Pascal Dupuis headed home to Montreal last December, threw his hockey gear in the garage and waited for his retirement to become real.
The longtime Pittsburgh Penguins forward knew the pangs of regret would come, even as he understood it was the right choice to step away from the game due to lingering concerns about the blood clots that dogged him during the final stages of his 15-year career. The only choice, really, for a married father of four.
Dupuis just assumed his second thoughts would fade over time. Only they didn't. If anything, they've become more acute while watching his teammates put together a stirring run to the Stanley Cup Final without the player simply known as "Duper," who for so long served as the emotional touchstone in a dressing room filled with divergent personalities.
"Every day I'm thinking about it," Dupuis said before the Penguins opened up the franchise's fifth appearance in the Cup Final with a 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 on Monday night.
So Dupuis searched for a compromise, finding one in becoming a special assistant of sorts, one straddling the line between player and coach. He doesn't have a term for his job description, though he became perhaps one of the world's most overqualified equipment managers when he found himself replacing the butt end of forward Eric Fehr's stick during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The hockey bag Dupuis ditched in the family garage didn't stay zipped for long. He brought his skates back to Pittsburgh, though these days he works out alone on the ice well before his friends file onto the rink. It's strange, really strange, not to be out there with them. He lifted the Cup in triumph when the Penguins beat Detroit for the franchise's third championship in 2009. Yet there the Cup was on Sunday afternoon, barely 20 feet away as he spoke to reporters during Media Day, and in the most visceral way hopelessly out of reach.
"You still want it," said Dupuis, who turned 37 in April. "If one thing, it makes it harder. You know what it feels like, you know what it tastes like and you want it again."
It's why Dupuis returned last fall even though for the better part of two years it seemed as if there was a voodoo doll somewhere with his No. 9 jersey on it. The torn ACL in December, 2013. The blood clots that surfaced in November, 2014. The long wait for doctors to OK his return as he worked his way off blood thinners only to sustain a lower-body injury during training camp last September.
Yet he pressed on before chest pains forced him to leave a game in San Jose in early December, and the long West Coast road trip gave him time to think about his future, his mortality and hockey's role in both. Then came the decision to step away on Dec. 8, making the announcement during a practice day in Colorado. He knew it was time to go.
Just not that far, it turned out. General manager Jim Rutherford promised Dupuis the team would pay him through the remainder of the four-year deal he signed in 2013 even as it placed him on the long-term inactive list. The move paid off immediately. The Penguins used the salary cap relief to acquire defenseman Trevor Daley from Chicago, a deal that coincided with head coach Mike Sullivan's arrival and began the midseason renaissance that brought the Pittsburgh to the cusp of a championship.
"In some ways, our misfortune with Duper became our good fortune as we went along," Rutherford said.
Dupuis made it a point to earn his money, even if it wasn't with a stick in his hands. He re-joined the Penguins on the road as soon as doctors gave him clearance and in some ways things haven't changed. He kept his stall in the locker room and joked "I still put my underwear on before they go on the ice." Even if it goes under a meticulously tailored suit.
"He still works out hard, he gives us insight," Penguins forward Chris Kunitz said. "He's on the plane. He's on the buses. He's still loose just like he was when we played."
Maybe that's because he isn't quite ready to turn the page completely. The engine that led the former undrafted free agent to 190 career goals, many of them as the speedy sidekick to Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby, doesn't idle easily.
"It's not like I'm going to dinner with the coaches yet," he said. "I haven't stepped over that fence yet. I'm still, in my head, a player."
Even if, in practice, he is not. That part will be hard to shake, particularly as he sees his former peers make their way back from similar problems. Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos returned to the lineup for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals just eight weeks removed from his own blood clot issues. Seeing Stamkos on the ice — on the same night the Penguins grinded out a 2-1 win to advance to the Cup Final — was both promising but also bittersweet. Medicine is advancing. In the near future, blood clots may not be the career-altering diagnosis they are now.
Those advances, however, won't come in time for Dupuis. For now, he's attempting to be content growing his lavishly thick playoff beard and be one of the guys hoping to extend his long goodbye for a couple more weeks.
"It's hard to come to the rink," Dupuis said, "but the bigger picture here is me helping this team win."