Michael Peca wasn’t in Columbus for very long, but his two years with the Blue Jackets will be in his memory forever.
Peca, a two-time Selke Trophy winner and a 2002 Olympic gold medalist, made his mark in the NHL with the Sabres in the late 90’s but was also a key part of a Blue Jackets team that broke into the playoffs for the first time in franchise history in 2009.
During his stint with the Blue Jackets, Peca was able to play with numerous talented players, which is one thing that he will cherish forever.
Peca still tells stories to this day about the stretch of games when he played on a line with Jakob Voracek and Nikita Filatov, whose combined ages nearly matched his own.
“There were so many really good guys on our team, and I think that’s why we started to have some success,” Peca told BlueJackets.com. “For me, the thrill was getting to play with Jake Voracek, getting to see Derick Brassard start his career. Fortunately some of these guys have gone on to become outstanding players in their organizations, to see them at inception was a pretty neat experience.”
What does he remember about Columbus? Without question, Peca recalled, it was the energy and loyalty of Blue Jackets fans. Peca says he realized how strong of a sports city Columbus is and it was on full display when they reached the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“When I got there it was a huge college football town,” Peca explained. “But in the end they’re just huge sports fans.”
After an illustrious 13-year career, Peca hung up the skates and had to make the decision about what to do tackle after hockey. His decision: more hockey.
Peca didn’t go into coaching, or even broadcasting, although he did have the opportunity to do so. Peca said that two or three coaches in the league contacted him, but he politely declined the offers to be closer to his family.
Peca chose an interesting route in the game, but now he does something that impacts young, developing hockey players in western New York, something that he feels is very important.
“I didn’t want to give up the time that I had given up for the better part of two decades playing the game. I wanted to spend time with my family,” Peca said. “When I thought back to what was the most impactful years of my life, I thought minor and youth hockey, and since my son was involved, I thought I’d get involved with that, and it’s been nothing but enjoyable.”
Peca, a father of one son and two daughters, is now the GM and Director of Hockey Operations for the Buffalo Jr. Sabres, from the 11-year-olds, all the way to the junior A players. This is a big season for the program, as they are set to start play in the brand new HARBORCENTER in downtown Buffalo.
“There’s a lot of great young hockey players in the western New York area, but the problem is just that it’s not very organized,” Peca said. “We’re trying to get some of the better players into our program to learn a lot of the game the right way, and to get the quality coaches in that program.”
Although Peca resides in Buffalo and follows the Sabres closely, he still enjoys seeing the Blue Jackets succeed like they did this past season. He commended the efforts of the front office, most notably the impact of both John Davidson and Jarmo Kekalainen.
“Columbus has done a phenomenal job by rather than just adding solely skill, they’ve added skill with a lot of character,” he said. “When you have the Dubinskys, the Folignos, these guys that help push the younger players the right way.”
Peca says the Blue Jackets have evolved from a team with a few very skilled players and have become a balanced team, which is the ideal approach for sustaining success in the league.
“With (Ryan) Johansen, they have one of the most exciting hockey players I think that’s going to be in the league for a long time,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before he breaks out; he was outstanding last year, but (he can get) to where he becomes in the elite conversation.
“It’s really neat to see how this team has transformed to where it used to be. Rick Nash was the face of the franchise, everything kind of went to Rick, to now where it’s a collective effort, and they’re reaping the rewards of it.”