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Andreychuk's journey finds reward

Published May 23, 2004

TAMPA - The routine on game day is usually the same. Dave Andreychuk awakens from a nap and, at 4 p.m., calls his wife.

He asks about their three daughters and she wishes him luck. On Saturday, Sue Andreychuk felt compelled to add a new step to their dance.

"Fulfill your dream tonight," she said. "I love you."

She hung up crying before he could reply.

The journey has lasted more than half his lifetime. The chase, until now, has been without end.

At times, it has threatened to define Andreychuk's life. The quest for the Stanley Cup final that has never come.

Until now. Until this year, this team, this moment. And now the years, like the ice imbedded in his skates, have melted away.

* * *

He is a kid again. The son of a steel mill worker in Hamilton, Ontario, who was so unsure of his skills he never bothered to show up at the NHL draft more than 20 years ago. Instead he was working in a veterinarian's office, cleaning the animal cages, when he was selected in the first round.

He is 40 now. And nothing has changed. After 22 seasons, Andreychuk is going to his first final with the Lightning, and he is thinking of everyone but himself.

He has more reason to celebrate than anyone, yet he and Tim Taylor are the first players to skate toward the Flyers to shake hands. Later, he calls his parents in the family waiting room at the St. Pete Times Forum and asks them to come share the moment.

"He calls after every game. No matter what time it is or where he's at. He'll always call before he gets on a plane," his father, Julian, said. "His accomplishments tonight are not for himself. They're for his mother, his sisters, his family. He understands their importance and he always puts them first."

The numbers over his career are impressive, and one day they will earn him a home in the Hall of Fame. But the impact in Tampa Bay has been lasting, and that will be remembered with far more affection.

His years here have not been notable for any particular moments on ice. Andreychuk's days as a dominant scorer have long since passed.

Andreychuk was brought here for something different. For something far more rare. He was brought here to teach a team how to win.

"He teaches without trying to teach," defenseman Nolan Pratt said. "Before Game 6, I look over at him and he's got goosebumps the size of golf balls on his arms. He's been playing for 22 years and he's still like a kid in a candy store. That's the kind of thing he's brought here."

The Lightning could not have done this without coach John Tortorella. And Tortorella could not have done it without Andreychuk.

It was Tortorella who pushed these players harder than they thought possible. And Andreychuk kept the players from revolt.

"He's done so much for this organization, mostly what he's done in that locker room," Tortorella said. "You have to remember, he was just about out of the game when he got here and now he's gotten a second life. He's transformed himself to fit the role we had available, and that's not an easy thing to do for a guy who scored goals all his life.

"You're damn right, I'm happy for him."

This is a team with a dozen subplots. The undersized and unwanted forward returning, with a possible MVP award, to face the team that let him go. The carefree star and the impassioned coach who forged a truce and set a tone. The GM no one knew putting together a roster no one could have imagined.

Up and down the roster, there are tales to tell. And none feel better than Andreychuk's.

To a fan, the journey to this point may seem long. A dozen years, three arenas and hundreds of games.

Now imagine Andreychuk's trek. He entered the NHL a decade before the Lightning. He has played in cities since wiped from the league's memory. Before Saturday, he had been in 154 playoff games, and no player had been in more without reaching the Stanley Cup final.

You know, he has been close before. Andreychuk reached a conference final with three teams. Before Saturday, he had come within a victory of the Cup final four times. And four times his team had lost.

Chase something for this long and it can become a part of you. For some, it could be the core of their lives. In Andreychuk's case, it has never overwhelmed who he is.

Two years ago, when the Lightning was still watching the playoffs from afar, general manager Jay Feaster told Andreychuk he would do him a favor and trade him to a contender. Andreychuk told him not to bother.

Twenty years in the league, and he gave up a possible playoff spot because he was committed to this franchise. He changed a team. He recast its image.

There were lessons in responsibility. Followed by instruction in accountability. There was the time he insisted every player show up in the locker room to face reporters after a horrid loss. And the many times he invited players to his hotel suite during free nights on the road.

Others in the room already have their names on the Stanley Cup.

But it is Andreychuk who has his fingerprints on this team.

[Last modified May 23, 2004, 01:00:16]

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