Four veterans still hoping for first Cup experience
RALEIGH, N.C. -- In 2001, after 22 seasons of waiting and wondering whether it ever would happen, the Colorado Avalanche's Ray Bourque lifted the Stanley Cup.
Both men discovered it was a feeling that truly must be experienced to be understood, and part of the magic is that so few, relatively speaking, can nod in genuine "been there, done that" comprehension.
In 2006, the Carolina Hurricanes' Glen Wesley, Rod Brind'Amour, Doug Weight and Bret Hedican are in that 35-and-over territory of knowing they are in a career's twilight and still hoping for that first Cup experience.
Combined, they officially have a total of 64 NHL seasons -- Wesley 18, Brind'Amour 17, Weight 15 and Hedican 14. (It's a bit tricky because both Weight and Brind'Amour appeared only in the playoffs after signing after college seasons. Weight left Lake Superior State and played one postseason game with the Rangers in 1991, and Brind'Amour left Michigan State after his freshman season in 1989 and appeared in five playoff games with the Blues.)
Combined, they have zero Cups.
(The oldest Hurricane, winger Mark Recchi, 38, was on Pittsburgh's 1991 Cup-winning team.)
"Well, you only have so many opportunities, and it's so hard to get in this position," Wesley said Sunday, the eve of the Hurricanes' attempt to even the Eastern Conference finals against the Sabres at a game apiece.
Talking, or at least talking about it much, can come off as presumptuous, both about a team's chances in the current playoff run and about the inevitable limits of a career.
So they're not going to get caught discussing it as if this is the last stand, or get too specific about what it would be like to be a part of a championship, or to come up short.
But they at least acknowledge the thought is there.
With each series victory, the possibility of finally raising the Cup, of eventually seeing their names etched on it, becomes more bona fide.
It is not about career validation because that notion -- that a championship is necessary to validate careers -- is one of the most overhyped theories in discussion of professional sports.
In this case, it is more about an exclamation point, one that has little to do with individual accomplishment and a lot more to do with a communal experience.
"You have to have a lot of things go well for you to get in the position we're in right now," said Wesley, 37, the defenseman who spent seven seasons as a Bourque teammate with Boston before joining the Whalers for the post-lockout and short-lived 1995 season. "I even say this to the young guys: You get only so many opportunities, and the opportunities don't come very often. It's something you want to take advantage of when that opportunity arises because you don't know when it's going to come around again."
Wesley also has a unique perspective about the Hurricanes' quest, having been with the franchise, except for a brief run with the Maple Leafs at the end of the 2003-04 season, since before its arrival in North Carolina. He probably can still hum "Brass Bonanza" when challenged. After the move, he experienced the bizarre commute to Greensboro for "home" games before the RBC Center was finished. He got to practice at a rink where the Hurricanes had to dress upstairs, then walk down a flight to get to the ice. (It was even worse than it sounds.)
"There were a lot of things we did in the past, but you see the benefits paying off," he said.
And through it all, including the Hurricanes' run to the Cup finals against Detroit in 2002, he has been a bedrock. He is a stay-at-home defenseman, a character guy whose odometer didn't roll over and whose game didn't become archaic when the NHL returned with new standards and rules. In the regular season, he still played about 15 minutes a game and was a plus-10.
On Sunday, Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette noted that in 2003-04, "the last time we played, the team didn't make the playoffs and we were a low-scoring team. When you're a low-scoring team and you don't make the playoffs, you're usually giving up goals. He was still a plus-19, just a real defensive defenseman, and he brings a lot of experience on how to play defense."
Is he entering that Andreychuk (win-one-for ... ) territory?
"We haven't talked about that or gone down that road," said Laviolette. "I am sure that there's a lot of guys, Rod Brind'Amour, Glen Wesley, guys that have been around for a while, who have played a lot of hockey [and] haven't won a Cup. It certainly would be nice to get that done for them."
Brind'Amour, the Hurricanes' captain and a Selke Trophy finalist, reached the Cup finals twice, with the Flyers in 1997, when he had 13 goals in 19 postseason games, and with the Canes in 2002. From afar and from up close, the veteran center has appreciated Wesley's game.
"He's professional," Brind'Amour said Sunday. "You have to have that consistency and class. He brings that to our whole team, and that attitude kind of goes down to everyone around him."
And what of Brind'Amour's own chase of the Cup experience? He had a strong season, at both ends of the ice, getting 31 goals, but he also will be 36 in August.
"I'm a realist," he said. "I know what's going on. There are things you wish would happen and it would be great, but I don't want to focus on something individual like that. It's too far down the line at this point, anyway. Other guys are in the same boat, and it would be a bonus in that way if we could do that, but that's not our focus right now, saying, 'Oh, we have to get it done now or ... ' We know we only get so many kicks at the can."
Hedican also will be 36 in August. (In fact, he was born the day after Brind'Amour.) The Minnesota-born defenseman got close to the Cup finals with the Canucks in '94 and the Hurricanes four years ago.
That brings us to Weight, the veteran center acquired from the Blues on Jan. 30, nine days after he turned 35. He left the Rangers and joined the Oilers before the 1994 championship in New York, and this is the first time he has been with a team that has made the conference finals.
With good humor, he wasn't wild about this talk of a veteran's quest because it comes with the implied kicker that he is nearing the end of his career.
Well, does he plan to play until he is 42?
"No, but I'm going to be playing when I'm 36," he said with a smile. "So, I hope I get a chance to come back. You don't think about that I've played 15 years. The lure is there. To be here, where you've never been, certainly that's something, but I'm not looking at it as the last stand. I appreciate the concern, though.
"You know what? You say it when you're young and you hear it from all the guys who are older, and it's one of the hockey clichés, and that's to enjoy it when you're here, whether you're 22 or 35, because you don't know how many times you're going to get a chance."
That's the point.
You don't know the feeling until you experience it.
And so few, relatively speaking, know it.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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