ST. LOUIS — Ales Hemsky’s Edmonton Oilers turned out to be a flash in the pan back in 2006. Meanwhile, the only fluke out East that spring was that Jason Spezza and his Ottawa Senators didn’t meet the Oilers in that Stanley Cup Final.
“That was our best team,” recalls Spezza, leaning back in his dressing room stall in Dallas, his legs stretched out in front of him. “When Dom Hasek was in net for us, we were unbeatable. Absolutely unbeatable.”
Alas, while the Oilers emerged from the No. 8 hole to win the West, Ottawa – without Hasek, who never did play for Ottawa again after injuring his hip at the Olympics – couldn’t advance. Then Hemsky’s goalie, Dwayne Roloson went down as well, in Game 1 of the Cup Final, and destiny settled on a Carolina Hurricanes team that seemed to enjoy every possible break in winning that franchise’s only Stanley Cup.
Today, Spezza and Hemsky dress just a few stalls down from each other in Dallas, a couple of 32-year-olds who have waited most of a decade for their next decent shot at Stanley. They would happily accept a little of that Carolina karma this spring, if it meant one more dance with the Cup.
“When you’re younger you don’t think about it: ‘I’m in the playoffs, it’ll happen all the time…,’” Hemsky said. “Now, it’s a one-time chance. We have a good team, and we can do some damage. The feeling drives you.”
Born exactly two months apart in 1983 — Spezza on June 13 in Toronto, Hemsky on August 13 in Pardubice, Czech Republic — and chosen 11 spots apart in the 2001 draft, time has slipped away on Hemsky no faster or slower than for Spezza. They’ve played almost exactly the same number of NHL games — 823 for Hemsky, 843 for Spezza — and have precisely the same number of Stanley Cup rings.
“It’s a lot of maybes,” said Hemsky, whose Oilers lost in a seventh game at Raleigh. “If we don’t lose that first game when we were up 3-0… If Rolly doesn’t get hurt…
“One game decides if everyone will cheer for you, or if everyone will forget. Edmonton was crazy. Then we lost, we come back home, and summer starts. Everyone goes back to their lives.”
Hemsky didn’t play another playoff game until this spring. Like Sam Gagner in Philadelphia, he got caught up in an Oilers decade of ineptitude and had to finally move on to find another opportunity.
Spezza, meanwhile, would take his Senators to the 2007 Stanley Cup Final, where it seemed Ottawa was destined to cash in on the opportunity that injury had robbed them of the previous year.
“We won our series’ in five games, five games, five games, and had 11 days off waiting before the Final,” said Spezza, who quickly recalls every detail from each game. “It was a five-game (Anaheim win), and it looks like they blew us out. But go back and watch those games: we had a 1-0 lead in both (Games 1 and 2) with a 5 on 3, and we don’t score.
“Now we’re down 0-2, we’re comin’ home, play a great game in Game 3 to win. In Game 4, we play great, but Andy McDonald scores two lights out goals on individual efforts. Now we’re down 3-1 and we implode in Game 5 and we lose.”
Ottawa started strong in 2007-08, but then “something happened.” The wheels fell off. “We made it to the playoffs but Alfie couldn’t play. He had no MCL. (Mike) Fisher hurt his knee.”
The Senators window slammed shut, which pains Spezza to this day. Unlike Edmonton’s fluke season, Ottawa was a top team that simply failed to capitalize.
“With the group we had, we really should have won a Cup. It was a big disappointment for everyone involved. We had the pieces,” laments Spezza. “You thought you’d get back again.”
As veterans in Dallas now, Hemsky has taken young Czech Radek Faksa under his wing, and he won’t let the younger compatriot take this opportunity lightly. Spezza had a mentor like that in Ottawa, a veteran defenceman named Curtis Leschyshyn who was 33-years-old when Spezza was 20 and just heading into what would become his best winning years.
Spezza shakes his head now when he talks about how much wisdom Leschyshyn had to impart.
“I wish I’d have listened more,” Spezza says. “I always thought, ‘Look at this 35-, 36-year-old guy stretching every day for an hour taking care of himself. Why would you need to do that?’ Now, I’m almost 33 and I’m the last guy to leave the rink every day because you’ve got to keep yourself going.
“Now I’m that guy.”
He’s not harping on his younger Dallas teammates, as we roll into May in a second-round series tied 1-1. He simply picks his spots to remind them of the circumstance.
“You do try to impress upon guys ‘We should keep ‘er going here, because we’ve got something here. Let’s push.”
Nicola, one of his four girls, crawls up on the bench beside him, a giggly reminder of all the time that has passed since the Ottawa years.
“Let’s push,” he repeats. “Because you never know.”