Give the Devil his due
As retirement looms, we should admire Daneyko's career
Posted: Thursday June 26, 2003 3:19 PM
Had a good talk with Ken Daneyko, the Devil of a defenseman, a couple of days ago. He's in Florida with his family, on a golf course, soaking in the Southern sun, the way a 39-year-old should after finishing his 19th NHL season and winning his third Stanley Cup. Daneyko still has that silver sheen to his voice. "Think this was the sweetest one yet," he said. "At this stage in my career. ... "
Daneyko, I'm saying here, has played his last NHL game. He hasn't announced anything yet, though the newspapers keep calling. He's still pondering a bit, still wants to have a talk with Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello, Daneyko's boss for the last 16 years. But by the end of our conversation he sure sounded ready to hang it up. "I'm leaning that way, leaning toward going out on top," Daneyko said.
He's played his last game, which isn't exactly as newsworthy as Patrick Roy packing up his pads. But if you think the retirement of Ken Daneyko -- toothless, battle-scarred, rugged Ken Daneyko -- doesn't mean much, you're not paying attention.
Daneyko has played for the Devils since 1983, longer than any player in any of the major four sports has been with one team. He has laced up his skates for nearly 1,300 New Jersey games; only four men in hockey history have played longer for a single club. The year he first pulled on a Devils sweater Ronald Reagan was a first-term president and New Jersey went 17-56-4-1. His teammate Scott Gomez was three years old. Daneyko has played on the worst Devils teams, and he's been at the heart of the best of them.
"If there is somebody or something that says New Jersey Devils, it's Ken Daneyko," Lamoriello once told me.
Lamoriello said that to me while I was working on a story on Daneyko and his alcoholism. It was on Nov. 2, 1997 that Daneyko went public with it, announcing that he would enter the NHL's rehab program. He'd been on the road, playing hockey and drinking, since age 15. He let everyone know about his problem in order to put pressure on himself, to give himself no room to slip. His career was in trouble, his marriage too. As Lamoriello said, "He was a man at his lowest end."
For now, the Devil appears to have beaten back his demon. There he was a couple of weeks ago taking his turn with the Cup on the Meadowlands ice. There he was a few days later, a guest on the Letterman set. Now Daneyko's thinking about his future: He'd like to get into broadcasting or maybe player personnel. He and some partners are building the Ken Daneyko IcePlex near Wayne, N.J.
For a time, it didn't seem as if his career ending would be so sweet. Daneyko had played Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals to help New Jersey beat the Senators. But in the Finals, with the Devils up against the Mighty Ducks' mighty speed, coach Pat Burns sat Daneyko down. "After I didn't play the first six games, there was no chance I'd get in for Game 7."
Then it happened. The night before the deciding game, Burns came to Daneyko at the team dinner and said quietly, "You're in. Don't tell anybody."
"I was like a little kid, weak-kneed and in awe," says Daneyko. "I called my wife. She had to settle me down, remind me I've been doing this 20 years."
This is from a man who has played in 12 Game 7s, one shy of the record. This is from a man who has played in just about every big game in Devils history.
When New Jersey fans heard the pregame scratches and realized Daneyko was not among them, they roared. They roared again when he came over the boards for his first shift, and they stood and cheered one giant thank you, when he touched the puck. Never mind that Daneyko has averaged about 1.5 goals a year for his career. He's been the steady, body-crushing lifeblood of the defense for as long as most Devils fans can remember.
As the game wound down, and the Cup was secure, Burns let Daneyko stay on the ice for the final, splendid minute and a half. Daneyko deserved it. "The way the fans were that night reminds me that these 20 years have really been worth something," said Daneyko. "This year a lot of guys on our team had storybook endings. This was mine."