Masterton nominee Dupuis walks fine line between players, coaches in new role with Penguins
For a few weeks after Pascal Dupuis announced his retirement as a hockey player on Dec. 8, a “Dupuis” nameplate remained above one of the Penguins' dressing room stalls.
But even that little tribute to the beloved Penguins winger, who stepped away from the game out of concern for his blood clot condition, disappeared.
Newcomers, many of them Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups whose draft years came a decade-plus after Dupuis' NHL debut with Minnesota in April 2001, needed the storage space.
Fortunately for the team, visits from Dupuis continued. The veteran forward, who spent nine of his 15 NHL seasons with the Penguins, saw no need for a stall when his new responsibilities only required him to wear a suit.
“I could be doing something else,” Dupuis said, “but I definitely chose to be around these guys.”
Because of the dangers posed by the blood clot in his lungs and the tolls of the condition's treatment, Dupuis prioritized his family over his desire to still play.
He accepted an off-ice role with the Penguins, who have asked him to fulfill the second-to-last season of his contract by studying particular in-game sequences from the press box and reporting back to the staff between periods, as well as by serving as a go-between for players and coaches.
Dupuis' final season included just 18 game appearances, two goals and two assists, but it demanded enough dedication and perseverance to make the winger a clear candidate for the NHL's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which honors a former Minnesota North Stars forward who died in 1968 of an injury he suffered in a game.
The local chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, chaired by the Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi, named Dupuis its Masterton candidate Monday morning.
Though he's eligible for the trophy, Dupuis, who turns 37 on April 7, questions whether he fits the description of a deserving player this season. He's torn about where he stands on the spectrum between skater and staff member.
“Am I still a part of (the team)?” Dupuis said. “Am I completely outside of it? Am I in (the players') way? Am I like the awkward guy just trying to make them laugh?
“I put a suit on and I go in the coaches' room during the game, and then I come back, and I've got to mess around with (teammates). I hear stuff back there, but I hear stuff (among the players). I'm in the middle. I don't talk about what's going on on both sides. I have to walk a fine line, for sure.”
He came to a conclusion about retirement after a yearlong struggle to manage and potentially overcome the challenges the blood clot presented. The medical protocol used to check on the condition, which included CT scans and radiation, proved taxing and detrimental.
But even as he looked forward to more time with his wife and four children, Dupuis still regarded the timing and terms of his playing career's end as bitter.
“It doesn't help coming here and being part of the daily routine and showing up to the rink and seeing the teammates I was with three months ago putting their equipment on and going on the ice and having fun,” he said. “Obviously when I'm home, (when) I'm away from this, I'm completely fine. I love my wife. I love my kids. I have a life outside of here. But as soon as I come here, that becomes the hardest part.”
When he stepped into the spotlight at Consol Energy Center for the last time Dec. 14, Dupuis maintained a dignified façade. After he watched an extensive tribute video flanked by his wife and kids and listened to the outpouring of cheers and applause from fans, not to mention the stick taps from teammates, Dupuis simply lifted a thumb into the air.
As the spectacle continued, Dupuis mouthed, “Wow.” But he kept his composure and headed back down the runway without a tear shed in public.
Dupuis recognizes his legacy with the Penguins as a player: “Basically (when I) came in here, people thought I was just carrying Marian Hossa's sticks and his equipment. And I ended up being a piece of the puzzle that made this team successful.”
He also realizes how much of his involvement with hockey might remain ahead of him, rather than behind. So for the rest of this season and in 2016-17, he looks forward to building bonds with the young players who huddle in the area around his former dressing room stall.
“I went to training camps with most of these guys,” he said. “As far as getting back here in the locker room, that's where I feel comfortable.
“It can be a drag to play 82 games and to be here every day. So just to lighten up the mood, maybe if I can just do that, it goes a long way, I think.”