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22 years, 1,759 games, 1 love for Andreychuk

Published June 8, 2004

[Times photo: Dirk Shadd]

TAMPA - They traveled in the same circles. Had many mutual acquaintances. On the odd occasion, they were even in the same building.

Strange, they'd never met before. Not once in Dave Andreychuk's 22 years as one of the National Hockey League's most prolific scorers.

Some of that was due to circumstance. The fortunes, or misfortunes as it turned out, of not playing for the right team at the right moment.

Some of that also was due to design. The tradition, and maybe the pride, of an NHL player avoiding introduction until it could come on his terms.

It wasn't the kind of thing a father would ever say to his son, but Julian Andreychuk had long ago accepted the reality that it would never happen.

"It was too much time. Too much time," Julian Andreychuk said. "He'd been going 22 years. He was 40 years old.

"It would take a miracle. That's what I thought. I dreamt about it, but I couldn't see it happening."

In case you missed it, the miracle arrived at 10:51 p.m.

Dave Andreychuk, get ready to meet Lord Stanley's Cup.

No player had ever worked so long, or so hard, without reward.

That is not sentimental hyperbole. It is not a subjective opinion. It is simply a truth, backed by numbers no one would want to claim as their own.

Andreychuk had been in 1,597 regular-season games and another 161 in the playoffs without playing for a Stanley Cup winner. No player had been in more games without having his name inscribed on the Cup.

At 40, he had devoted more than half a lifetime to the chase. He had watched, year after year, as friends and enemies, subordinates and peers, had taken his dream and held it aloft in their hands.

"He stayed with it, that's the impressive thing," said associate coach Craig Ramsay, who was Andreychuk's roommate when the Lightning captain broke in with Buffalo in 1982. "And he's a better player now than he's ever been. He's a better person. He brought a lot of those qualities here with him."

* * *

They were just down the hall from one another. It was Saturday night, Game 6 at the Saddledome in Calgary. In a room next to where the Zamboni is parked, the Stanley Cup was waiting for the Flames to win the series.

It was removed from its case and polished during the third period. It sat patiently through regulation. And the first overtime.

When a Martin St. Louis goal ended the game - and extended the series - the Cup was packed and rushed out of the room within minutes. It had exited the arena before many of the Flames had left the ice.

"It's not superstition, more tradition, I guess," said Phil Pritchard, Hockey Hall of Fame curator and keeper of the Cup. "We just don't think it would be appropriate for a Flames player, or his wife, to see it leaving after they just lost the game."

With an escort from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Pritchard and the Cup reached the airport in time for a redeye flight to Toronto. After a brief layover, they reached Tampa on Sunday morning.

The Cup was next to Pritchard's bed in the Marriott Westshore by the time the Lightning charter flight landed later in the day.

* * *

Maybe Andreychuk will be back next season.

Maybe he won't.

Today, it doesn't matter.

To dwell on his future is to neglect what he already has left behind. And in the story of this franchise, no one's legacy is larger.

Much that is good with the Lightning is reflected in Andreychuk's eyes. He made the players tougher. He taught them to be proud. He showed them how to come back the next day, again and again and again.

He did not do it alone. Thinking so would be a slight to too many others. But Andreychuk's impact has been clear in every step Tampa Bay has made.

He came here as a scorer and became a sage. He was two-decade star who applied for a job as a mentor. Even if it meant working on a checking line.

"Nobody has been more responsible for changing the attitude in that room," general manager Jay Feaster said. "Dave was here to reinforce all the things John (Tortorella) and Craig were trying to hammer home.

"Nobody deserves it more than he does."

* * *

They arrived in the same parking lot about an hour apart.

Andreychuk with teammate Tim Taylor by his side.

The Cup with the Conn Smythe trophy by its side.

Andreychuk went immediately to the Lightning dressing room. The Cup sat in an SUV in the players' parking lot until the beginning of the second period.

Once in the St. Pete Times Forum, the Cup was wheeled past the miniature blimp and into the dressing room of the referees. It stayed in its case until the third period when it was taken out and given a light dusting.

In the game's final minute, it was carried through the arena's corridors and to the chute leading from the Lightning dressing room to the ice.

When the moment had arrived, when the red carpet had been unfurled, it was Andreychuk's name commissioner Gary Bettman called first.

Andreychuk took the Cup in both hands, lifted it above his head, then kissed it. He began skating toward his teammates, but they waved him off.

So Andreychuk turned and skated toward open ice. Toward the noise, toward the glory, toward his place in history.

"To see Dave look at that thing, to see his teammates rally around him and hear the building roar," Feaster said, "was an unbelievable moment."

* * *

As usual, other players followed his lead. Each took the Cup and held it aloft as Andreychuk moved from hug to hug.

Eventually his two oldest daughters, Taylor and Caci, made their way to the ice. He embraced them and lifted them off the ground.

Then his wife, Sue, came for her hug.

"I just kept saying, "You did it honey, you did it.' And then we fell over on the ice," Sue Andreychuk said. "It was okay. It was worth it. It was all worth it."

The Cup has a busy schedule ahead of it. This morning, it will board a flight to Los Angeles, along with Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards and Vinny Lecavalier, to film a segment on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

But, before it goes, there was talk of another engagement.

Apparently, it was going home Monday night with its new best friend.

Dave Andreychuk, Lord Stanley's Cup is yours.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 02:48:06]

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