay put.

“It wasn’t about money,” Garcia said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet. “It was about being in a great situation.”

The tales of Smyth, Horn and Garcia highlight one infallible fact of sport. It is, at its very core, a business. In each league, the players are laborers. The coaches are bosses, the owners are management, the fans are consumers, and every game is another day at work. Although it is a well-paying job (Horn will find a new home before thousands of other Katrina victims find one), these once adored athletes have abruptly been shown the door.

Athletes who once played for love of the game became talented enough to continue for love of money. But their desire for dollars left empty holes in their hearts, holes that can only be filled by one passion – the love for their communities.

Now that’s love enough to make a hockey player cry.

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