The texts started coming in around 12:30 pm.
Fire emoji, fire emoji, fire emoji.
I was sitting in my kitchen in Sag Harbor, New York. It was 30 minutes into the first day of free agency. A few teams had made me really good offers, and I had spent the whole morning trying to block out all the media and the texts and the noise so that I could make a decision.
I mean, it’s not just a decision. It’s a life-changing decision. It was so tense that my parents didn’t even want to talk to me. They’d barely make eye contact, because they didn’t want to sway me. It’s funny — you spend your whole career thinking how awesome it’ll be when you finally get to be a free agent and you can choose where you want to go, and then the day finally comes and you’re sweating and pacing around trying not to look at Twitter.
I don’t care what anybody says — it’s definitely overwhelming. So, you know, I was planning to take as much time as humanly possible before making the decision.
Then at 12:30 p.m., my phone blew up.
“Holy s*** welcome home man!”
“MSG baby! Rangerssssssssss! Congrats dude!”
“NYC! Let’s goooooooo bud!”
Hockey stick emoji, Statue of Liberty emoji, Fire emoji.
I thought, OK, that’s pretty weird.
I pulled up my Twitter. Unlimited notifications. My heart sank.
Someone had reported that I was signing with the Rangers. Then another person confirmed the report. Then everyone started retweeting it, and that was that. I was signing with the Rangers.
The only problem was, I seriously hadn’t made a final decision yet. I don’t mean like, I hadn’t told the teams yet, or confirmed it to a reporter. I mean my own mom was sitting right there when the news broke, and she was looking at me like, Wait, what? I just went in the other room to get a juice!
I can laugh about it now, but the next 30 minutes were the most surreal and tense 30 minutes of my life. You have to understand how complicated this stuff is — not just for the player, but for their whole family. From the time I was five years old tearing around the little studio rink at Rye Playland, I dreamed about wearing a New York Rangers sweater with SHATTENKIRK on the back. I watched the ’94 Stanley Cup Parade in awe. Brian Leetch was my hero. When I was 10 and I started playing for the New Jersey Youth Devils, it stung a little bit the first time I pulled on that red and black sweater.
I always wanted to be a Ranger.
But some other teams had made great offers, too. Some of the deals had longer terms, some were a little more money. If I thought about any of the options for long enough, I could convince myself it was the best fit. I wanted to be 100% sure.
And then, out of nowhere, my phone blew up.
My first thought was, Of course. This would totally happen to me.
Scott Rovak/NHLI/Getty Images
The first time I was traded, my rookie year in Colorado, the hotel room phone rang at 11:30 at night. We were on the road in San Jose, and my roommate was David Koci. What you have to understand about David is, he was an enforcer, and enforcers tend to take their routines seriously the night before a game. David took his routine extremely seriously.
At 9:30, it was lights out. No TV. No cellphones. At 9:30, it was bed time. If you were a dumb rookie (me) and you wanted to hang out for a while, you had to go to somebody else’s room. So I’d go chill with Ryan O’Reilly, Chris Stewart and Brandon Yip and watch TV until 11, then I’d come tip-toeing back into our room and try to slide under the covers like a ninja.
I remember I was just drifting off to sleep when the phone rang. That heavy ring. That hotel room phone ring.
David pops up and grabs the phone, and he’s already looking at me like, Are you serious, kid? Who’s calling you?
Then he answers and he’s like, “Oh, it’s the GM. He wants to talk to you.”
Our GM, Greg Sherman, told me that he wanted to meet me downstairs. Kind of ominous, you know? I remember I had only packed a pair of shorts to sleep in since it was a quick one-day trip to San Jose, so I walked down to the lobby in my gameday suit like I was going to a funeral.
I honestly thought they were just sending me down to the minors.
Then we sat down and Greg told me that I had been traded to St. Louis. I was completely blindsided. No idea it was coming. I couldn’t even really process it. I went back up to the room and tried to pack up my stuff as quietly as possible. By 4 a.m., I was in a car to the airport so I could fly to St. Louis and play that night.
My cousin and her husband lived in Menlo Park and they were supposed to come watch me play in the NHL for the first time that night, and I had to leave them a voicemail saying, “Yeah, uh … don’t show up to the arena tonight. I’m playing for St. Louis now.”
It was a good lesson. That’s the NHL. You really never know.
For the next seven years, St. Louis was my home. I can’t say enough about the Blues organization and the community and what an incredible hockey culture they’ve built down there. Having guys like Brett Hull, Al MacInnis, Bernie Federko and Peter Stastny around all the time, it’s amazing just being able to have a chat with them about hockey or about life. I felt incredibly lucky to have landed in St. Louis, of all the places I could’ve gone.
