We were losing to Pittsburgh three games to one in the second round of the 2014 playoffs and were flying into Pittsburgh for Game 5. As we were beginning our descent, my phone rang. In all the travel I had done throughout my career, my phone never rang while I was still in the air. It was the worst phone call I have ever received.
It was my father calling to tell me that my mom had suffered a heart attack and had died. She was only 63.
She was always my biggest fan even though she didn’t know much about hockey. Very little, actually — there were times when she’d watch a game and have no idea that I’d even scored until my father told her. What she did know was how important hockey was to me, so she did everything in her power to support my pursuit of it.
Most men make this assumption that they take after their father. I recognize many traits I have that come from my dad, like my work ethic and athleticism, but when I look deeper inside, I see just how much of me and my success can be attributed to my mom. To become a professional hockey player, you absolutely need to be able to shoot and skate at a world-class level, but that’s not enough. What my mom gave me was the mental toughness to not let anything stand in the way of my dream.
Every night when she put me to bed as a child, she’d stay in my room for a little while and say the same thing: “Show them! Don’t worry about what they say about your size. Go out there and show them how good you are!”
Here was the thing: I believed her. The fact that she had such confidence in my abilities made me feel invincible. She wanted it for me as badly as I wanted it for myself.
My mom was soft-spoken and only 4’11”, but once you got to know her, it became clear how passionate she was. She wanted my sister and me to find success, but more than that, she really wanted us to be good human beings. She always put out this tremendous welcoming energy. She made everybody around her feel better, even if that meant having or taking less for herself. She radiated kindness in all that she did and said. But she was also a worrier, which didn’t always fit well with me playing a sport as physical as hockey. On the plus side, getting hurt always meant the royal treatment. To this day, whenever I’m not feeling well, I immediately wish she was here to take care of me. I guess she spoiled me.
She’d do these little things to keep my confidence high, even as I got older. One of the biggest turning points of my career was back in 2000 when the Tampa Bay Lightning decided to give me a shot at making the team. I should have been more nervous, but I remember being at ease because my mom told me, “Oh yeah, the cards said you’re going to make it. Don’t even worry about it, it’s done.” She was a big believer in tarot cards, and she had been told I was going to make the team.
Now, for all I knew, she was making it all up. But it was just the pick-me-up I needed. Oddly enough, according to her, every single reading seemed to indicate that I was going to be successful and achieve everything I wanted. Imagine that.
In a lot of ways, Tampa Bay was where I grew up as an athlete and as a man. I arrived there as a newlywed, barely holding on to my NHL dream after failing to stick with Calgary. And when I left, I was a father of three who had enjoyed just about every kind of success you can experience in this game. It’s only fitting that the last professional game I played was against the Lightning in the final playoff series of my career.
There are many people who helped me along the way, but I will always be thankful to John Tortorella for giving me an honest chance in Tampa Bay. At that time, as a player listed at only 5-foot-8, that’s all I could hope for. If you’re not a top prospect, you get put in a lot of situations where you only get one shot to prove that you can play. On the flip side, when you’re a high-profile prospect, you’ll get 10 chances to prove that you can’t play. The people in Tampa really believed I could make it, and it was exactly the break I needed. There are plenty of very talented players that come through the league, but sometimes the difference between a long career and a short one is getting the right opportunity at the right time.
For me, that was the Lightning.
Tampa is not a traditional hockey market, but that makes what we built there feel even more special. We helped create a hockey culture from scratch, and I’ll always take a lot of pride in that.
The 2015 Eastern Conference Finals against the Lightning was one of the toughest series I’ve ever been a part of. Playing in such high-stakes games against a group of people who are like family to me was incredibly difficult. It wasn’t just about the players, but also the people who worked behind the scenes every day to make our lives better. I spent a lot of time before those games just shaking hands with security officers, kitchen workers, front office staff and trainers. The players make the team, but those people are the heart of an organization.
That arena down in Tampa is very tough to play in as a visiting player, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I take some satisfaction in seeing the atmosphere like that. No one who has experienced a playoff game in Tampa could say that it’s not a hockey town. The fans have turned that arena into a big party, and one hell of a home-ice advantage. Quite literally, it is electric in there, with lightning bolts and all. There’s no doubt in my mind that the organization will continue to have plenty of success in the future.
I know there were plenty of people who were very hurt and angry when I left the Lightning, but it was just the right time for something new for my family and me. It was one of the most difficult choices of my career, but I’ve never been scared of tough decisions. Being scared of making a decision should never be what stops you from making the right one.
That’s how I felt about leaving Tampa Bay and that’s how I feel about retiring. If you’d asked me at 30 if I thought I’d be playing until now, I would have said, “No chance.” But as you keep playing and finding success, it becomes harder to step away. Quite simply, playing alongside Steven Stamkos with the chemistry we had made it hard to consider retirement. For the first time, this summer, walking away felt like the right choice. Sure, teams were interested, and yes, I believe I could still play in the league. But everyone has to retire at some point. This is simply my time.
I’m not just a hockey player. More importantly, I’m a dad. My boys are getting older and I’m tired of missing out on their important moments. This is time I can’t get back. My oldest son Ryan is 12, and in six years he will be off to college with my other sons, Lucas and Mason, only a couple of years behind him. Up until this point, everything has been about me. My family’s location and schedule has centered around what’s going on in my career. Now it’s time for everything in my life to be about them. For the first time in their lives, I will definitely be home for their birthdays, I am guaranteed to be with them for all of the holidays and family trips and I will not miss their important events at school or their hockey games and practices.
Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly grateful for everything my NHL career has given me, and those were sacrifices I was willing to make, but now is the time to turn the tables. When I was growing up with my parents, it was always all about the kids. Everything they did was for us. I want to follow the example they set for me.
I have been incredibly blessed. This game has given me some of the most memorable experiences of my life. From playing in the Frozen Four with the Vermont Catamounts, to hoisting the Stanley Cup with the Lightning, to riding around on Mike Smith’s shoulders in Sochi after winning a gold medal, to scoring an overtime playoff goal in Madison Square Garden with the Rangers — there’s nothing I would change.
Mother’s Day came three days after my mom passed away. We were on the brink of elimination against the Penguins, down three games to two, and I was incredibly emotional. With my dad and sister in the stands as well as my wife and my boys, I took to the ice and experienced one of the most memorable moments of my life.
Three minutes into the game, I scored. It was a play that I would typically call a lucky bounce, but with that goal, it was something higher than luck. My teammates surrounded me and we were in a pile celebrating. I was kind of in shock, but they were all so happy for me. All I could think about was that I wanted to keep that puck. I knew I wanted to have something to remember that moment.
As soon as my teammates started skating back to the bench — and I have no idea how — the puck came to my skate and rested right there on the ice in front of me. In that moment, I knew my mom was there. She had helped me score that goal. I felt her with me, smiling down. I’ll never forget that. That puck will forever rest next to my mother’s ashes in a mausoleum in Laval.
We ended up coming back to win the series and, as fate would have it, Montreal came back to win their series as well. We played Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Canadiens in Montreal, which not only allowed me to be home to attend my mom’s funeral but also made it possible for my entire team, as well as some of my closest former Lightning teammates, to show their support. I can’t imagine it wasn’t part of some greater plan. I was humbled by the outpouring of love and support I received at my lowest moment.
It was difficult having my mom’s death play out so publicly, but in a way, I’m thankful that it allowed her to get the acknowledgement she deserved.
She would always shy away from being the center of attention, but she deserved to be talked about because she was such an amazing person. I couldn’t be more proud to be her son. I’m so proud of what we accomplished.
I hope I showed them for you, Maman.