In a 20-year NHL career, Ken Daneyko won three Stanley Cups to go along with silver and bronze medals earned representing Canada at the World Championship. With that kind of resume, he figured he had experienced everything hockey could offer prior to his 2003 retirement.
That changed in early September, when the former New Jersey Devils defenseman made a special hockey pilgrimage to Russia.
"Everybody asked me when I retired if it was difficult. For me, it really wasn't. I was very content," said Daneyko, who traveled to participate in two exhibition games featuring former NHL players. "When I got in the locker room with these guys, all of a sudden you're in a room sitting next to (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mark) Messier. Brett Hull was there. To see the competitiveness from them, it was the first time I felt like an NHLer again. I thought, maybe this is what I miss. Even though it was some old [guys], the atmosphere was unbelievable."
The collection of some of the game's greatest players gathered for a series pitting a team of Canadian players against a roster of former Russian greats, including Pavel Bure, Alex Mogilny, and Daneyko's former Devils teammate Viacheslav Fetisov.
Despite Canada being outplayed in the first game in St. Petersburgh, goaltender Trevor Kidd managed to keep things close. But Kidd's heroics wouldn't be enough, and the Russians won 6-4. By the time the scene shifted to Yaroslavl a few days later, Daneyko and his Canadian teammates weren't ready to give their hosts a two-game sweep.
"We played to win. You see Gretzky and Hull and Messier saying, 'We're not losing two, boys,'" Daneyko told NHL.com. "Regardless if it's for goodwill, we were all into it and the second game was very competitive. We won 5-4 to split [the series]. The Russians hate to lose on their turf. I really just felt alive again in the hockey world."
The games rekindled Daneyko's competitive edge and entertained Russian fans. But for everyone involved, there was more to the week than just playing hockey. For the players, that meant first honoring the 40th anniversary of the historic 1972 Summit Series, a seminal hockey moment that still resonates with Daneyko.
"That was so big and so huge. I grew up in Edmonton, where we stopped in the middle of class. I remember it like it was yesterday," Daneyko said. "At 10 a.m. they put TVs in the hallways to stop and watch. It was a great thing for hockey."
"When I got in the locker room with these guys, all of a sudden you're in a room sitting next to (Wayne) Gretzky and (Mark) Messier. Brett Hull was there. To see the competitiveness from them, it was the first time I felt like an NHLer again."
-- Ken Daneyko
The ceremony commemorating the tournament featured players from both teams and an appearance from Russian president Vladimir Putin. A few days later in Yaroslavl, the players marked the one-year anniversary of the plane crash that took the lives of 44 people, including most of the Lokomotiv club's players and coaches. For Daneyko, the ceremonies in Yaroslavl proved to be an emotional moment, especially after a chance meeting with the widow of Yaroslavl's coach, Brad McCrimmon.
"I talked to her for about an hour, she's such a strong lady. You can't put yourself in those shoes, you can't imagine what they've been through," Daneyko said. "In the morning we put roses out for the guys. We just paid our respects the day of the game. That was really special. You just can't imagine when a tragedy like this happens, the number of people it affects."
With the exception of a short Russian exhibition in 2000 honoring Fetisov, it was the first time Daneyko had played there since the 1986 World Championship in what was then the Soviet Union. More than 25 years after that bronze-medal performance, Daneyko visited again to reminisce with old friends and enjoy an experience he won't soon forget.
"Just to be in that room with these guys, I was like a little kid. And here's a guy who played 20 years in the National Hockey League. What a great feeling. It was a real honor," Daneyko said. "I got to bring my son along. It was the trip of a lifetime for him.
"Boy, do they love their hockey over there in Russia."