Before he stepped on the ice for his first shift of the 2007-08 season in Columbus’ recent home win over the Phoenix Coyotes, Peca had not seen any competitive action since last December 22, the night he broke his right leg and tore the medial collateral ligament in a terrible knee-on-knee collision against the Chicago Blackhawks.
“In about the middle of April, even before the season ended, I was really eager to get back in the lineup,” says Peca, who signed with the Blue Jackets in late August following the one, injury-shortened campaign with the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I really missed the game and wanted to get back in it.”
An unrestricted free agent in the off-season, the Toronto native almost ended up in New York playing with the Rangers but things changed when Columbus got in the mix just weeks before the opening of training camp.
Center Alexander Svitov departed for Russia, leaving new GM Scott Howson with a void to fill in up front. Peca, fully recovered from his gruesome leg injury, got the call.
“I said in the off-season, I was going to help someone regardless of where I played,” he says. “Fortunately for me, it’s with this organization on the upswing.”
The 33-year-old veteran center could prove to be a great fit in Columbus, where his ability to play sound defensive hockey meshes perfectly with head coach Ken Hitchcock’s disciplined approach to the game.
Nevertheless, Peca has more to offer than the ability to help keep the puck out of his own team’s net. He enjoyed a prolific junior career in the Ontario Hockey League and during one five-year stretch of his NHL career; he tallied at least 20 goals four times as captain of both the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders.
“He’s one of those guys that just understand the game of hockey and how it should be played to win,” says Jackets’ captain Adam Foote, a teammate of Peca’s on the Canadian national team that won the gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. “He’s got a lot of hockey sense and he’s a natural leader.
“He’s one of the best defensive forwards in the league but he also has a lot of offensive skill and can make things happen in the other end. I think it’s a great pick up for us.”
With almost a year away from the game, Peca’s had to get accustomed to the NHL pace all over again. He looked good in his season debut against the Coyotes, centering a line with youngsters Gilbert Brule and Dan Fritsche.
After a tough outing on the road against the Colorado Avalanche, Peca took a spot on the top line with Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev as Columbus hosted Dallas, and logged almost 17 minutes of ice time. He played some crucial late shifts against the Stars and was a monster in the face-off circle, winning 15 of his 19 draws.
Peca is simply at his best when the game is on the line – especially in the post-season. He’s been an integral part of two long runs to the Stanley Cup, with Buffalo in 1999 and with the Edmonton Oilers in 2006.
In the 45 combined playoff games during those runs, he’s scored 11 times, added 13 assists and moreover, produced some incredible hockey, be it a timely bone-crunching hit or a game-changing goal.
“A player like me, intangibles mean so much to my game,” Peca says. “In the regular season, people are always about goals, assists and points. The irony is that in the playoffs, it’s all about wins. Who cares about who scores and who doesn’t? It’s about who wins. The intangibles, the little things that go into winning hockey games become magnified.
“I know in the playoffs that I’ve got the capability of doing a lot of the little things that go into winning hockey games.”
Captain Adam Foote knows the importance of a guy like Peca.
“You look at the place we live in and it’s all about the hat-trick, the home run and the long bomb,” adds Foote. “He’s one of those guys that might go unnoticed at times but he brings a lot to the table in many aspects.
“Players like Pecs will get more recognized in a playoff series because stats go out the window.”
Peca says he’s taken a lot from the two Stanley Cup experiences, which can only benefit his younger teammates in the Columbus room. He likes the potential of his new team, suggesting that people have bought into the system established by the coaching staff. Though he says Hitchcock expects every player to be a two-way threat, Peca has gladly accepted his role as a leader.
“I know that I’m a better player now than I think I ever was in my career, mainly because I’m as fit as I’ve ever been and I feel great on the ice,” he says. “More importantly, mentally, I feel so relaxed, so focused and so determined to be as good as I know I can be.”
Peca scored his first goal as a Blue Jacket on Friday night in Buffalo and assisted on goal by Rick Nash.
-Selected 40th overall by the Vancouver Canucks in the 1992 Entry Draft
-Two-time winner of Frank J. Selke Trophy, as NHL’s best defensive forward (1996/97 and 2001/02)
-Entered the 2007-08 season with 728 NHL regular season games played, scoring 164 goals with 245 assists for 409 points and 676 PIM
-93 NHL playoff games (15-19-34, with 78 PIM)
-Tallied two assists in six games playing for Canada at 2002 Salt Lake Olympics