It was June 4 in Pittsburgh, the night the Detroit Red Wings paraded the Stanley Cup around the Mellon Arena ice. Back in the Penguins' locker room, Malone's black helmet was placed neatly on the top shelf, but he still had on every other piece of equipment, gloves included, as the tears rolled down his badly beaten face.
"I was just balling my eyes out," Malone said. "I never really felt that way before. You give everything you possibly have and you come up short. It hurts, that's for sure."
As he sat there with his head down, hands on his thighs, hair dripping wet, tears coming down his mangled face, Malone knew what he had to do, only he just couldn't bring himself to do it.
He is the first NHL player born and trained in Pittsburgh, but Malone knew his hockey journey in the Steel City was over as soon as he left the building that somber night.
"It was the last time I was going to pull that sweater over my head and I realized that at the time," said Malone, who sat at his locker stall wearing the same expression and all his equipment while the media conducted interviews around him. "It just meant a lot to me. The journey with those guys was awesome. It's something I'll never forget."
Today, Malone is in Prague while his former teammates are in Stockholm. Both are preparing to play in the Bridgestone NHL Premiere 2008, but Malone will be wearing a Tampa Bay Lightning sweater and the New York Rangers will be the opponent.
Malone said the Penguins "never really gave me an offer" to return, so "I knew my time was over and that's all right." With the 2008-09 regular season about to get under way, the Bolts believe Pittsburgh's loss is their gain.
Malone has done nothing to dissuade that thought process.
"He competes, he loves to play and he's always got a smile on his face," said Lightning coach Barry Melrose. "He's a team guy. It's easy to see why a guy like that is on a team that goes to the Stanley Cup Final. He's a great, great competitor, but he loves the game. It's not work for him to be here and that's the type of guys that I want."
Malone may be wearing a different sweater, but his job description remains the same. He's there to protect the skill players like his expected linemate, rookie center Steven Stamkos
, while providing the dirty goals that make the big difference.
"I think he's a big team guy, a character guy," Tampa Bay forward Martin St. Louis
said. "He stands up for his teammates. He's one of the best free-agent pickups this summer, if not the best, because he brings so much to the game with his physical presence, his play in front of the net and his leadership. He's got great qualities and hopefully they rub off on all of us. Guys are looking up to him."
Although it happened in Europe, Malone sent a message last Sunday during Tampa Bay's 4-1 win against Eisbaren Berlin in Germany when he "pounded a guy" who ran Stamkos from behind into the corner boards.
Malone saw the hit and skated over to the culprit, Berlin defenseman Richie Regehr, whose brother, Robyn, plays for the Calgary Flames. Before Regehr could get a hand up for protection, Malone cross checked him in the face and began to wail on him.
It took two referees to pull Malone off of Regehr.
"I just saw Stammer down and the guy was looking around, guilty," Malone said. "You're really not supposed to fight over here, but you can't give them the option of saying no. I don't think his gloves were off yet. I just started throwing punches. Playing in the NHL, you've got to know if you run someone from behind into the boards you're going to pay for it."
Stamkos, of course, appreciates the protection.
"That's what Ryan does," said Stamkos. "He's not afraid of anyone. He's a great offensive player, but at the same time if anyone messes with his teammates he'll be the first guy to step in. That's pretty comforting on the ice. You have that little leeway to maybe play a little chippier or be on the edge knowing he's out there with you."
Melrose, who admires the rough stuff as much as anyone in hockey, said what Malone did was, "excellent."
"Nobody is going to take liberties against anybody on our team," Melrose said. "Stammer has to know that nothing is going to happen to him on the ice. If someone does something like that to him again, the same result will happen."
Hard to imagine from a guy who once sat at his locker stall weeping, but that's the beauty of Ryan Malone
. He cares, and the Lightning are about to find out how much.Contact Dan Rosen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer