-- Stephen Weiss
doesn't remember many details about his first NHL game almost 10 years ago, other than it came on his birthday, he scored a goal and the opponent was Pittsburgh.
"It was a pretty special day," Weiss said of April 3, 2002 when the Florida Panthers beat the Penguins 3-2. "It was cool. It was one of the easier games I've ever played, really. Everything seemed to fall into place. And then the next six after that were probably the hardest six games I've ever played. As a 19-year-old, definitely an eye-opening experience about how much of a jump it is to play in this League from junior."
Weiss obviously handled the jump pretty well because almost a decade later he's still playing for the Panthers, an organization that has seen its share of players come and go through the years.
When he skates against the Minnesota Wild Thursday night at BankAtlantic Center, Weiss will become the franchise's all-time leader in games played with 614.
Weiss will surpass right wing Radek Dvorak, who played for the Panthers from 1995 until being traded to San Jose in December 1999 before he returned for a second stint from 2007 until he was traded again in 2011, this time to Atlanta.
Weiss' parents and his younger brother, Jeff, will be on hand for the occasion. The team will honor Weiss with a pregame ceremony prior to the following home game, Sunday against Montreal.
"It's a great accomplishment for anybody to put in a long tenure at any business," said Panthers coach Kevin Dineen, who ranks third in the history of the Hartford/Carolina franchise with 708 games. "It shows a commitment both ways, from organization to player and player to organization, because that's our game now. It's a two-way street. Stephen has made a great commitment to this organization and continues to strive to make it better every day."
Perhaps the biggest commitment made by Weiss came after Dale Tallon took over as general manager in May 2010 and contacted key Panthers players to ask them whether they wanted to be part of the rebuilding of the franchise or whether they wanted a change of scenery.
While Nathan Horton told Tallon he'd prefer going elsewhere, Weiss instantly told the Stanley Cup-winning GM he wanted to stay.
If Weiss has his way, he'll spend his entire career with the Panthers.
"I always pictured that as a kid," Weiss said. "I'm kind of old school that way. The Steve Yzermans and guys like that who played for one team for their whole career is pretty neat. What will be will be. Over the next years, we'll see. But definitely I don't want to leave until we get this going in the right direction and play some playoff hockey and ultimately trying to win a Stanley Cup. That's what it's all about."
Weiss has yet to experience the playoffs, with the Panthers in a postseason drought since 2000, but it's not as though he hasn't done his part.
While his totals weren't overwhelming, Weiss did lead the Panthers in scoring each of the last three seasons. He's third this year behind new linemates Kris Versteeg
and Tomas Fleischmann
while ranking second on the team with a plus-five rating.
The soft-spoken center is one of four alternate captains on the team, along with newcomers Brian Campbell
, Ed Jovanovski
and Tomas Kopecky
"It shows a commitment both ways, from organization to player and player to organization, because that's our game now. It's a two-way street. Stephen has made a great commitment to this organization and continues to strive to make it better every day." - Panthers coach Kevin Dineen on Stephen Weiss
Earlier this season, Weiss surpassed Olli Jokinen to become the Panthers' all-time leader in assists. Now comes the record for games played.
It's all pretty heady stuff for Weiss, especially when he thinks back to those early NHL games.
"Just to be still in the League, anywhere, 10 years later would have been nice at that point," said Weiss, who will turn 29 in a little less than six weeks. "After playing those next six games realizing how hard it was going to be, I would have taken that in a second to still be playing. It's been a long road. There's been some tough times, but for the most part, very happy to still be here and seeing this team get closer to where it needs to be."
For 24-year-old center Shawn Matthias
, who is in his second full season with the Panthers after making his NHL debut in 2008, what Weiss has accomplished is both inspirational and motivational.
"I think the coolest thing to do as a player is to start with an organization and finish with one," Matthias said. "You don't see that a lot anymore. I think what he's done is pretty cool. He's been here for 10 years. It's pretty something special, especially with how many guys have come in and out of here. He's decided to stay. It's been hard for him, I know, but he's stuck it out and he's never asked to be traded, he's never asked to leave.
"That's pretty cool as a player to do that. I'd like to do the same thing as him, follow in his footsteps. He's the face of this franchise and I'm sure he will be for a lot longer."
Author: Alain Poupart | NHL.com Correspondent