This has been inevitable for a while with Devils legend Patrik Elias having not played at all in the ’16-17 season after barely playing in 2015-16, but that doesn’t make today’s announcement of Elias’s retirement any easier to take. From a personal standpoint he’s been my favorite Devil for at least the last twelve years, partly because of his elite two-way game, his classy personality and partly for a personal reason I’ll get into later. And just from a symbolic standpoint, Elias was truly the last link left to the great Devil teams from 1994-2012. After the departures of Lou Lamoriello, Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur from the organization in recent years, Elias leaving provides a finality to that era of Devil greatness.
Seeing highlights of Elias on the NHL Now show, I’m floored by the fact he ever wore a number other than #26, it doesn’t seem real seeing him with the #22 on his back scoring a soccer-style goal. Yet it’ll be #26 that people will remember him forever in and the team’s already announced it will be raised to the rafters sometime next season. In the meantime Elias will say goodbye to the fans this week during the Devils’ final homestand, dropping the puck before their game with the Flyers on Tuesday, attending an open practice Friday afternoon and finally doing ‘the final lap’ leading the team onto the ice for the final home game of the season next Saturday against the Isles. Of course I’ll be at both the Tuesday and Saturday games but I’m happier that I was at the home finale last year, which turned out to be Patty’s final game and on my birthday no less. Patty finished with a flourish putting up a goal and two assists with a +4 in just 14:27 of icetime in a rout of the then-cellar dwelling Maple Leafs (my, how things have shifted in a year).
While the fan in me wanted to see him play some more this year, part of me was hoping it was his last game cause it was a fitting way to go out, rising to the occasion again as Patty had done so many times throughout his career. When you think of Elias you think of special moments – his two goals against the Flyers in Game 7 of the 2000 ECF as the Devils completed a 3-1 series comeback with a taut 2-1 win in the City of Brotherly Love. Of course most fans will remember just as keenly Elias’s cross-ice pass to Jason Arnott in double overtime of Game 6 against the Stars just two weeks later to clinch the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. More recently you think of Patty’s stealing the show in 2009 at the Rock on St. Patty’s Day fittingly enough, setting the all-time franchise scoring record on the night Brodeur set the all-time wins record for a goalie, and coming out for his second star wearing a goofy green Irish hat and doffing it to the crowd.
I’m sure there’ll be more Patty moments I remember when I read all the tributes and see all the videos I can watch of him over the next few days. His deflection goal down on one knee in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals was one of my favorites. Even in his later years, he was still clutch getting a key early goal in the 2012 Stanley Cup Finals to help the Devils get up off the mat in Game 4 down 3-0 in the series. Another favorite (goofy) Patty moment wasn’t even on one of his goals, but when he blatantly ducked and avoided the attempted embrace of Czech buddy Petr Sykora after an Adam Larsson goal to hug the young Swedish defender first. Wearing Sykora’s jersey on the ice after the 2000 Stanley Cup win when Sykora was in the hospital after a dirty shot from Derian Hatcher. Obviously countless others I’ve overlooked at the moment.
As I said earlier, it’s for all those reasons Patty became my favorite Devil even as other big names remained, but also due to a purely accidental but nice connection I had with the man himself in 2006. Unfortunately Elias was still on the sidelines in December that year with the hepatitis he contracted during the yearlong lockout that cost many players including Patrik a full year of his career. During a tumultulous period for the Devils, coach Larry Robinson resigned and GM Lamoriello moved down to do double-duty as head coach. I happened to be at Lou’s first game as coach – at Madison Square Garden – which the Devils won 3-1. I also happened to be wearing a white Elias jersey at the game.
On my way home on the train a couple of fans saw my jersey and excitedly told me Patrik’s right in front of us. At first I didn’t know what the heck they were talking about but eventually I figured out they were talking about #26 and when I looked at the seat in front sure enough he was there. Eventually I went over to talk to him and he said nice jersey (of course) and I wound up sitting with him for a half hour till his stop in East Orange – I think. It was a nice conversation though most of the details are lost to me at the present time, but one of the things I remember vividly was him asking me without prompting what I thought of the new arena in Newark and I said I liked it and he said he was looking forward to the new arena himself. Given his FA status and the fact he took such an interest in Newark and what I thought, it was sort of a good sign to me that I didn’t really have to fear him leaving even though it sounded like he gave it serious consideration after the 2006 season. Still, I’ll always believe he just used the speculation from other teams including the Rangers to squeeze a no-trade clause out of Lou. After all, Elias if nothing else was a very cerebral, smart person and player.
Now that Elias’s career is offically over the clock can start retroactively on the wait for him to be voted into the Hall of Fame. Will he make it in first ballot? I don’t know but by all rights he should. Yes his overall stats aren’t overwhelming compared to some other HOF’ers (1240 GP, 408 goals and 1025 points), but when you factor in the majority of his career was spent in the so-called dead puck era before that aformentioned 2004-05 lockout – and with the Devils themselves where stats frequently got suppressed for the good of the team, his numbers are far more impressive on that curve. As former GM Lamoriello said on NHL Now talking about Patty, he was the type of player you wanted in all situations – up a goal late, down a goal late, power play, PK, even-strength. That kind of excellence it’s hard to quantify in stats but it was there for anyone watching those great Devil teams of that era. His playoff numbers were just as steady with 45 goals and 80 assists in 162 career playoff games.
As a person Elias was also a clear HOF’er dealing with anything that could be thrown his way with grace and poise. Early in his career he butted heads with hard-line coaches like Jacques Lemaire and Pat Burns but was always able to respect and learn from them. Patty might be too classy to say any different about Brent Sutter – who unfairly took away the C on his jersey after a meh year in 2006-07 wearing it – but I still look on that as an unneccesary dark moment in franchise history that maybe only Patty could have handled as well as he did. And after the hepatitis that could have been career threatening, Elias came back to play at an MVP level with an unreal 61 points in 47 games combined between the regular season and playoffs – granted that was the live puck post-lockout year where a lot of screwy offensive numbers happened, but still impressive.
Clearly Elias preferred the coaches that just left him alone and let him be himself – Robbie Ftorek who helped form the so-called A-line with Elias-Arnott-Sykora that terrorized the NHL for three seasons, Larry Robinson under whom Patty had his best season ever (96 points and a +45 in 2000-01 playing only 18:44 a game) and in later years Pete DeBoer, under whom Elias had his last top-shelf season with 78 points in 81 games, during a year where the Devils made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup Finals. Elias was a key cog on many winning teams, making the playoffs his first twelve seasons in the league and appearing in four Stanley Cup Finals during his illustrious career, winning in 2000 and 2003.
Before Elias can make a stop in Toronto for the HHoF, there’ll be a series of short goodbyes next week followed by a long celebration of his career next season. I’ve never come close to tears for any of the previous retirement ceremonies but I might on this one. Both because of who Patty is and because he has such a knack of balancing out being serious when the occasion calls for it and at the same time throwing in a deadpan bit of humor to the moment. Here’s to you #26!