Lupul opens up on injuries, relationship with Leafs, thoughts on Babcock

Former Toronto Maple Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul. (Nathan Denette/CP)

How Joffrey Lupul heard it was coming to an end was through his car’s stereo speakers on the way to play a hockey game for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“My mindset had changed completely. I went from driving to the game pumping Nirvana to instead listening to talk radio, pulling into the garage like, ‘Please, God, get back here in six hours,’” Lupul told fellow retired NHLers Ryan Whitney and Paul Bissonnette during an excellent edition of the Spittin’ Chiclets podcast released Wednesday.

“Everyone says that: ‘Go out on your own terms.’ But who really does?”

Hot off a career-best 25-goal, 67-point season, an All-Star Game appearance, Lupul, riding shotgun with Phil Kessel, signed the richest contract of his 701-game NHL career in 2013: five years and $26.25 million.

ESPN featured him in its Body Issue. The Leafs had branded its nightly in-arena military salute after him, Lupe’s Troops. Skilled, charismatic and interesting (He surfs! He plays guitar! His surname’s a palindrome!), Lupul’s star had risen to the point that fans argued for his captaincy in Toronto.

“It’s an awesome city,” Lupul said. “Every year, it just got better and better.”

Rapidly and ruthlessly, Lupul’s injuries mounted and his production declined. Brendan Shanahan took a blowtorch to the roster, Lou Lamoriello began orchestrating a rebuild, and — besieged by injuries, particularly a bad back — Lupul ended up playing through roughly half of his contract.

He got paid in full.

Lupul’s final NHL game was on Feb. 6, 2016 in Ottawa. He was a dash-3 in the 6-1 loss. His contract wouldn’t expire until June 30, 2018.

Aside from a (quickly deleted) shot at the Maple Leafs in a September 2017 Instagram post — “Haha failed physical? They cheat, everyone lets them” — and a February 2018 appearance on the Member Guest golf podcast, Lupul has kept mum publicly. His most recent tweet is from Sept. 20, 2017, his apology to the Leafs and their fans for being a distraction. (Sportsnet’s own attempts to reach Lupul this past season were denied.)

So, it is refreshing to hear Lupul explain in his own words how and why his career came to an unceremonious close in this fun, candid and wide-ranging (and certainly NSFW) long-form chat that took place at his Newport Beach home.

Lupul says hockey fans still approach him, curious about his relationship with Lamoriello and suggesting he should pen a tell-all.

“Nothing’s really that crazy,” Lupul explained.

“My contract was, at that point, exceeding my production on the ice. I was hurt a lot. It was always something — my back, then my groin. I couldn’t keep myself healthy. I had lost the confidence, not in my ability or skill-set, but the confidence in like, ‘Am I going to make it through this game?’ I feel like s––– today. Is there a chance I’m going to blow out my back or something?

“They didn’t necessarily want me back on the team that year, and they made that pretty clear, but if I had full confidence in my body, I’m sure I would’ve put up a big fight and been like, ‘Hey, I don’t want to do this.’

“I thought the situation, from my end, could’ve been handled a lot differently. It could’ve been sitting across the table from each other chatting about it.”

Lupul admits he’d be training while wrestling with the fear he might ruin his body for life. He thought about wanting to be healthy for his kids one day.

“When that stuff gets in your head, you’re not going to be successful,” Lupul said.

“I don’t hold a grudge.”

Not only do you believe him, but you can’t help but wish hockey players — media-trained and wary of rippling the waters as they are — could be so forthright with their true thoughts prior to retirement.

Call it Freedom 35.

Rich, handsome and young, Lupul is living the life.

He’s rediscovered his love of snowboarding; he golfs twice a week; he’s an investor is a trendy wine bar, Due West, in New York’s West Village; he travels the globe; and he was once pummeled in a beach volleyball game by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Of course, he must see a physical therapist regularly and do tons of yoga to keep his back from seizing.

If there was any bitterness, it’s been replaced by perspective and a seizing of life after hockey.

Lupul also keeps an eye on the league.

He was thrilled to see friends like Jay Bouwmeester and Tyler Bozak hoist the Stanley Cup last month and, between some entertaining stories, offered truthful commentary on a myriad of topics.

On Kessel: “Phil’s great. He’s so awesome. Everyone loves him, except the media in Toronto hated him because he wouldn’t give them what he wanted. But that’s his personality. He wants to play hockey, and that’s it.

“He doesn’t necessarily want to work out; he wants to play ping pong. Can you blame a guy for that?”

On people who believed the Leafs would be better off after the Kessel trade: “Are you guys f–––––– nuts? The guy gets 40 goals every year. Wait ’til we’re trailing by one in the third and have a power play. We’re certainly gonna miss this guy.”

On Mike Babcock, who coached Lupul as a rookie in Anaheim: “He’s a good coach. He’s a smart guy. He’s an extremely hard worker, noticeably more than other coaches I’ve had. Like, watching him in there doing video and practice plans. He’s a tough guy to play for. He’s demanding.

“My criticism with him, I feel sometimes even watching their team this year: He won’t necessarily jump on the grenade for the team sometimes. ‘My defence isn’t good enough.’ ‘My goalie didn’t stop the puck.’ Well, he’s one of the best goalies in the league. That’s the only criticism I have with him. This guy could easily bail some people out here and take some of the blame. He knows what he’s doing, and he’ll make adjustments too. He’s good that way.”

On Morgan Rielly: “As soon as I saw him play, I was like, ‘Wow, this guy is going to be a cornerstone piece here.’”

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