It was 11:14 p.m. The fluorescent lights were about to flicker out inside the home locker room at Consol. Pascal Dupuis was among a handful of stragglers, still seated at his stall and soaking wet, right down to the curled-up socks he'd just pried out from his skates.
“This,” the man was telling me through the softest, most satisfied of gap-toothed smiles, “this is why I stayed.”
I'll fess up right here: I think the world of Pascal Dupuis, as a human and an athlete. He's been a pleasure to cover, a delight to know for a few years now.
But I've never seen a moment that more sweetly summarized who and what he stands for than this one Wednesday night.
For one …
“We just beat Boston. And that's a team we really don't like.”
‘Don't have a choice'
Yeah, let's start there. The Penguins outgutted the Bruins, 3-2, in one of the most intense October hockey games you're likely to witness. The whole thing was a blast from front to finish, great goals, seismic checks, dramatic saves ... very much worthy of conference finalists.
Yet somehow, even in sharing an ice surface with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the latter having his “best game of the year” per Dan Bylsma, as well as Boston's superlative Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron in peak form, no one – at least to these eyes — made a bigger impact than Engine No. 9.
And I do mean impact.
That was Dupuis slamming into the 6-foot-9 Chara at the tail of a long shift to cut loose Crosby for a break.
That was Dupuis ramming Johnny Boychuk with such force that he was flung up onto Boychuk's shoulders, then came crashing down on his back, all to clear a path for Chris Kunitz.
That was Dupuis twisting a wrist for the prettiest one-handed tip of a stretch pass to spring Brandon Sutter for a goal.
That was Dupuis banging more bodies for a late clear as the Bruins pressed to tie, prompting franchise patriarch Eddie Johnston to observe from upstairs, “The guy's just relentless.”
And yeah, that was Dupuis, as caught by the NBC cameras, ensuring he wouldn't miss any of the above, casually yanking out a jarred tooth right there on the bench.
“It hurt maybe a little,” he'd wryly offer later to a pack of cameras and microphones. “But you can't be going back to the room in a game like that.”
A game like that?
Which game is it that Dupuis doesn't compete at that level?
For all that stood out about this performance, it wasn't the stats or even the self-dentistry. It's that, on an occasion where both teams were flying around the rink, finishing every check, face-washing at every whistle, they still couldn't keep pace with Dupuis' default mode.
It's the same mode he'll bring to a Game 7, the same he'll bring to this weekend's home-and-home with the Blue Jackets.
“I don't have a choice,” Dupuis was explaining once that locker room had mostly emptied. “That's not just how I see it. That's really how it is. I have one way to be successful.”
Concurrently, the only way he can play that way is to be a conditioning freak. The tales of his sunrise-to-sunset summer regimens have been told and retold, and the truth is, they haven't changed much at age 34.
“Well, one thing's different,” Dupuis corrected. “I lose one pound every year.”
Who tracks a single pound?
“That's my average playing weight. One pound a year allows me to maintain my quickness as I get older. Other than that, no, nothing changes. It can't. Again, I don't have a choice.”
Someone else makes sure of that, as well.
I asked Crosby after the game Wednesday to assess Dupuis' value to the team, and he replied, “He just works so hard, clears out so much space, makes so many things happen for us. And he's so strong.”
Crosby caught himself with that last sentence and motioned across the room toward Dupuis' stall.
“But don't tell him that.”
Hm. Seems the obsessively competitive captain and his longtime linemate have an ongoing conditioning duel, and it just might be the case that the old man wins out more often than not.
‘Where I belonged'
Dupuis lives his life with the same drive, the same spirit. He's identified what's important, from his four-child family to friends to fun, and embraces it all with the same zeal he shows each time over the boards. He's one of those genuinely joyful people that culls the most from every moment.
It's no wonder he stayed, huh?
Remember this past summer, when Dupuis was about to become an unrestricted free agent?
For some, that's cause to celebrate, the imminent biggest payday of their careers.
For Dupuis, it was a nightmare.
He desperately wanted to stay, but he and agent Allan Walsh also were aware that the cap-strapped Penguins couldn't match the open market, much as Ray Shero and his staff wanted to. Dupuis was coming off another career year with 20 goals, 18 assists in the lockout-shortened 48-game season, all despite seldom participating on the power play. He also led the NHL with a plus-31 rating. The feelers were coming in at figures Dupuis never dreamed he'd be offered.
On the eve of free agency, Dupuis, Walsh and Shero agreed to invest every effort toward a deal. But before that, Dupuis consulted his wife, Carole-Lyne. The couple considered Pittsburgh their home in every way.
As wives are wont to do, Carole-Lyne took care of the hard part.
“Play where you want to play,” she told him. “But know that this is where we want to be.”
The deal was done, four years and $15 million.
“This is home. This is where I wanted to be. This is where my heart is. This is where the fans treat me so well, where the franchise has treated me so well, where I can play with so many great players … this is where I belonged.”
As Dupuis rose to exit, he was still smiling, but he had one concern.
“My wife saw me take the tooth out, and she's mad at me. She said I shouldn't have done that myself.”
Smart woman. I'd listen to her.
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