December 8th, 2015 was a Bad Day for Hockey. It will be remembered as the day that Pascal Dupuis, as determined and relentless an athlete as the NHL has seen in recent years, was forced to end his professional hockey career due to complications from his blood clot disorder.
What I initially wrote on Twitter after hearing the news was that Pascal Dupuis will be remembered as an all-time great Pittsburgh Penguin, which perhaps seemed like hyperbole. But in retrospect, consider a few points:
- Sidney Crosby is likely going to remembered as the preeminent player of his generation, and Pascal Dupuis (along with Chris Kunitz) is likely to be remembered as one of his signature linemates.
Duper isn’t Jari Kurri, and he would tell you as much. But he wasn’t a Robbie Brown or a Warren Young or an Andy Hilbert. Duper had the ability to elevate the best player of a generation, and he was a big part of both a dominant Pittsburgh Penguins club and for a time, a member of the best line in hockey.
Penguins fans often like to sweep the success the 2009-2014 Penguins had under the rug, as though the Playoff flame-outs completely invalidated the record-setting Regular Seasons. Sidney Crosby put up a few of the best Regular Seasons of the modern era, in large part due to the play of Duper:
His loss as an on-ice talent can’t be understated. He was an integral part of the team’s chemistry.
- Pascal Dupuis was one of the most adaptable players in the NHL
People who have followed the NHL for a long time will vaguely remember Pascal Dupuis as an effective, hard-working utility forward for the Jacques Lemaire-Minnesota Wild teams, perhaps from the Wild’s miracle run in 2003, and maybe as an underused cog on a few mediocre New York Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers teams.
I don’t mean any of that to slight Dupuis, but to point out how he continued to grow and improve as a player well into his 30s. It’s easy to argue that he was a better NHL player after his 30th birthday than he was prior.
Most Penguins fans became cognizant of Duper when he came aboard with Marian Hossa at the 2008 NHL Trade Deadline. At the time, fans were mostly divided into one of two camps: elated that the team acquired Hossa, or enraged that the team had to sacrifice Colby Armstrong and to a lesser extent Erik Christiansen. At the time, no one was overly distraught or impressed that Dupuis changed teams again.
And at the time, I think even Ray Shero might have viewed Duper as a throw-in, or a warm NHL body to replace Army or Crusher on one of the lower lines. I don’t think even Ray Shero could have foreseen how critical Duper would become to the Penguins’ sustained success, or the kind of leader he would develop into. Ray Shero couldn’t have known the kind of human being he was acquiring.
When the Pens won the Cup in June 2009, Duper dutifully served on the 4th line, and was at times the odd man out when Dan Bylsma put the lineup together. By the beginning of the 2010 season, he was a staple on the best line in the NHL. In his seven years with the organization, he’s played every spot in the lineup, and been beyond reliable or serviceable. He’s been integral.
When he tore his ACL in 2013-14, the Pittsburgh fanbase collectively screamed. But Duper got up and skated off the ice under his own power, and swore he’d be back better than ever. And he kept his word:
Penguins’ fans all have players they like and loathe on any given roster, but the entire fanbase cheered when Duper scored that first one against Anaheim. He’s universally adored in a way that no other player on the roster, including Sid and Geno, can claim.
It was heart-wrenching when Duper was forced to take off the duration of the 2014-15 season due to Blood Clot issues. He wrote two magnificent pieces for The Players Tribune, which can be found here and here.
In the first piece, In My Blood, Duper vehemently rejects the idea that his medical condition is going to rob him of the final moment of his NHL career:
I’m 35. I know I don’t have much time left. But I’m getting out of that press box prison. I don’t care if it takes six months or a year or two years. I will get healthy. I will play in the National Hockey League again.
It’s such a Hockey Player mentality. Indignity and rage in the face of adversity. Will where other people Will Not. It’s something born and bred into a Hockey Player that a shot to the back of the head or the mouth or a blood disorder can’t suppress. You can’t coach Courage out of a Hockey Player, and Pascal Dupuis is a textbook example of Courage in Motion.
In the second piece, Why I’m Coming Back, Duper outlays the reasons why he can’t walk away from the NHL despite the health concerns:
Of course, if I’m being completely honest, that’s not the only reason. People have told me I wasn’t good enough my entire life. Not good enough for Juniors. Not good enough for the NHL. Not good enough to play on Sidney Crosby’s wing. Even now, I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have left me for dead. They clearly do not know me. My goal is not to just come back and lace them up for one more season and be a good locker room guy. I want to be an impact player on the ice. I want to be counted on.
