Why We Play the Game

One leg was twice the size of the other. It was a few hours before the game. We were in Edmonton last November. I was warming up in the hallway, doing some band work, some quick-feet stuff. At some point I looked down and saw that my right leg was really swollen.

When you are dealing with blood clots, this is the moment you always fear. Your body is betraying you. You can’t deny it. You can’t fight through it.

I took my equipment off and put on a tracksuit to go to the hospital to get checked out. As I was walking out of the locker room with the doctor, one of my teammates gave me a hug and just broke down in tears.

“Not again, Duper. Are you kidding me? Again?”

That’s the moment I realized that I needed to draw the line. People weren’t just worried about me playing hockey. They were worried about me playing with my life.

I called my wife and said, “Hey, honey, I’m heading to the hospital now. I gotta get checked out. I felt something.”

That’s obviously not a fun call for her to get. I made another one from San Jose a few weeks later. It got to a point where she wasn’t watching my games anymore. She wouldn’t come to the rink. She was scared to lose me.

She deserves a lot of credit. She never said a word. She was hoping that I would stop, but she didn’t say anything because she knows what playing hockey means to me. I promised her that if I felt anything like I felt before, when I had the clot in my lung, I would go get checked, no questions asked.

Everybody around me was scared for me. But to be honest, I was almost oblivious. I had a one-track mind: keep playing hockey. But the calls to my wife became a little too routine.

Before our game in Anaheim on Dec. 6, I called her and said, “Babe, this is my last one.”

She said, “No. Come on. Stop.”

She didn’t believe me.

When she finally realized that I was serious, she was so relieved. (But I bet if you ask her now, she would say that she sometimes wishes I could go on the road more often so she could get me out of her hair.)

After I announced my decision to stop playing two days later, I took my family home to Quebec for Christmas and brought all my hockey gear with me. When we were packing up the car for the drive back to Pittsburgh, I purposely left the gear in the garage so I wouldn’t get any crazy ideas.

The only time I would go on the ice after that was to help coach my 10-year-old son. I was the biggest kid out there. I would be diving around like an idiot. That’s just about the only thing that kept me from driving back to Quebec to get my equipment.

As a player, you get such a big high from the crowd. Nothing can replace it. Everybody feels down sometimes — I don’t care who you are. When you’re a hockey player, and you can go out and score a goal or just have a nice hit and hear 18,000 people cheer for you? That fixes any problem in the world.

When that’s gone, it can be very difficult.

In my mind, even though I told my wife I was done, deep down inside I was thinking, Six months. I’ll get healthy. I’ll be back.

This is sick, I know, but when the Penguins made some moves at the trade deadline and I realized they wouldn’t be able to fit me under the regular season salary cap anymore, I thought, Well, maybe playoffs.

When the team caught fire in March and April, and I saw we had a chance to win a Cup, that’s when it was really tough. Watching on TV was easy. Going to games and being around the guys was … well, it’s impossible to explain the feeling unless you’ve lived it.

During this playoff run, I’ve been lucky enough to be around the team as a special assistant.

But you know what? When I get to the rink, I can’t stay in my suit. I feel like a clown. So I throw on my hockey underwear and my tracksuit and work out with the guys before the game. I ride the stationary bike like a maniac — like it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup. I even shoot pucks behind the training room while the team is warming up. Then when it’s game time I put my suit back on and head up to the executive box. Whatever I see from up there that I think can help the team, I try to relay to them between periods.

Is it all sunshine and rainbows? No, it sucks. I want to play hockey. But as much as it kills me to not be out there, I care about these guys so much. I just want to help them win however I can.

Coach Sully’s line on me is: There’s a team picture. There’s a coaches picture. Duper’s got one foot in both pictures, sitting on the fence.

What’s interesting about watching playoff hockey from way up in the box is that you can see the difference between being fast and playing fast. Our players have a ton of speed, but we also advance the puck very quickly as a team. It’s not just about individual skating. We get it north-south better than anyone. Nothing tested that more than the Tampa Bay series.

The worst thing in life is feeling like you have no control. Playing a Game 7 is actually pretty easy because you feel like you’re in control. Being up in the box for Game 7 against the Lightning was excruciating.

I came down to the tunnel for the last 30 seconds, when the officials called our empty net goal back for interference and Nick Bonino had to win three defensive-zone faceoffs in a row.

That was the loudest I have ever heard Consol Energy Center.

When the clock hits zero and you look at the faces of your teammates — especially the guys who went to the ’09 finals with me and finally got back seven years later — it’s the best. It’s why you play the game and sacrifice so much.

It was special to me for another reason, too.

Five minutes into Game 7, I received a text message from my father. He told me that my grandmother had passed away back in Quebec.

She was a cleaning lady all her life. She was a single mom who worked hard so that she had enough money to put food on the table. She was your typical crazy hockey mom, and she was so proud that her grandson had made it to the NHL. She was one of my biggest fans.

Sometimes when we were on the road, I would forget to return her calls for a few days. Whenever I called her back, she would say, “Tu sais quoi? Si tu n’appelles pas ta grand-mère, j’annule mon abonnement NHL Center Ice.

(“You know what? If you don’t call your grandma, I’m going to cancel my NHL Center Ice subscription.”)

To be watching Game 7 from the box and to not be able to play for my grandma was the toughest moment I’ve had since I stepped away from hockey.

It never gets easier to watch. The finals will be no different. But I was fortunate enough to lift the Cup in 2009. I got to bring it home to my family in Quebec. Now I just want my teammates to be able to experience that feeling.

Give them hell, boys. You never know how many more shifts you have left.