No athlete is immune from the onslaught of Father Time. At some point the cranky SOB grabs you and doesn’t let go. And just like that, a career comes to an end.
In the case of New Jersey Devils forward Patrik Elias, that career came to an end yesterday when he announced his retirement after 20 seasons of sublime play in which he became the team’s all-time leading scorer and helped the Devils to two Stanley Cup championships and two other appearances in the finals.
Elias had off-season knee surgery in the hopes of returning for another year but decided that neither his body nor his mind would let that happen. He couldn’t see the point of playing just to play.
A superb playmaker and a gifted scorer, Elias broke into the NHL as a 19 year old shortly after the Devils won their first Stanley Cup championship in 1995 and were on their way to becoming one of the elite franchises in sports.
Despite a reputation for choking the life out of the game, the Devils were anything but boring. They could outscore you (the Devils were second in the league in scoring when they won the 1999-2000 Stanley Cup and were first in scoring the following season), they could beat you in the corners (Ken Daneyko and Scott Stevens each racked up more than 2,500 penalty minutes in their careers) or they could beat you with great goaltending (Marty Brodeur has more wins and shutouts than any goalie in NHL history).
And through the course of that period, the Devils could count on Elias to play the game with an artistry that has rarely been seen. He played the game in a chess-like manner, always two steps ahead of everyone else. But because the Devils had a corps of players that included Hall-of-Famers and characters that seemed to be drawn from “Slap Shot” and “Major League”, Elias could often go overlooked.
In addition to his 408 goals, 617 assists and 1,025 points in the regular season, Elias is NJ’s all-time leading playoff scorer with 45 goals and 80 assists for 125 points. He scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 of the 2000 Eastern Conference finals and assisted on the Stanley Cup clinching goal by Jason Arnott in Game 6 of the 2000 championship.
But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for Elias.
He contracted Hepatitis A and lost 30 pounds while playing in Russia during the NHL’s lockout in 2004-05. When the NHL resumed play for the 2005-06 season, Elias missed the first 39 games of the year because of effects of the virus.
He was named the first European-born captain of the Devils at the start of the 2006-07 season only to have the “C” unceremoniously ripped from his sweater at the start of the next year by first-year coach Brent Sutter. It was a major slap in the face to a proud man.
Yet through it all, Elias persevered.
I’m sure there were times when management entertained thoughts of trading Elias just as I’m sure that Patrik thought about taking his talents to another team. In the end, however, he became one of the few athletes in this age of free agency to play his entire career with one team.
The Devils have already announced that Elias’ number 26 will be retired next season, a fitting tribute for the man who wore the black and red so proudly and for so long. He’ll be missed but never forgotten.