Pascal Dupuis doesn’t know any other way than fighting his way back from adversity, working his fingers to the bone until he’s achieved his goals. It’s so admirable from a human perspective that we couldn’t help but get behind the guy. Which is a main reason why:
- Pascal Dupuis is absolutely beloved in the Locker Room and the community
I have a friend who works in a grocery store in the Pittsburgh area. She would send me high-lather text messages every time Duper stopped in for French cheese or Chorizo sausage. She would gush over how approachable and friendly Duper was to everyone, even though he had $3.75 million reasons to hold himself above the community riff-raff.
The reason Pittsburgh latched onto Dupuis was that he never took the opportunity to separate himself from the community. Even as he rose from a relative-unknown to Sidney Crosby’s preferred linemate, he continued to conduct himself as a normal guy who loved his family. You could see, or maybe have seen, Duper trolling around Home Depot on a nice little Saturday.
This commitment to normalcy is what he made Duper so revered not only in the community, but also the Pens’ locker room.
I am not going to look up the Pens’ Win-Loss record with Duper available versus unavailable. I’ll leave that for one of the more stats-heavy blogs to cover. But as a dedicated Pens’ fan, I can tell you the team tended to play lifelessly when Duper was unavailable, but sprang to life when he reentered the lineup.
The most recent example was when the team found out he had returned safe-and-sound from the hospital during their 2-1 win against Edmonton in November.
Pascal Dupuis has been the heartbeat for the Pittsburgh Penguins. It remains to be seen how the team will adjust, knowing his return won’t be imminent.
I’m obviously not inside the Pens’ locker room, but the impression I get is that most of the core players are very tightly-wound. What Duper seems to do is keep everyone loose with a good-natured rib here and there. His antics and wit kept the Penguins’ galaxy of stars grounded in reality:
The only other player I’ve seen as adored by his teammates as Duper is Mario Lemieux. For as respected as players like Ron Francis and Sergei Gonchar were, or even as well-liked as players like Marty Straka, Max Talbot, and Colby Armstrong were, I can’t recall a member of the team since Mario that was beloved – repeat, beloved – like Dupuis. This is largely because:
- Pascal Dupuis will be remembered as absolutely selfless
In announcing his retirement – official in all terms but contractual – all Duper would talk about was how the decision was about his family and how he would look to help the team even without being able to play. Like the freaking Giving Tree, on the day of his unofficial retirement, Duper stood there and talked about ways in which he would still look to contribute to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He didn’t say a thing about his playing career or accomplishments, or really about how retiring from a sport he clearly loves was affecting him personally. He talked about what he could do to help a team he no longer plays for.
If that’s not someone dedicated to the organization, then no one is. If that doesn’t set the bar for being a team-first guy, then I can’t imagine what would.
- Pascal Dupuis leaves as a Stanley Cup Champion
For all the absurd expectations placed on the Pittsburgh Penguins, it needs to be repeated that winning a single Stanley Cup Championship is a phenomenal achievement. At present, there are 30 teams investing millions upon millions of dollars and countless man-hours into achieving this goal. With Dupuis, the Penguins won one Cup, fought for another, and remained in the conversation for the duration of his Penguins career.
Pittsburgh has been in the NHL since 1967, and appeared in four Stanley Cup finals. That’s almost fifty years. Cup appearances don’t happen every year, and Dupuis was aboard for two of them. That’s noteworthy in-and-of itself.
As we move further away from Duper’s run with the team, his contributions are going to seem more and more important. It will stun us how often he’s been on the ice for a critical goal or been part of an outstanding Penalty Kill throughout his time with the team. There’s going to be a gaping hole in the lineup when the team takes the ice against Colorado on Wednesday the 9th.
The term is over-used, but he really has been the straw that stirs the drink for the modern-era Pittsburgh teams. Duper, as much as any other player the team has acquired, has been the missing piece that elevated the team from also-ran to perennial Stanley Cup threat. His presence was always noted, and was equally felt when he was forcibly removed from the lineup. As the shock subsides, a hollow feeling sets in as the team moves forward.
His decision to leave on his own terms should have unconditional support. Both the Penguins and the NHL community at-large are only grateful that Duper has decided to leave the game before something tragic occurred. It’s evident from everything Duper has done and said that his wife and four children come before Hockey, no matter how much he loved playing. It’s a good day for Duper and his family, as his wife and children no longer have to worry about Daddy/Pere being hospitalized on a nightly basis.
But December 8th, 2015 is still a fucking Sad Day for Hockey. The NHL lost one of the good guys today, and the Penguins lost one of the cornerstones of a very successful era. I hope he remains a very visible presence around the team, but I assure you he will be badly missed as a player.