It sounds funny to admit now, but Dave Andreychuk said that for more than half the 2003-04 Stanley Cup season, he waited for the other shoe to drop.
"We were beating teams and playing very well," he recently recalled, "but you still had in the back of your mind that this was going to end and we really weren't that good."
But tough victories at Toronto and Philadelphia in February and March, respectively, changed the equation: "To me, those were benchmarks that made us really believe in each other. We play our game. We stick to the system. We can beat anybody. It was the key to the season."
A season that ended with a tense 2-1 win over the Flames in Game 7 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
For Andreychuk, 49, the captain and now Tampa Bay's vice president of fans and business development, it took 22 years of a 23-year career to get there.
Do you appreciate the Cup more with time?
I don't view the importance of it any differently than I did then. I view it as how special that season was. You think it's going to come by all the time, but it's very hard to get to. I can probably speak for a lot of fans here. You had that magical season, and you don't really appreciate it while it's going on how special it was.
But you had to realize it more than others after waiting 22 years in your career, no?
I tried not to pull that card very much in the locker room, but I did pull it every once in a while, saying, "Don't take this for granted, and I'm living proof that. You might think you're 21 years old and you're going to be back in the finals. Well that might not happen."
When you lifted the Cup, did you look for your family in the stands?
Absolutely. To be honest, in the penalty box with seven seconds to go, I was watching them, too. To me, that was what it was all about. There was no better feeling in the dressing room or after than handing the Stanley Cup to my dad (Julian). And we're celebrating not only the 22 years it took me to get there, but the other 20 years before that.
Was coach John Tortorella the ogre he was made out to be?
I make him out better now than I did back then, but I also make Scotty Bowman (his coach with the Sabres) better now than I did then. For me, those are the coaches that define getting the most out of players; that perfect guy that pushes the right buttons. He should get a lot of credit for what happened.
Who on that team didn't get enough credit?
Freddie Modin. Played on one of our top lines, contributed offensively, played power play, was on our second penalty killing unit. Here's a guy who maybe didn't score the big goal but was just a rock for us. Consistently, every night, he came to play. He was that guy that nobody was talking about other than we were watching him on the bench and being inspired.
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Any reunion plans?
We're thinking we might do it for our 10th anniversary.