Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Patrik and Me

I have mentioned before that my first Devils game was on Dec. 7, 1995. I won't claim this was when I became a Devils fan. That had already happened 18 months earlier and by this point nine-year-old me had already freaked out in my parents bedroom as I watched the Devils seal their first Stanley Cup championship some six months earlier. As I noted in that chapter when I looked up the game story, as a peculiar footnote, the Devils, dealing with injuries, had called up several prospects including a young winger named Patrik Elias, who was making his NHL debut. My dad and I drove to the game. Elias, apparently, got a private jet. There was no reason to remember this -- Elias wouldn't even score his first NHL goal until the next season -- but it's always fun to know I was there.

In many ways, it's unfortunate that nearly all of Elias' career has been eclipsed by sharing a locker room with, arguably, the greatest goalie of all-time. Elias is not exactly in the same rarified air as Martin Brodeur, and at this point his membership in the Hall of Fame is probably a borderline prospect, but the quiet Czech has managed to carve out one of the most unsung, impressive careers in the last two decades. He's been an elegant offensive weapon displaying skillful quick hands and a penchant for big goals. Elias never really seemed to demand the spotlight. He always seems understated with the media, which, as someone who has interviewed him before, I can verify.

But much like Teddy Roosevelt, Elias has spent his career wielding that big stick and probably getting less attention than he should for it, both because he plays for a team that, too, prefers avoiding the spotlight and because he often has played in the shadows of hall of famers. Even on the night Elias became the Devils' all-time leading scorer he played second fiddle as Brodeur became the winningest goalie in NHL history the same evening.

Then again maybe not. It was St. Patrick's Day after all.

While Devils fans have been more than aware of Elias' abilities and value to the team, he has almost never been the best player on the roster or at least the most famous. Whether it was Brodeur, Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk or even now with the ageless Jaromir Jagr, Elias always seems to be in the back seat. Last night, however, Elias got to be the center of attention all his own as he scored a goal and added two assists, the second of which not only sealed a 4-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres, but also made Elias the 82nd player in NHL history to reach 1,000 career points.

Not only is Elias just the fifth Czech-born player in NHL history to reach the mark, he's now the sixth-highest active scorer and the only player in NHL history to reach 1,000 points while wearing a Devils uniform, let alone scoring all 1,000 points with the franchise. The only thing that could have made the moment sweeter was if Elias had put his 1,000th point in the net himself as it also would have been the 400th goal of his career.

The reason I bring all this up is because I always thought it was cool that I unexpectedly witnessed Elias' first game, but there's a nice symmetry because coincidentally I was in the crowd once again last night. Times are different of course. Beyond the fact that I've probably seen 100 other Devils games in between that first one and the last, nearly 20 years have passed in the interim. At the time I was a chubby 10-year-old, who didn't know where his life was going or why grown men find women so interesting. Now I'm 29, I'm slightly less chubby and I may still not know exactly where my life is going, but I think I figured out the intrigue regarding women. In addition to no longer being a child I'm now an adult who has spent more than seven years working in the hockey industry, something 10-year-old me probably never would have foreseen. In between then and now the Devils have won four conference titles and lifted the Stanley Cup twice more. Hundreds of players have cycled through the roster and the team calls a new building home. Ironically, the Devils were the defending champions last time and lost. This time they won, but the team is near the bottom of the League standings.

The only similarities might be the jerseys and that I didn't know I would be going to the game both nights until just a few hours before puck drop. Then again, since New Jersey wore white at home back then, you could say the jerseys are different, too.

Elias and I have no real connection beyond these coincidental path-crossings and the one time I interviewed him at Stanley Cup Final media day back in 2012, but it's always interesting when you come across someone at the beginning and again near the end and feel as though you watched their career grow from afar while you were growing yourself, sometimes too much and in the wrong places. It's a completely ridiculous, irrational, perhaps even nonsensical thought to have. I have had no influence on Elias' career whatsoever, nor he on my life-changes. He has no clue I exist and there's no tangible connection between us. But sports aren't about being rational. Why else would we invest so much emotion and money into something that essentially amounts to unimportant modern tribalism?

Because it's fun, I guess, though not always. And sometimes you can't help but draw an emotional connection with some stranger on a sheet of ice when you have no business doing it. That's kind of how I feel about Patrik Elias, and given that, I'm a little disappointed that I probably won't have the opportunity to see him score his 400th goal in person. It would have been fun and felt strangely appropriate even if it wasn't.

I may just have to plan now to be in the crowd in a few years time when Elias' No. 26 is raised to the rafters at the Rock. Brodeur's number, of course, will almost certainly go up first, but I don't really think Elias will mind that, even if Brodeur has since suited up for a new team. Patrik Elias won't need to be the first one in the spotlight to thrive in it.

He's never needed to before.

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