Dilip Vishwanat/NHLI/Getty Images
That 2016 team was probably the closest hockey team I have ever been a part of. To make it to the Western Conference Finals … to get so close, with that group of guys … it was really heartbreaking, not just for us, but for the city. A lot of the season ticket holders have been going for 50 years, and you can really feel that in the fanbase. They want a Stanley Cup there more than they want another World Series.
Obviously, I knew that after that season, a deal was coming. I was almost traded during the summer, and then when that didn’t happen, I knew I was definitely going before the deadline. And I give a ton of credit to the organization for how they handled it. They were really upfront with me the whole time. As a player, all you want is honesty.
When I got the call that I was headed to the Capitals, I was really happy to be going to a contender. But I’d be lying if I said it was just business. Packing up your life and leaving your friends at the snap of a finger is pretty brutal.
Just to show you what kind of team we had, I went to Alex Steen’s wedding this summer in Sweden, and there were 13 or 14 guys from the Blues who came. Guys were spread out all over the world during their vacation and so many still came out. I think that says a lot about the group that we had there. It’s hard to keep the gang together in this league now, but we’ll be staying in touch for a long time.
I would like to think that my lasting legacy in St. Louis, along with the great Chris Stewart, is forcing Vlady Tarasenko to order his dinners in English at restaurants. We knew that he could totally speak English because we were with him all the time, but he’d get embarrassed when we were in public and he’d say, “No, no. Can’t. Please, guys.”
So we used to take the dinner menus from him so he couldn’t just point at what he wanted.
And look at him now. He’s doing sick 2,000 word articles in English. He’s the best.
Getty ImagesWhen I got to Washington, I knew the mission. Nobody even had to say anything. It’s Stanley Cup or nothing. Everybody on the team knew the stakes going into the playoffs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m not going to pretend to feel the same feelings that guys who have been there forever, like Ovi and Backstrom and Holtby felt. I was only there for a few months. But I mean … when we lost to Pittsburgh, I was crushed. It wasn’t just losing, it was the way we lost. We dominated a lot of those games, but the Penguins were so opportunistic. What can you say? They played like Stanley Cup champions. They got it done. It was an incredibly hard lesson, but a really valuable one for me.
You see what it takes to get to the top of the mountain, first-hand.
On July 1, when I was sitting in my house trying to make a decision, all of this stuff was going through my mind. I was thinking about the feeling of getting traded in Colorado, the feeling of coming to St. Louis and finding a home, the feeling of sitting in the locker room after losing a playoff series, the feeling of skating out at warmups at MSG and looking up at that iconic ceiling …
… Term length, base salary, rosters, GMs, cities …
My mind was racing. Ultimately though, everything came back to one thought.
When I was six years old, my mite coach, Steve Lapore, moved me from forward back to defense, and the first question I asked him was, “Can I still score goals?”
He was a massive Rangers fan, so he said, “You know what I want you to do? Go home and watch the Rangers, and keep your eyes locked on number 2 in blue. Then come back next practice and tell me if you can still score goals.”
So I went home and watched number 2 in blue skate circles around everybody.
The next practice, Coach Lapore skated up to me and said, “You watch?”
I said, “Yep.”
He said, “See? As long as you keep pucks out of your own net, you can do whatever you want out there.”
From that day on, Brian Leetch was my guy. I wanted to be him. I wanted to be a New York Ranger. But you have to remember, back in the ’90s, it was still pretty rare for kids from the area to make it to the NHL. It was still all Canada, Russia, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, maybe Massachusetts. If you were a New York kid, saying you wanted to be a Ranger when you grew up was like saying you wanted to be an astronaut.
So as my phone was blowing up, I took a walk outside with my fiancée to clear my head and I thought about Coach Lapore and those days, and then I looked at her and said, “I want to be a Ranger.”
You know what?
I want to be an astronaut.
Bill Kostroun/AP Images
A couple weeks ago, I went to my parent’s house after doing some stuff for media day. The team had given me my Rangers sweater that day, but with the whirlwind of taking photos and doing interviews and everything, I couldn’t really process it.
So when I got to my parents’ house, I put all my stuff down in their living room, and I went to grab a water from the kitchen, and when I came back, it hit me.
I saw the blue Rangers sweater laid out across the back of the couch.
The iconic red and white block letters.
Goosebumps, man. Just goosebumps.