TORONTO — Lee Stempniak will never forget that goal.
The first NHL playoff goal scored on Winnipeg ice in 19 years was also the player’s last as a Jet.
“White everywhere. Sold out. Standing room only, for warmups. It was electric. The fans were awesome. They’re always great, but they took it to another level,” the unemployed winger says.
“It was awesome. Even before that, we had clinched a playoff spot on the road and played our final home game against Calgary. We had a standing ovation throughout warmup, and all throughout the game you just had chills coming on the ice.”
If Stempniak, 32, had his way, he would skate for those frenzied Jets fans again in 2015-16.
Instead he finds himself in the same place he was last summer: on our list of still-unclaimed unrestricted free agents.
In late July 2014, Stempniak signed a one-year, $900,000 deal with the New York Rangers. The Jets rented him at the trade deadline for their race to the post-season, and he scored 10 points in 18 games. Used primarily in a bottom-six role, the journeyman finished 2014-15 with a career-best plus/minus rating of plus-8. He believed his exit interviews with the front office and the coaching staff went positively.
But GM Kevin Cheveldayoff let Stempniak’s contract expire on July 1, as he did with fellow veteran forwards Michael Frolik (now with Calgary), Jiri Tlusty (UFA) and Jim Slater (UFA).
“I thought it was a good fit, personally. Very good team, great place to play. You can’t beat that atmosphere there,” Stempniak says.
“I was hoping to go back, but from what my agent told me, they were looking to give some spots to young guys. They have some very good prospects there that they were looking to give some ice time to,” he says. “I don’t think we ever fully closed the door on it, but at this point, if I had to guess, it doesn’t look too promising.”
The wry smile that punctuates most of his sentences widens. He might as well wink.
It’s late August and despite discussions with “a lot of teams,” Stempniak remains unsigned. Why? What is he after: Money? Security? Ice time?
“It’s a combination of everything. For me, at my age, winning is important. I’ve been on some good teams and some teams that have finished near the bottom in my career,” he explains. “You want to have a chance to win the Stanley Cup and get in the playoffs. I’m looking for the right opportunity with a team that’s capable of winning.
“It’s been slow for a lot of guys. There’s still a lot of good players that are out there. I continue to talk to teams. It’s just about finding the right fit.”
Four teams in the last two years have decided to trade him or let his deal expire, yet Stempniak is training as diligently as ever.
He left his twin 18-month-old daughters and wife at home in Boston this week to participate at Toronto’s BioSteel Camp, reuniting with strength coach Matt Nichol, who worked with Stempniak when both were with the Maple Leafs.
Toronto is just one of seven clubs the 2003 fifth-round draft pick has dressed for. And although the frequent trading makes the uncertainty of his future easier to deal with, the contract dance takes a mental toll. It’s a familiar unease.
“But now it’s moving a family. There’s a lot more to starting a season than just packing up and going,” Stempniak says.
“You know, you get to a new team and you gotta jump in and play a certain way, show your strengths. There’s a reason why that team wants you. You have to have confidence in yourself and believe in yourself,” he says.
“You really have to believe in yourself.”