Soon after Brooks Laich opened the door to the Washington Capitals’ dressing room for the first time in February 2004, he encountered George McPhee, the general manager who engineered his trade from the Ottawa Senators.
McPhee had acquired Laich and a second-round draft pick for Peter Bondra, a popular right wing who had spent parts of 15 years with the Capitals. He shook Laich’s hand, offered a welcome, then told him he hoped Laich, too, would spend 15 years with the team.
“I made it 12,” Laich said on Wednesday afternoon, standing in a Verizon Center hallway no more than 100 feet from that dressing room. “That’s longer than most make it.”
After playing in 742 games and dressing alongside 143 different teammates, Laich was again traded, shipped from the Capitals to the Toronto Maple Leafs late Sunday night.
In a scheduling twist, the Maple Leafs visited Washington on Wednesday, offering Laich and defenseman Connor Carrick, who was also included in the deal, a chance to offer a proper goodbye before moving on.
Laich, who played a season-high 14:17 in the 3-2 loss, took the first shift and was cheered when he was announced among the Maple Leafs’ starters before the game. He was given a standing ovation through a 90-second tribute video that aired on the video screens during a break in the first period — one he tried to ignore at first before stopping to watch.
“Once the puck dropped, I knew it was going to be OK,” Laich said after the game. “Actually, the game wasn’t as weird or awkward as I thought it was going to be.”
Laich said his cellphone was off on Sunday night when the trade was consummated. He only found out he had been dealt when his fiancée, actress Julianne Hough, received word.
The Capitals had put Laich on waivers on Saturday, and at the time, he told general manager Brian MacLellan that he wanted to remain with the team and have a chance at winning the Stanley Cup. He cleared waivers the next afternoon and played in the 3-2 road loss to the Chicago Blackhawks, which ended up being his final game with the team.
“I’ve been around the sport for a while, so you’re aware of certain things,” Laich said. “I thought maybe my conversations with the staff had hopefully made the decision clear for them, but I understand it’s a business. They’re going to do what they feel is best for their hockey team, short-term and long-term. I understand that, but I was still surprised when the move happened.”
MacLellan said after the trade deadline passed on Monday that the deal, which sent Daniel Winnik to the Capitals, was made in order to obtain greater flexibility to re-sign other players during the summer. Laich’s $4.5 million annual salary cap hit was larger than all but that of two Capitals players, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, which was deemed unacceptable for a fourth-liner who had just one goal and six assists all season.
Laich acknowledged being frustrated by his limited role with the Capitals and expressed hope that he’ll be able to play a larger role with the Maple Leafs, which he did on Wednesday by playing 4:10 on the second power play unit. Babcock said Laich was acquired, in part, to serve as a mentor for a number of the team’s young players. Twelve years earlier, he was traded from the emerging Ottawa Senators to a bottom-feeder. Now, he’ll be doing it again.
“His responsibility on the ice diminished, and so we’ve got to give him some responsibility on the ice, get his game back, get his confidence back in his play and then you could really lead,” Babcock said. “It’s hard to lead when you’re not playing much because you tend to just worry about yourself and keep your mouth shut.”
What may end up being the most difficult part of Laich’s transition is that his season will definitively end on April 9. The Maple Leafs have the fewest points in the standings, while the league-leading Capitals are considered by some to be favorites to win the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Laich insisted that watching his former team participate in the postseason won’t be difficult. His only regret, he said, is that he wasn’t able to help longtime teammates Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom win the Stanley Cup in previous years.
“I just have such an empty feeling that we never got the ultimate goal,” Laich said. “I really, before my time ended in D.C., wanted to do it with Alex. I really wanted to do it with Nicky, and I really wanted to do it with Mike Green, who, unfortunately, wasn’t back this year. But, those guys meant a lot to me. They really did. Very special people. Very special players, and just tough to not be able to do it with them.”
Only Ovechkin remains from 2005-06, Laich’s first full season with the Capitals, when players took the ice in blue, black and bronze sweaters. After he was traded, a number of fans reached out to him via social media, sending along messages of gratitude and photos of a 20-year-old, “pimple-faced kid.”
Laich, clean-shaven now because of a team policy, said he was humbled by such a response. If anything, he said, he should be the one who is grateful.
“I was a kid that grew up in a small town in Saskatchewan,” he said, “and they brought me here to live my dream.”