Patty’s Last Lap

Amid a season of utter disappointment New Jersey Devils fans had one reason to cheer and cheer loudly during the last week of the regular season. Their last link to the franchise’s championship pedigree, Patrik Elias, officially announced his retirement from the NHL on March 31 and the only team he ever played for honored him with a week-long celebration and announced that his no. 26 will be retired at some point next season.

On April 4 the two-time Stanley Cup champion dropped the ceremonial first puck, on April 7 he participated in the team’s practice that was open to fans and on April 8, he suited up in the red and black one last time for pregame warmups and then took the ceremonial face-off with his wife Petra and two daughters Sofia and Kaila there to drop the puck.

Elias was told there would be someone special to drop the ceremonial face-off between himself and former teammate Stephen Gionta of the New York Islanders, but he had no idea who it was until his wife and daughters walked out onto the red carpet in no. 26 Devils’ jerseys. “I knew he was going to be out there with me for that, and obviously that name (Gionta) has been a part of my career for quite a bit, not just him but Brian also. Both of those guys are some of the best teammates I’ve had.”

“The ceremonial face-off was just beautiful, emotional, and I kept it together until the girls came out; I didn’t expect that one,” Elias told the media during his final press conference. “I knew they were talking about having someone special do it but obviously that is the most special people that I could have on the ice for that.”

Elias retires as the Devils’ franchise leader in goals (408), assists (617) and points (1,025) and ranks third in games played (1,240) behind Ken Daneyko (1,283) and Martin Brodeur (1,259); he’s also the team’s single-season leader in points with 96 (2000-01). The 51st overall pick in the 1994 NHL Draft is also New Jersey’s all-time playoff leader with 45 goals, 80 assists, 21 power play goals, six game-winning goals and 125 points. His sixteen career overtime goals rank him second all-time in NHL history.

“Under different circumstances, I probably could play some of the games, maybe not a full season,” Elias replied when asked how he felt physically after taking warmups with the only team he’s ever played for. “Once you go through rehab for that long your mind starts doubting yourself, doubting if it’s the best thing for your health. Once that starts creeping in you have to be honest with yourself, and I did. I love being on the ice, that’s not the issue – it’s how well you can do it, and do it on a nightly basis.”

Passing the Torch

As fate would have it, the Devils’ 2015 first round pick Pavel Zacha grew up idolizing the Czech legend and played his first NHL game in last season’s finale, which ended up being Elias’ last NHL game. Zacha had two assists in the game and his linemate Elias finished with one goal and two assists.

“I’ll never forget that (moment),” Zacha said, unable to hide a smile, “and being out there with him for his last lap tonight, that was great also. You can see the fans love him, even players when he’s walking around in the locker room; everyone likes having him around. He’s a great example for me, how I want to be one day as a player – but especially as a person, everyone likes him.”

For Zacha having access to someone that he can speak with in his native tongue is a huge asset as the just-turned 20-year-old begins to navigate his NHL career in North America. “He texts me sometimes when he watches our games, or calls me (with pieces of advice),” he explained. “It’s really nice to have someone like that, who you can actually call whenever you want. It’s special to be able to call my idol on the phone and he takes my call. It’s sad that this is ending but I appreciate that I got to play that one game with him. I’m really a lucky guy for that.”

When asked how he’d like to be remembered without hesitation Elias said, “I think the last game of last year kind of summed it up, even just the warmup today; I snuck the last puck in on Schneids (Cory Schneider) and I even got excited for that,” he added with a chuckle. “I just hope that the fans that were coming to watch me over the course of my career, that they’ll remember me as a guy that got them out of their seats once in a while, put smiles on their faces and just got them excited to come watch a hockey game. When I was excited and when I had fun on the ice, that’s the best hockey I played and I hope that’s the way that they will remember me.”

Elias helped the Devils to four Eastern Conference championships, including three between 2000-2003, and was a scoring star in the league, yes the league, for a team that was often associated with defense and low-scoring games. To put up over a thousand points for that kind of team is Hall of Fame worthy. As he got older his game changed, and a shift from left wing to center turned him into a solid two-way player who thought the game as well and creatively as anyone in the franchise’s history.

Learning From the Best

That didn’t happen overnight. Elias played for many, many (many, many, many) coaches during his tenure with New Jersey — including some great ones — and he learned a lot from them, both on and off the ice. “You learn different things from different coaches and that means on the ice to become a better hockey player and off the ice to become a better person. You get different breaks from different coaches, I’ve had so many and I have to mention Robbie Ftorek because he was the first coach to give me an opportunity in the minors and the NHL,” Elias told The Hockey Writers. “He really gave me the confidence to start thinking about myself as a hockey player that is capable of playing with the top guys, and being among the top guys.”

“Obviously Larry, Robinson has been a special coach to me because of the way he was as a person. The way he treated everyone, and obviously winning the Cups.” When the Devils won their second Stanley Cup and Elias’ first it was Robinson who donned Petr Sykora’s jersey during the on-ice celebration because his player had been knocked out in the game and spent the duration of it in a hospital bed. Elias and Sykora were best friends and together with Jason Arnott formed one of the best lines in the NHL during that era — The A Line.

“Jacques Lemaire. I’ve had him (as a coach) a couple of times, under different circumstances,” Elias said with a grin. “As a hockey coach you realize how detail-oriented, how great of a coach he was. You learn something good from everyone, some coaches you don’t agree with maybe but that’s the way it is. You’re not always going to be on perfect terms with everyone in your life. You have to know the reasons, look at their perspectives, look at things from their perspective and you might realize why they are doing things a certain way and you might understand the other person.”

Devil For Life

Elias spoke during his final press conference still in his full hockey gear, skates still on, gloves still on and with his stick in hand. The finality of his NHL career was setting in. There would be no more chants of ‘Pat-ty! <clap, clap> Pat-ty!’ after he scores a goal or makes a fantastic pass that leads to a goal. There will be one more night, one more chance to celebrate his great career, but that won’t be until next season when his no. 26 joins no. 3, no. 4, no. 27 and no. 30 in the Prudential Center rafters.

“You feel it, you hear it; that’s the best feeling you can have. The acknowledgment that makes you feel like you’ve done something right over the course of your career. I’m pretty tired so it’s going to feel pretty good,” Elias said laughing about taking his New Jersey Devils uniform off once and for all.

Then he paused, and his eyes began to get a bit misty. “I don’t know, it doesn’t hit you right away. This is special, having this jersey on for the last time,” he paused again, not allowing the tears to fall out of his eyes. “Having all of the support I had today from family and friends. One of the best moments in my life.”

It was the least Devils’ fans could do for him after he gave them so many memorable moments over the past two decades in New Jersey.