Michael Peca has always had a knack for connecting with his environment. That trait is what made the premier NHL center a noble leader for both the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders.
So, when Peca was traded to Long Island back in 2001, he took advantage of the fresh opportunity and embarked on what would become his best season of his 14-year-career while also leading the Isles to a playoff berth for the first time in seven years.
"I loved my time on Long Island." Peca said. "It's such an amazing place. I loved the people and the fans; they were so passionate. That's a bonus when you're a player to be surrounded by that kind of support."
After five seasons with Buffalo, including two seasons as team captain, Peca sat out during the 2000-01 season as a result of a contract dispute. The following season, the right-shot center was traded to the Islanders in 2001 in exchange for Tim Connolly and Taylor Pyatt and was named the Isles ninth captain in franchise history.
"It was an incredible honor," Peca said. "I think it's an honor regardless of what organization you get the honor of wearing the C, but I think there are a handful or organizations, the New York Islanders being one of them, where I think it's even more of an honor because of you're being on a list with Hall of Fame players and legends of the game."
Peca's arrival was not the sole change that occurred at the time. Peter Laviolette was named head coach, while Alexei Yashin and Chris Osgood came in as marquee acquisitions. Despite a multitude of changes in the offseason, things quickly clicked for the Isles that fall, as they started the season 9-0-1-1 (W-L-T-OTL).
"I just looked at it as a fresh new opportunity," Peca said. "Obviously, there was going to be a new coaching staff. There were a handful of new players. There was me, Shawn Bates, Chris Osgood. There were a number of guys that we knew of coming in. We all looked at is as a challenge and looked forward to it coming in. The thing that made it great was that we were just such a close team. To be one of the leaders and captains of that was not too difficult."
With Peca wearing the 'C', the Islanders had tremendous success after finishing second in the Atlantic Division with a 96-point regular season (42-28-8-4) and their first berth to the playoffs in seven years. Individually, Peca fondly known as "Captain Crunch," set personal highs in both assists (35) and points (60) and claimed the Frank J. Selke Trophy for the second time in his career. A successful regular season was cut short, as the Isles fell to the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games during a brutally physical first round - with Peca suffering a torn ACL in game five.
"I just remember there was tons of energy," Peca said. "The games in Toronto, the games on Long Island, there was just a ton of energy in the series. Obviously, it was a very, very close series. [There were] some disappointing things for me personally. Going out with a season-ending injury [torn ACL in Game 5] in a series like that when we had such a great year, it felt like we could beat anybody that season. That was the low point of the season for me."
Throughout the remainder of Peca's tenure through 2004, the Islanders went onto qualify for playoffs the following two seasons making trips to the conference quarterfinals. Peca had 42 points (13G, 29A) through 66 games in 2002-03 season and 40 points (11G, 29A) during the 2003-04 campaign and finished top-five in Selke voting in each season.
After Peca's stint with the Isles closed out tin 2004, the Toronto native continued playing in the NHL for another four years for Edmonton, Toronto and Columbus. In 2010, Peca wrapped up his impressive 14-year career where he amassed 465 points (176G, 289A) in 864 career games. Peca reached the Stanley Cup Finals twice during that time; in 1999 with Buffalo and in 2006 with Edmonton, yet he still recalls the atmosphere at the Coliseum back in 2002 as the most exhilarating environment he had played in.
"Years prior to that, players would come to Long Island and not really see a full rink," Peca said. "I don't think a lot of them understand the level of energy that that rink and those fans can get to. It's a storied franchise. I think the thing we took so much pride in is we started winning, we had so much success early in the season. I think there was a lot of excitement going into the season and we built on it. Leading into the playoffs, it was a completely different animal. Still to this day I haven't played a game in front of fans that have been that loud and that passionate."
The now 45-year-old, resides outside of Buffalo with his family and has kept busy with the Buffalo Junior Sabres. Peca was named head coach of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) during the 2012-13 season and held the helm through the 2013-14 season. He seemingly took to it quickly and was named OJHL Coach of the Year in his rookie season. During his time behind the bench, Peca registered 66 wins in 108 regular season games. In addition to coaching, Peca has served as General Manager and Director of Hockey Operations for the Buffalo Junior Sabres Junior A team. While he is content at the youth level, he aspires to return to the NHL in the near future.
"A big part of me really wants to get back to the National Hockey League," Peca said. "I think there's a lot that I can still offer this game and I look forward to that opportunity down the road. It's hard to narrow one thing down because I love so much of it. Scouting is great, but I don't' think scouting gives you enough interaction with players on a small level. I love the interaction with players. I think maybe it's something more in the coaching side of things or player development. I enjoy the player interactions. I think one of my strong suits when I was a player and a captain was identifying players when they're too low or too high and helping them manage through those periods. I think being involved with the players would be something that's really important."