When nineteen-year-old Patrik Elias came to New Jersey from his native Czech Republic in the summer of 1995 he had one goal - to make the Albany Devils.
"I just wanted to make the farm team. That was it. I had no big ideas about a long NHL career. I just wanted to make the farm team," said Elias, who was selected by the Devils in the second round of the 1994 NHL Draft. "I remember that my agent called me and said that Lou wanted to send me to juniors and I said 'Nope, I'm not going there.' I told my agent that if he wants to send me to juniors, I'm going back to Europe because I don't feel like that's going to help me develop."
Having spent the previous two seasons playing for HC Kladno of the Czech Elite League, he wanted to continue to play against men and challenge himself to grow as a hockey player. However, the management wasn't sure he was quite ready for that challenge and there were moments when Elias wasn't sure either.
"When I came here, I was 165 pounds and I would see the guys around me and they kind of scared me a little bit," he explained with a smile. "Those guys had just won a Stanley Cup and the guys in Albany had just won the Calder Cup and you look around and you see Dano [Ken Daneyko], Scotty [Scott Stevens] and they're 225-230 pound, mature men and I'm just like a little kid. So of course, I was a bit scared, but my goal was just to play my best and have the opportunity to play for Albany. That's all I wanted."
Nearly two decades, 1240 NHL games played, 408 goals, 1025 points, two Stanley Cups and multiple Devils' records later, Elias announced his retirement from the NHL on Friday, March 31, and will have his jersey retired by the Devils next season.
"It's pretty surreal," Elias said of his career. "I never envisioned myself playing for that long or for one team, which was huge to me and I'm very proud of that. Just battling through the ups and downs and the good times and bad times, and when you look back and think about all the things you learned on the ice and off and now you have a family and kids and time just flies. You don't even realize it when you're going through the grind of games and practices and traveling and then just one day…it's over."
Last season, the then 39-year-old was limited to just 16 games due to an injury to his right knee. He returned for the final three games of the season after being out of the line up for three and a half months. In his last game, he scored twice and had an assist in a win against Toronto, a game that many described as a fairytale ending for the Devils' legend whose contract expired at the end of that season.
Unsure if that was really the end, Elias opted to have surgery last May to repair the damage in part because he wanted to have a better quality of life and continue to have an active lifestyle after his hockey career, but also because of the hope that he'd feel good enough to play another year or two and extend his career.
"After the surgery, I was so stiff and sore and in a lot of pain and I was like there's no way I'm coming back, but then it started getting better and I started skating in October and November and by December, there were a couple times I almost pulled the trigger on coming back." he explained.
But being a professional hockey player means a lot more than just playing games, there's the practices and the travel and the time away from family and friends and eating right and working out - that's why they call it a grind - and while he thought he was fit enough to play and still talented enough to compete at a high level, he wasn't convinced he wanted to go through that on daily basis.
Even though he was no longer contractually obligated to the Devils, Elias has had a stall in the Devils locker room all season and full use of the facilities during the rehab process and, in December, he asked general manager Ray Shero for permission to go back to Czech Republic for Christmas.
"That was the first time I talked to Ray and told him that I was starting to doubt that I could go through the every day grind," Elias explained. "I just didn't want to go through the motions. Hockey is fun and I wanted to enjoy it and I just wasn't sure that I would enjoy it as much anymore. Ray allowed me to go home and see my family and he said, 'Just go home and when you come back just start skating again. Don't make any decisions yet. We love having you around, it's good for the young guys to have you here in the locker room.'"
When he returned, he got back on the ice to try again to play, but he still wasn't convinced either way. Then in February, his friends invited him to go skiing in Seattle. At first he said no because he was still skating and contemplating a return, but was then convinced that one week away from the rink wouldn't hurt him. In fact, it helped him.
"At the time, I didn't realize it was only my second time skiing in 27 years and I had no idea how much I would like it," he said. "That was the first moment when I thought this was it and it was the right time to step away. I had so much fun being on the slopes and doing something different and challenging myself in different ways. I knew I was ready to retire.
"The management and the coaching staff, they made it a lot easier on me to come to the decision to retire on my own terms and on my own time. That was huge for me and I can't tell you how much I appreciated that." Elias continued.
As Elias prepares to skate in Patty's Last Lap during warmups in the last home game against the New York Islanders, it won't be the last time you'll see him in a Devils' jersey. He's already committed to several alumni games, including a charity game at Barnabas Health Hockey House on April 21st to benefit Mikey Strong.
As far as what happens next for Elias, that's still undecided. If he stays in New Jersey, a place he's spent the past 22 years, calls his second home and where his daughters were born, he would be interested in becoming a TV analyst.
"I went to NHL Network and a lot of my former teammates are doing a good job there - Mike Rupp is still one of my best teammates and friends that I've made thanks to hockey. I love watching him and Weekesy and Kenny's been there and it's a lot of fun joking around and talking hockey. I think I would enjoy that," Elias said.
"If I move back to Europe, I could still do that to some extent or work with the Czech Hockey Federation to some extent," he continued. "Maybe as an assistant coach to one of the junior national teams or as a consultant and get my feet in the water a little bit and see if I would like doing something like that."
One of the benefits of retirement is that you have the opportunity to do whatever you want. So for now, Elias is going to enjoy this time with his family and allow himself the chance to realize over time what he wants to do and what he's most passionate about.
As the Devils leading scorer in goals, assists and points in both the regular season (408G, 617A, 1025 pts) and in the playoffs (45G, 80A, 125 pts), who also holds the franchise record for most points in a season (96) and in a playoff season (23), the most game winning goals (79), overtime goals (16), hat tricks (8), shots on goal (3,201) and power play goals (110), it's no surprise the Devils will raise his number 26 to the rafters next season.
"It's an honor and I'm thrilled to be up there as the first forward and among some of the best players and teammates I had the privilege to play with. I wasn't initially surprised when Ray told me, but I still didn't know what to say," Elias said. "I'm humbled to be among them."