Lightning's Schenn has survived hard knocks for long-awaited shot at Cup

Bruins centre Par Lindholm (26) and Lightning defenceman Luke Schenn (2) follow behind during first period NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference playoff hockey action in Toronto on Monday, Aug. 31, 2020. (Frank Gunn / CP)

EDMONTON -- Luke Schenn has never been this close to getting his hands on the Stanley Cup.

Across 12 NHL seasons, with stints in Toronto, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Arizona, Anaheim, Vancouver and now Tampa Bay, the veteran defenceman had only appeared in 12 career playoff games before this summer.

However, it is the games Schenn didn’t play that are needed to truly understand his path to being part of the Lightning’s starting lineup for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. The month he spent inside the Toronto bubble weathering healthy scratches and pushing himself through extra conditioning sessions with Braydon Coburn, a fellow Sasky, before an injury to Ryan McDonagh opened a window of opportunity for him last round.

Schenn’s coach, Jon Cooper, marvelled at his preparedness under less-than-ideal circumstances -- “To come in here and be as physically and emotionally engaged as he was, that’s got to be so hard to do,” he said -- and didn’t remove him from the lineup even when McDonagh returned to health.

Consider it a perk of having survived some hard knocks along the way.

Schenn wondered if his career was reaching the end of the road when he spent a couple months commuting from his home in Newport Beach, Calif., to San Diego after being assigned to the American Hockey League for the first time ever during the 2018-19 season. Heck, he spent a month playing for the Syracuse Crunch after failing to crack the Lightning’s roster out of training camp this year.

So, the challenges of bubble life and being separated from his young family and not playing weren’t insurmountable. Life as a pro athlete had conditioned him for it.

“I lean on past experience,” said Schenn. “I kind of went through a similar thing last year where you’ve kind of gone through some ups and downs. I think the key is obviously to have a good support system too.

“You talk to family lots, whether it’s my wife or parents or brother, whoever else, to kind of get you through some days where you’re kind of rattled or upset, but you keep pushing and just, I guess, hope for a break at some point where you can kind of just get in and contribute.”

The Lightning have won five straight games since Schenn rejoined the lineup. He’s the seventh defencemen in Cooper’s 11F/7D formation, but he’s performed reliably and not been on the ice for a 5-on-5 goal against in more than 48 minutes of ice time.

What you see is what you get from the rugged blue-liner. He competes hard, finishes checks, kills penalties and steps in front of shots fired toward the Tampa net.

And when Barry Trotz elected to start his black-and-blue forecheckers Monday to kick off the Eastern Conference Final -- Cal Clutterbuck, Matt Martin and Casey Cizikas -- Cooper didn’t hesitate to counter with Schenn and McDonagh to absorb those opening blows.

It was the potential of games carrying these high stakes that brought Schenn to Tampa in July 2019. He’d put himself on general manager Julien BriseBois’s radar with a productive stretch in Vancouver the previous season and jumped at the opportunity to join a top-tier contender on a league-minimum contract in free agency.

That came a little more than two weeks after Schenn stood on the TD Garden ice in street clothes and embraced his brother, Brayden, after watching him win the Stanley Cup with the St. Louis Blues. He attended Games 5, 6 and 7 of that series and saw his anxiety grow with each flight in and out of Boston.

“Watching as an older brother, I was more nervous sitting in the crowd than I would be ever playing myself,” said Schenn. “I wanted him to win so bad and at the end, I got on the ice there when they won and we gave each other a big hug after. I was proud.

“At that time it’s almost like you’re almost prouder for your younger brother than you would be winning it yourself.”

[caption id="attachment_4969440" align="alignnone" width="1280"]Schenn-brothers Brayden Schenn and his brother, Luke, are seen after the St. Louis Blues won the 2019 Stanley Cup (Chris Johnston / Sportsnet)[/caption]

The experience only amplified his own desire to continue chasing down a lifelong dream.

There’s a good reason why you see tears in the eyes of the grown men who hoist that 34.5-pound trophy above their heads each year. For many, it represents the culmination of the sacrifices needed to reach the pinnacle of their sport -- both their own and their family’s -- and those sacrifices have never been more apparent than during a playoffs conducted amid a pandemic.

Schenn is one of several Lightning players who left young kids at home to enter the NHL bubble. He last stood face-to-face with wife, Jessica, and sons Kingston and Weston on July 4 when departing his off-season home in Kelowna, B.C., to attend training camp.

Kingston is three, while Weston was born on April 21.

“My newborn’s four months so I’ve missed half his life already,” said Schenn. “That’s a tough one.”

They are getting by with a steady diet of FaceTime calls and a helping hand from family back in Kelowna. It’s not yet clear under what conditions the federal government will allow spouses and children into the NHL bubble, but the Schenns are holding out hope for a celebratory reunion on the ice at Rogers Place at some point in the next few weeks.

Despite the challenges, Schenn knows he’ll eventually look back on this entire experience with fondness. He speaks from a position of gratitude about everything his career has given him.

He arrived in the NHL shouldering huge expectations as an 18-year-old drafted fifth overall by the Maple Leafs and is still here battling for a Cup more than 700 games later. His opportunity has never been as good as this one.

“It’s crazy to say but throughout my whole career, ups and downs, going to different teams, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything,” said Schenn. “It’s been a heck of a journey and I know it hasn’t been perfect by any means, but looking back at everything I’m grateful for it all.”

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