Thank You, Carolina

A few weeks ago, I showed up at PNC Arena a couple of hours before puck drop, just as I’d done so many times before over the course of the past 13 years.

I greeted the parking attendants. As I went down to the locker room, I made the usual stops along the way, talking with the same security guards and arena employees I’ve known since I was 18 years old. Back then I was just a quiet kid from Thunder Bay, Ont., excited and nervous about what the future might hold. But now I was a grown man with three kids and countless memories. I looped around to the locker room and stopped in to see the trainers, who over the years have become an extension of my family.

When I got to my stall, everything was there waiting for me, same as always. Skates, pads and a special red sweater that in many ways has defined my life. It’s a jersey that means a lot to me. It’s one I’ve grown into and appreciated more and more over time. I broke it in with blood and sweat. They even added a C to it when I was worthy, which was an honor that only made playing for this organization more special.

When you spend 13 years in one place, you get into a certain routine. When I first got drafted to play for the Hurricanes, the only thing I knew about North Carolina was that it was a little warmer than Ontario. I could never have dreamed what an imprint this place would make on my life.

As I began my pregame routine, Ron Francis spotted me and grabbed my arm. I knew what was happening before he said anything. He asked for me to go to his office. I’d just been traded to the New York Rangers.

It’s only fitting that Ron would be the first person to say goodbye, because he was the first person who taught me what it meant to play here.

When I was a rookie, I sat next to him in the locker room and just… watched. I took in how he handled himself, how he led the team. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that this was someone I could learn from.

I came into the league right before the 2004–05 lockout, when things were a lot different. The game was different, really. I was fresh out of juniors, and the next youngest guy on the team was 25. When you’re put in a situation like that, you try to figure out how to be a professional really quick. That wasn’t difficult on a team like Carolina. In addition to Ron, I was surrounded by players like Rod Brind’Amour, Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley. They were the guys who taught me what would become my routine. They showed me how to treat people, how to carry myself like an NHL player. All these years later, I fully appreciate just how lucky I was to have that. How you’re brought up in this league has such a big impact on your success. Those guys held me to a standard that made me better, no doubt.

I grew up in an environment where hockey was everything. If my brothers and I weren’t playing hockey, we were talking about it at dinner or dreaming about it while we slept. Pretty much everyone we knew was just as obsessed with the sport.

This might shock you, but Carolina isn’t known for its hockey. Basketball, most definitely. Football, absolutely. But when I got to Raleigh, this was still a relatively new sport to the area. So the team’s job was kind of twofold: to win games and serve as ambassadors to the community.

Early on, I’d usually get a lot confused looks when I told people what I did for a living.

Hockey? They have a hockey team here? Is it a minor league thing or what?

But then we started having success and things started changing. More people started coming out to see us play out of curiosity and staying because the game took hold of them. We knew that this was a great area for sports, so there was an opportunity here. Plain and simple, if you’re a fan of sports, you’re probably going to be a fan of hockey.

Winning the Stanley Cup changed a lot of things for us, of course. It put us on the map for a lot of people here. We weren’t a novelty act anymore. We were champions. And we started attracting more and more people to games. It’s one thing to appeal to lifelong hockey fans, but to inspire people to follow and even take up the sport is something I’ve always thought was really cool.

Eventually, every time I went out on the town people would recognize me, whether we were at dinner or taking my kids to the park. That’s something that seemed kind of unimaginable when I first joined the organization. It was never difficult to play hard for the fans in North Carolina. There’s a certain warmth to the people, something very welcoming. Even someone you’ve never met before will treat you like an old friend. When you’re around good people, you become a better person. That’s a big reason why I stayed with this team as long as I did. That environment is what I wanted for myself and what I wanted for my family.

One day I blinked, and suddenly I was the veteran in the locker room. I was the person sitting with the kids who had just been drafted, showing them the things that Ron, Rod and all the other guys had taught me.

That transition is kind of weird because you don’t really see it happening. But what you learn is that these lessons passed down by older players aren’t given, they’re loaned. Time passes by in an instant, and suddenly you’re an established NHL player watching a young kid making the same mistake you did when you were his age. So you tell him the same thing that was told to you, and the cycle continues.

My later years in Carolina weren’t always easy. There were ups and downs. But I’m still grateful for every minute I spent there.

I’m glad that I got to come up in this league with a player as great as Cam Ward. We’ve been together for 12 of my 13 years, and it still feels a little odd taking the ice without him. We had a special relationship, the kind where you can just look at the other person and understand what they’re thinking. Throughout everything — the highs and the lows, the wins and losses — I always had him right there with me, stopping pucks and making everyone look better than we are.

And of course there’s Jordan. Sometimes I’d look up and I’d see my younger brother waiting for a pass and in that brief second, I’d just have to pinch myself. Never ever in a million years did I think I’d be so fortunate as to celebrate goals with him in the NHL. We’re just the kids of a couple of sod farmers who love hockey. Playing in this league is an incredibly special honor. But being able to do it with the people closest to you is something else entirely. I’ll always be thankful for that opportunity.

And now I get to play on the same team as Marc. Unreal. While Jordan’s more like me personalitywise, Marc’s always been a jokester. The guy has a perfect chirp for every situation, and being able to reunite with him in New York has made the move so much easier.

If I did have to move teams, I couldn’t have asked for a better organization to join than the Rangers. I’ve played against them so many times, so I know exactly how good they are.

In Carolina, my job was to lead. Now in New York, my job is fitting in. They were playing good hockey before I got here, and now I just want to do whatever I can to add to that. That’s been a day-by-day process for me. Yes, it’s different, but it’s also really refreshing. I’m getting to experience the game from a perspective I’ve never had before.

The goal here is to win the Stanley Cup, nothing less. I can’t tell you how energized that makes me. I’ve done it once before and I’m going to lay everything I have out there in order to do it again.

The most difficult part about getting the news that I had been traded was being there afterward to see my teammates preparing for the game without me. For more than a decade, there weren’t many Canes games that I hadn’t been a part of. It was odd to be watching everybody — the players, the trainers, even the front office — getting into their routine while I was packing up. It really hit me hard at that moment just how much I was going to miss everything.

But I also saw that life goes on.

I’ve been around the organization long enough to know that it’s in good hands. It’s led by smart people and has a lot of young talent that I think will bring a new wave of success.

As we go our separate ways, I want to express nothing but gratitude to the Carolina Hurricanes for everything they’ve done for me. From the fans to the players to people working in the meal room, thank you so much.

I may play for New York now, but Carolina is always going to feel like home.