Thursday night outside the Penguins’ locker room, Pascal Dupuis was fielding questions about his selection as the team’s 2016 Masterton Trophy nominee with the graciousness and humor that have been his hallmark since arriving in Pittsburgh eight years ago.
But the impishness that’s often in his eyes wasn’t quite there after watching the resurgent Penguins – still his team, although he technically doesn’t play for them anymore – see their six-game winning streak come to a halt, courtesy of a 3-0 shutout by the New Jersey Devils.
“It makes it easier when they play well,” Dupuis said. “A game like tonight it makes it harder for sure.”
Nothing related to hockey has been particularly easy for Dupuis, 36, since he had to hang up his skates in December, after trying to play with a blood clot condition that ultimately proved to be too great a risk to his long-term health.
He still shows up to the rink each day, wearing a suit and tie instead of Penguins black and gold. But he hasn’t accepted it.
“No, not yet. Not at all, actually,” he said. “It doesn’t help coming here and being part of the daily routine – showing up at the rink, seeing the teammates I was with three months ago putting their equipment on and going on the ice and having fun.
“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.”
Why continue to do it?
“Because I care for these guys,” Dupuis said. “I like to think that I can help some of them and the team a little bit. That I can bring [something] during the games, or even just talking player to player. You know me; you know what I can bring to a locker room.”
Dupuis quickly established his voice as the heart and soul of the Penguins’ room. For the past eight years, he’s been a steady, calming presence. He’s also been their go-to for lightening the mood during the long grind of the NHL season.
He’s still trying to do that in his new role, where he takes in the action from the press box, then comes down between periods to share his observations.
“They’re basically my teammates, except for a few young guys that came up,” he said. “Just to get to them, see how they’re feeling. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the game itself; it could just be a drag to play 82 games, to be here every day. Just lighten up the room – if I can just do that? That goes a long way, I think.”
Being back among his former teammates may be where Dupuis feels most comfortable, but having one foot on the other side of the front office/player relationship isn’t always the easiest position.
“That’s the part that I’m still right on the fence,” he said. “Am I still part of it? Am I completely outside of it? Am I the awkward guy just trying to make them laugh? I go to the coach’s room, I come back [to the players] and I’m going to mess around with them? I hear stuff [both places] and I’m in the middle. I don’t talk about what’s going on on both sides, but I have to walk a fine line for sure.”
The easiest role Dupuis plays is that of husband to wife Carole-Lyne and kids Maeva, Kody, Zoe and Lola. And he’s had a lot of practice over the past couple of years, since the knee injury in December 2013 that changed everything.
After a collision with longtime linemate Sidney Crosby that sent him into the end boards in Ottawa just two days before Christmas, Dupuis was quietly diagnosed with a blood clot. He had surgery to reconstruct his ACL and MCL and stayed on blood thinners for six months while recovering and rehabbing.
True to form for a player who made sure to lose one pound – yes, exactly one – each year as he got older to keep his edge, Dupuis didn’t let the blood clot sidetrack his six- to eight-month timeframe. He was cleared to return to the lineup in October 2014 and got off to a quick start with six goals and 11 points in 16 games.
In November, however, the blood clot issue returned. This time, it had traveled from his leg to his lung – in medical terms, a deep vein thrombosis resulting in a pulmonary embolism. He went back on blood thinners, ending his season.
Because he’s Dupuis, he continued to work and reported to camp last September, having found a medication protocol that doctors believed would allow him to continue to play. But after leaving several games early due to complications that included chest pain – and going through testing that included radiation and CT scans each time, increasing his risk – he was forced to face the writing on the wall.
“I’ve got quite a bit of practice being home [for most of] two years in a row,” Dupuis said. “I’m not one of those guys that being home is hard for me; I’m liking my life at home. That’s what I learned – that I’m comfortable there, that I don’t need to come here to be happy.”
But report to the rink he will, for as long and in whatever capacity as the Penguins ask.
“Well, I’m still under contract for next year, so you guys will see me around again,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know in what role. We’ll see how it goes, what they want me to keep doing. Basically, what they ask, I’ll see if I can bring the best out of it.”
Dupuis could’ve chosen to leave the city where he’s become not only a beloved athlete but part of the community – a long way from being “the other guy” in the deal that brought Marian Hossa, who stayed for about four months, to Pittsburgh. He could still choose to move on now.
He’s not going to. Because of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game of hockey – qualities that sound an awful lot like the criteria for the Masterton.
“I had that option, definitely. It’s still on the table,” he said. “Obviously, being on long-term IR, I could be doing something else. Some guys, like Chris Pronger, are working for the NHL. But I definitely chose to be around these guys.”
A reporter pointed out that Pronger, who’s still technically under contract in the league, had been included in a salary-cap trade last summer.
“If they trade my contract, they can,” Dupuis said, that familiar impishness back in his eyes. “But I’m still going to be around here.”