tampabay.com

Passion to play won't melt away

After his year to sit and think, camaraderie calls to this veteran of 22 seasons.

By JOHN ROMANO
Published September 16, 2005


BRANDON - The chase was supposed to be all-consuming. It had crossed borders and decades, it had put up with several almosts and a few not quites.

When it finally ended, when Dave Andreychuk was no longer the longest-tenured NHL player without a Stanley Cup, the world discovered something new about his 22-year journey.

He hadn't been chasing a dream, after all.

Turns out, he'd been living it.

The airplanes and buses. The teammates and rivals. The sore joints and aching muscles. The coaches who screamed and the ones who chuckled. And the moments on the ice. Most definitely, the time on the ice.

That's what it was all about. That's what drove Andreychuk. And just because he had won a Stanley Cup, he wasn't ready to give it all up.

"The game is so much in him and is so much a part of who he is and what he is," Lightning general manager Jay Feaster said. "The thought of retiring, the thought of not having the game every day, is something he can't wrap his mind around. I never believed after we won it that he would ride into the sunset, a la Ray Bourque. I think it's everything he is, the game."

Oh, he'd thought about giving it up. For a week, maybe two. In the glow of Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup title in June 2004, Andreychuk gave some reflection to the tidy story line everyone assumed was about to be penned.

Why not walk away with the music still ringing in your ears, with memories of holding the Cup above your head as your last act on the ice? Why watch your weight instead of your favorite TV show? Why go on?

Look around. There are plenty of legends coming to that conclusion. Especially after the additional year of rust from the lockout.

Did you see Scott Stevens, 41, announced his retirement this month? A few days later, Al MacInnis, 42, bowed out. Then came Mark Messier, 44, and Ron Francis, 42. These were Andreychuk's contemporaries. His rivals.

Had Andreychuk, who turns 42 this month, decided to retire, he could have been in line for one of the greatest Hall of Fame classes in memory in 2007.

Instead, he was back in training camp this week, sweat dripping from hair that already has streaks of gray intruding near his temples.

"We all want to win the Stanley Cup, but what you find out over the years is there is a lot more to being in the game," said assistant coach Craig Ramsay, Andreychuk's roommate when he broke in with Buffalo in 1982. "And what David has found out is he loves the game. He loves being a part of a team. When you retire and step away, you are an outsider.

"He's not ready for that."

What eventually convinced Andreychuk was the thought there would be no turning back. With one season already wiped out by labor strife, there is no way he could have sat out another, and then changed his mind.

"Come December, what would have happened if I decided I really did want to play?" he said. "I didn't want to have that feeling the rest of my life."

So he is in training camp, playing alongside a bunch of minor-leaguers who were not even born when Andreychuk scored his first NHL goal on Oct. 6, 1982.

He has nothing to prove. No goals left to chase. He's making a handsome wage - a two-year, $1.326-million contract - but his salary is less than half what it was last time around. And his playing time is likely to decrease.

There is nothing to keep him out here, other than the same enjoyment he got as a schoolboy looking for a rink and some competition in Hamilton, Ontario.

"It's good just to come down to the rink and get on a schedule," said Andreychuk, who admitted the work stoppage gave him a retirement preview. "I was sitting at home with nowhere to go, nobody telling me what to do.

"There were some positive sides for me. I golfed. I got to see my kids a lot more, drove them to and from school. I went home for Christmas, went back to Buffalo for Thanksgiving. ... But I did ask my wife quite a few times, "What do you want to do?' I think she's pretty happy I'm back on a schedule. I'm out of the house and back to normal."

Normal, for Andreychuk, has been an evolving position. He long ago accepted he was no longer a first-line player. Ten years have passed since he last scored as many as 30 goals in a season. Now he's a power-play guy. He does some checking. He'll take faceoffs. Mostly, he'll lead the way.

It's not that Andreychuk is a mouthpiece for the coaching staff. Or that he brings a lot of rah-rah stuff to the ice.

It has more to do with the mood he brings to the team. That priceless blend of deference for the sport, and zeal for the game.

Watch the Lightning go through a mundane training camp practice at mid week, and you will see Andreychuk laughing as much as anyone else.

Maybe it's because he has been around long enough to appreciate everything he has. Or it could be he understands he is playing on borrowed time.

Or, perhaps, it is simply who he is.

And this is the thing he loves.