Boston, MA – Seeing the way Sami Kapanen has played on the Flyers' current marathon road trip, it is hard to believe that he almost retired after the 2003-04 Stanley Cup Playoffs when Philadelphia fell in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Not only was he considering hanging up his skates, but he appeared to have his mind made up before his family and Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke talked him into coming back.
"In my mind, after the Conference Finals were done, I told the players, Clarkie, Mr. Snider, the coaching staff and my family, first of all, that this is it," said Kapanen.
Ken Hitchcock used Kapanen in many different ways during that playoff run, including putting him in as a defenseman after several injuries to the Flyers' blue liners left the team depleted at that position. Flyers fans still have the image of Kapanen struggling to get up after a vicious hit along the boards in the sixth game of the Conference Semifinals against Toronto seconds before the team won the game in overtime.
"I think he was beat up," said Hitchcock. "He goes from a 15-to-16 minute player playing as a forward to a 25-minute player as a defenseman, with all of the hooking and holding and physical play of the playoffs he was just beat up."
That hooking and holding that Hitchcock is referring to is no longer as prevalent with the way that NHL games are called now, and Kapanen has been a beneficiary of the new rules. In 17 games this season, he has averaged a point per game (7g, 10a) including two game-winning scores on back-to-back nights in late December against Atlanta and Carolina.
"If he stays healthy, the way the game is called now, it's built for him," said Hitchcock. "He's quick, he's smart and he's hard to get a handle on physically now. You can't just hook and hold him, so he's built for this type of game.
"He's a huge asset. It's not just him as a player, he makes people around him better and that's a big factor. He's very good at making whoever he plays with better. That's the thing with him. Whoever he plays with, he seems to elevate their game. He's a good teammate."
Clarke clearly wanted Kapanen back and talked to him numerous times throughout the summer of 2004 before the work stoppage. That, combined with advice from his family, ultimately brought Kapanen back to the NHL.
"Over the summer we talked a few times on the phone and he reassured me that it was too early and he knows what I'm going through right now, but he was guaranteeing that in a couple years I would still feel like I could play but it would be too late to come back," said Kapanen. "At the same time, I talked to my dad and my family. At that point it was too late to come back and play in the World Cup. I was asked to join the team, but I didn't feel like I was physically ready or emotionally. I didn't think I was there yet at that time. I just got reloaded and I'm happy to play right now."
Of course, there is still one thing that motivates Kapanen more than anything else, and that is the chance to get his name on the Stanley Cup.
"Every one of us, we've been putting up a lot of years and hours and injuries and sweat to win the Cup. Some of the guys have been lucky enough to be a part of a winning team. It hasn't been my time yet, and I think to win something this is the organization to win in," he said.