Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Rod Brind'Amour retires: a look back

By Brian LeBlanc - Puck Drops
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In January of 2000, Jim Rutherford had a problem.

His captain, Keith Primeau, was holding out and had yet to play a game in Raleigh; even though the RBC Center had opened three months prior, the team's captain had not yet seen the home locker room in the new building.  The well was so poisoned between the Canes and Primeau that Rutherford had little choice but to shop his captain to the rest of the league.  Finally, after an excruciatingly long three months that cast a pall over the team finally being home in Raleigh, Rutherford pulled the trigger to acquire an injured player, a prospect and a draft pick, an indication of just how far Primeau's stock had fallen.

Ten years, two contracts, 299 assists, three division titles, two Prince of Wales Trophies, two Selke Trophies and a Stanley Cup later, that injured player retired, likely on his way to the Hall of Fame.

Rod Brind'Amour's retirement today was not unexpected.  Ever since tearing his ACL in a February 2008 collision with Montreal's Georges Laraque, Brind'Amour has been slowing down, and with the Hurricanes poised to go considerably younger next season (to wit: with the expected departures of Ray Whitney and Brian Pothier, the old man of the roster next year will be 32-year-old Sergei Samsonov), his role has diminished to the point that a buyout seemed increasingly likely.

But it's obvious from talking with both Brind'Amour and Rutherford that this was the most agonizing hockey decision either man has ever faced.  Rutherford brought up the experience of dealing with Steve Chiasson's death in saying that this isn't the most difficult situation he's ever faced as a GM, but in terms of actual on-ice scenarios, nothing compares to this.  How do you tell the man who's been the face of the franchise since at least 2004, the man who captained your team to its only Stanley Cup, that he no longer has a role on the roster?

You don't.  You let the decision make itself.  Today, that decision was made, not by Brind'Amour or Rutherford on their own, but by the circumstances surrounding the two men.  Rutherford said to Brind'Amour, we think it's time.  Brind'Amour said to Rutherford, I think it's time.  And so, it was time.

When Brind'Amour arrived in Raleigh, it was just before that famous 20-inch snowstorm that shut the city down for the better part of two weeks.  The snow's arrival felt to Raleigh natives much the same way Brind'Amour felt toward the city he'd been traded to: cold, unfamiliar, difficult to comprehend.  He himself admitted today that he had every intention of hitting the highway approximately six seconds after his contract expired in July of 2002, but then a funny thing happened: he grew to first respect, then like, then love, the area and the Hurricanes franchise.

By the time the extension that he signed in 2001 expired, he had won a Stanley Cup, and his name had become synonymous with Hurricanes hockey.  Who'd have thought that?

Check out the picture of Brind'Amour with Ron Francis and Glen Wesley on the ice in Toronto in 2002.  You can almost see it in his face: "We won an Eastern Conference title? A team from Raleigh, North Carolina? Maybe there's something here after all."

There's going to be a debate in days to come as to who the greatest Hurricane of all time should be.  If we're restricting things to players since the Canes moved to North Carolina in 1997, there's no question.  Rod Brind'Amour is the greatest Carolina Hurricane of all time. Greater than Francis. Greater than Wesley. Greater than any other player who have put the jersey on in the past thirteen years.

Brind'Amour may not have wanted to hang up the skates.  He thought that he still had something to give.  But in the end, he did what a captain always does: he did what was best for the team.

Eric Staal is now the captain.  He has every chance to surpass Brind'Amour and be the fourth jersey in the rafters of the RBC Center.  But as of right now, he might be the captain, but he is not The Captain.  That's an honor reserved for the man who was so impatient for Gary Bettman to finish his accolades on June 19, 2006 that he ripped the Cup out of Bettman's hands before the photo ops were even completed.

That's The Captain.  And at the risk of hyperbole, it's not unfair to say that an era ended today.

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