I wanted to use the blog to paint a picture of a strange and emotional day.
The Penguins were scheduled to practice at a rink called the Big Bear Ice Arena on the outskirts of Denver at 1 p.m. today. It’s an old barn of a rink, a little rundown, in a largely industrial area off the highway. The day was warm but very windy.
A little less than an hour before practice was to begin, the rink was a ghost town. Two cars parked in a large parking lot. There was a big outline scratched into the building over the front entrance, remnants of where a big logo used to be.
Less than 15 minutes before the start of practice, a muscle car painted in primer, driven by a 20-something guy in a knit cap slowly rolled around the parking lot. A small dog, a chihuahua type, ran down the sidewalk in front of the main entrance. (At this point, I’m thinking, ‘I should really go try to help that dog, but I have to work in a few minutes.’ Thankfully, the dog’s owner walked by shortly thereafter and claimed him.)
Right around 1, the TV broadcast team arrived, the print media assembled and a Penguins PR staffer opened the locked front door. In the lobby, Jim Rutherford and Pascal Dupuis were standing a few yards ahead, having what was obviously a serious conversation. Maybe Rutherford was telling Dupuis he wouldn’t be in the lineup tomorrow night?
That wasn’t it. A Penguins employee told the media the team had just issued a release. Dupuis wouldn’t be playing anymore.
Wait. What? You mean he retired, effective immediately?
No one from the Penguins used the word “retired.” They can’t, for salary cap reasons. But yes, effective immediately.
Dupuis stood in front of reporters and answered questions for about 5 minutes. He was solemn, emotional but controlled. He wanted to make a comeback from blood clots so badly, but the medical reality of the situation just got in the way. For the sake of his family, he’d have to retire.
A quote from Dupuis: “We knew there were going to be a couple adjustments, a couple little bumps in the road. Obviously it wasn’t a perfect protocol for me, so that’s why I made the decision.”
Dupuis shook hands with reporters when he was done.
Rutherford spoke next. Now’s not the time to talk about things like the salary cap. Now’s the time to talk about the person.
A quote from Rutherford: “In my mind, I could see it coming. It’s always been his decision, which it should have been, but personally, in the offseason, I felt he was taking a big risk by trying to play. But like I said, he’s very determined. He wanted to help the team. He wanted to try it. He gave it his best shot but, just medically, he can’t do it anymore.”
Call the office. Text Rob Rossi back. Text Joe Starkey back. No wireless in this place. Activate the hot spot on the cell phone. Write a breaking news story for the web. Quick, quick, quick.
Dan Potash walks in. He had been in Colorado Springs to do a story on USA Hockey headquarters when the news broke. Can’t imagine a reporter more linked to a player than Potash is to Dupuis. (Thanks, Daaaaaaaaan.) I ask him for his thoughts, and he’s eloquent.
Here’s what he said: “Honestly, it breaks my heart. He’s obviously more than a player that I covered. He’s become a good friend. The relationship that he and I had on camera is very much the same relationship we had off of it, which is great because that’s what people want to see. They want to see players as they really are off the ice. Players like, over the years, Talbot, Fleury, Cooke, Malone, Duper, Crosby have been at the top of that list of players who have allowed themselves to be themselves in front of the camera. Duper’s been something extra special. Love his passion for the game, passion for his family, his willingness to always beat the odds stacked against him. Wasn’t drafted. Broke his leg. Won a Stanley Cup. It’s unfortunate that he can’t choose when he wants to walk away. His body’s making him choose. That probably hurts the most.”
Dupuis makes his way into a long room adjacent to the ice surface. It has a turf floor with hash marks on it. Maybe it’s used for athlete training, like running the 40. Dupuis hops on a stationary bike and pedals away. Needs to work off some excess energy? Relieve stress?
Now, go watch practice for a few minutes. Daniel Sprong’s on the fourth line with Matt Cullen and Sergei Plotnikov. Eric Fehr bumped up with Nick Bonino and Patric Hornqvist.
Oh, look at that, Kris Letang is practicing. Paired with Olli Maatta. Dumoulin-Lovejoy still together. Bottom four D same as the other day, before the Letang injury hit: Scuderi-Clendening, Cole-Warsofsky.
Which two get scratched tomorrow? Tough decision for Mike Johnston. Speaking of that, this is the first practice since Rutherford said his team was underachieving and he was taking a close look at everything, including his coach’s performance. That’s on the back burner for a day.
Practice ends. A youth hockey team made up of Russian players has gathered. Evgeni Malkin stops by their locker room to meet them.
Penguins players, it turns out, didn’t dress at this out-of-the-way rink. They dressed at the Pepsi Center and bused in. They were split into four small locker rooms to take off their skates before getting back on the bus.
(I hope Bob Errey doesn’t mind me sharing this story. We were just BS’ing, not doing an interview, but it’s pretty funny.)
Bob Errey said players walking out in their full gear reminded him of when he and his teammates used to dress at the Civic Arena and practice on the South Side. One time, he and Mario Lemieux went to the Wendy’s drive-thru and ordered a Frosty in full gear, including helmets. Funny.
Players who have known Dupuis for a long time — Sidney Crosby, Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz — stop to talk to reporters on their way out to the bus. So does Johnston.
Crosby’s conversation was particularly striking. He’s standing in front of a bright red cinderblock wall, sweating from having just stepped off the ice, holding his helmet in his hand. After he answers a few questions, I ask if he can put into words what Dupuis has meant to him as a teammate and a friend.
He says he doesn’t think he can get through the answer without breaking up. He musters a few sentences, obviously choking back tears.
Reporters act like human beings — we don’t always — and don’t ask any more questions. Crosby walks away a few steps and stops just around the corner. He waits until Fleury’s interview is done and calls me over. He has composed himself and wants to give an answer. It’s important to him.
Here’s what he said: “The main thing that comes to mind is just a character guy. No matter the situation, when things were good or bad, you knew he was going to show up every night. You knew he was going to have great energy. Nothing that he got was ewasy. He earned everything he got right from junior hockey on. He always had that mentality. That’s what made his so successful over his career. His ability to get the most out of himself and his ability to be a good teammate were probably his greatest traits, I think.”
Bye for now,