During heyday, Peca was one of NHL's top two-way centers
I have the strangest memory of Michael Peca.
It was the 2001 world championships in Hannover, Germany, and Peca was sitting on a hotel bed looking as though the world had crashed down on him. It was pretty close to that. Nearing the end of a yearlong contract dispute with the Buffalo Sabres, Peca had come overseas to salvage his season by playing for Canada at the worlds. He was the team's captain.
But halfway through the tournament, he fractured his cheekbone. Tournament over. I was the only Canadian reporter covering the event and was summoned to his room to interview the poor soul. Imagine seeing someone after his dog was run over by a car, and that was the picture that night.
"It was unfortunate I fractured my cheekbone," Peca recalled to me Tuesday, the day he announced his retirement from the NHL. "But you know what? I was extremely thankful to [GM] Lanny McDonald and everyone at Hockey Canada for giving me an opportunity to play some meaningful hockey that year. I guess I did enough before I got hurt to earn an invite to the Olympic camp in September that year, so despite the injury at the worlds, it was well worth it from that standpoint.
"And besides," Peca added with a chuckle, "me being knocked out elevated Ryan Smyth to captain of the team, and that was the birth of Captain Canada."
There's always a silver lining, right? The real payoff for Peca came less than a year later, when he was an associate captain for Team Canada as it ended a 50-year gold-medal drought at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"For me, the gold medal was almost just to be part of that team," Peca said. "I had to get over the way I felt about being selected for the team and playing with Steve Yzerman, a guy that I idolized growing up. Mario Lemieux was on the team, Joe Nieuwendyk, Brendan Shanahan, Al MacInnis, the list went on and on; and Wayne Gretzky was at the head of the management team. It was amazing.
"And really, when it was actually happening, the schedule was so compact that you really didn't enjoy it fully at the time. But looking back, you enjoy and embrace it more. Winning an Olympic gold medal is a great achievement in sport."
Peca last played with Columbus during the 2008-09 season, and although he kept his options open through agent Don Meehan this past fall, he said he called it quits a while back.
"I really came to this decision months back, but it's been a case where I've been so busy with other things and enjoying myself that I didn't realize I had to come out and formally announce anything to consider myself retired," Peca said. "But I guess people will stop asking me now when they see me after reading about it."
Peca made it official in a release put out by the NHL Players' Association. No news conference or conference call. The two-time Selke Trophy winner and one of the game's premier two-way centers during his heyday, Peca didn't want to make a big deal of it. "I've never been a guy for big bells and whistles," he said.
No, but he's a guy who used every inch of his body to block shots, win faceoffs and earn room on the ice.
For me, he'll forever be remembered as a Buffalo Sabre, the leader of a young, blue-collar team in the late 1990s with superstar Dominik Hasek in net. That's when Peca was at his best, a force at both ends of the ice with clutch goals and key blocks. One night, he'd shut down the opposing team's top offensive threat; the next, he'd score a big goal.
"Nothing but great memories in Buffalo, even despite the way I ended up moving to the Islanders [after the yearlong contract dispute]," Peca said. "It's a place that really gave me the opportunity to get my career going and establish myself as a player. A lot of that is Ted Nolan and Lindy Ruff, and of course John Muckler bringing me in."
His heart always stayed in Buffalo, even if his skates didn't. Today, he lives there with his wife and two kids.
"Buffalo is the kind of town a person like me loves to live in because it's a great people-loving community," said Peca, who will turn 36 in March. "It's a city with small-town values, and it's a great place to live."
I met Peca when he was a junior star with the OHL's Ottawa 67's in the early 1990s. The Vancouver Canucks chose him in the second round (40th overall) of the 1992 draft.
His stay in Vancouver would last but one full NHL season, as the Canucks moved him to Buffalo in a blockbuster deal. The July 1995 trade saw the great Alexander Mogilny and a fifth-round draft choice (Todd Norman) go to Vancouver in exchange for Peca, Mike Wilson and Vancouver's first-round choice (Jay McKee).
"It's something that kind of caught me by surprise," Peca recalled. "I thought things were going well, so I was pretty surprised when I was traded out of Vancouver. But obviously Mogilny was going the other way, so I when I look back I guess I did have value to the Canucks organization, and they viewed me that way.
"When I got to Buffalo, Mogilny was obviously gone, [Dale] Hawerchuk was gone, a lot of veterans were moving on and the team was going in the youth direction. I knew it was a chance for me to establish myself."
The highlight was the 1999 Cup run, a magical spring that ended bitterly on Brett Hull's controversial in-the-crease triple-overtime goal in Game 6.
"That was a very difficult moment," Peca said of Hull's goal. "It's a blue-collar town. It wasn't just the players that enjoyed that great ride, but the community as well. The Bills had their four straight Super Bowl defeats, so Buffalo was looking at their first pro championship for the city, and unfortunately things ended the way they did. But still very good memories."
His 2000-01 contract dispute finally got resolved with a June trade. Peca was sent to the Islanders for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt. He was named captain and helped lead the team back into the playoffs after a seven-season dry patch.
"[Owner] Charles Wang was real eager to put that team back on the map," Peca said. "As much as I love Buffalo, this guy really loves Long Island and wanted to do something special for Long Island. Bringing in Peter Laviolette, I have the utmost respect for him as a coach. We were able to do something that first year. It was great to see. Long Island is a great place, and the fan base is extremely passionate, and I was happy we were able to get people excited."
The Isles made the playoffs all three seasons Peca was there. After the 2004-05 lockout, he was dealt to Edmonton for Mike York and a fourth-round draft choice (later traded to Colorado). Peca spent only one season in Edmonton, but what a season it was. Edmonton went all the way to the seventh and deciding game of the June 2006 Cup finals against Carolina.
"That was one of those rides; I try to explain that playoff run to people," Peca said. "That year in Edmonton really emblemized what a run is about -- it's about guys really believing in themselves. No. 8 seed against No. 1 seed, Edmonton taking on Detroit. Once we beat the Wings, you slowly saw the confidence grow and guys really believing in each other."
Then, a boyhood dream was fulfilled in the summer of 2006, as the free-agent Peca signed on with his hometown Maple Leafs. It was an injury-shortened season, but wearing the logo he had grown up watching was special.
"I obviously wish I could have extended that stay for many years," Peca said. "But unfortunately I broke my leg, and I can't blame them for wanting to go another way. But it's one of the greatest organizations in professional sports. It's really top-notch, and they look after the players there. I had lots of fun even though it was short-lived."
Peca played his final two seasons in Columbus and helped the team clinch its first playoff berth last season. Now, the only hockey in his life involves coaching his son's minor team.
"I've had just a lot of fun with that," said Peca, although that doesn't mean he has the pro-coaching bug. "I don't think so, because the part I like now is not traveling. I don't really see myself getting into that."
Family time rocks. He's at peace with himself. It was one heck of a ride.
"I don't think I'll ever stop reminiscing," he said. "The game has given me everything I've got. I'll be forever thankful."