DETROIT – His teammates mobbed him as he raised his arms in jubilation.
As Niklas Kronwall, Johan Franzen, Danny DeKeyser and others raced to join the on-ice celebration; Stephen Weiss had a flashback to April 2002 when he scored in his NHL debut.
“It was exactly what it felt like, like my first goal in the league,” said Weiss, whose first goal this season lifted the Red Wings to a 3-2 overtime win at Carolina.
The game-winning goal in early October was far more meaningful for Weiss who spend the first 11 pro seasons of his NHL career in the Florida Panthers organization. This goal helped bring him immediate credibility and trust in his new surroundings.
“I was playing with a new team, new teammates, and when I scored that goal and you see new guys coming to celebrate with you it was a very cool feeling,” Weiss said. “Although it was in an arena that I played a lot of games, turning around and seeing DeKeyser and Kronwall and Mule coming to celebrate with you was pretty neat. Watching these guys for years and now giving you a tap on the head after scoring a goal was definitely pretty special.”
Weiss was a first-round draft pick, fourth overall, by the Panthers in 2001. He quickly ascended to the top of the Panthers’ depth chart and before the 2001-02 NHL season concluded, the 18-year-old found himself on a mixed Florida roster featuring Pavel Bure who was nearing the end of his hall of fame career, and upcoming stars Roberto Luongo, Dan Boyle and Olli Jokinen.
Making it to the NHL was an exciting time for Weiss, who was coming off back to back OHL seasons where he led the Plymouth Whalers in scoring. But through the years, enthusiasm began to wane as year after year the Panthers were on life-support near the bottom of the standings.
During his time in Miami, the Red Wings played 151 postseason games and added a pair of Stanley Cup titles to their trophy case, while the Panthers reached the playoffs … once. Every September Weiss heard the same media queries.
“We hadn’t made the playoffs a whole lot when I was there,” he said. “So every year we were getting asked questions, ‘Is this the year? Is this the year? Is this the year?’ ”
When Red Wings general manager Ken Holland offered Weiss a five-year free agency contract in July, he didn’t have to think twice, though he knew he was in for a culture shock. But he also knew that questions about his team’s playoff futility would quickly become a thing of the past.
“You come here and it’s the complete opposite,” Weiss said. “They’ve made the playoffs for such a long time it’s not even up for discussion here. So it’s different in that sense. There’s that quiet confidence here where there was always kind of a nervous tension in Florida to start the year. Those are the biggest differences right off of the bat.”
Stability throughout leadership roles in the organization is another reason Detroit was so attractive to Weiss. The Panthers employed six different head coaches, another six general managers and six team captains during his time in Florida.
“When you have guys who have been here for such a long time, established a certain type of culture here,” he said, “all you have to do is come in and fall behind those guys. It’s a good thing to be a part of.”
Weiss definitely fits in to the Red Wings’ schemes. His acceleration alone makes him a dangerous two-way center who doesn’t skimp on his defensive responsibilities.
“He anticipates the game really well and he’s a good skater,” said Weiss’s linemate, Daniel Alfredsson. “But I think the biggest thing is just the way he thinks the game. He understands what the other team is trying to do and he anticipates that. Anytime you want to play good defense, you have to be smart.”
Alfredsson saw enough of Weiss in the Eastern Conference to know that he’s equally detrimental to the opposition as an offensive threat.
“He was always one of the key guys we looked at on Florida’s team,” Alfredsson said. “We mostly had to shut him down because he’s got a lot of offensive upside and he was definitely one of the guys you have to be aware of when you were on the ice. Yeah, if they were going to have success, he was the guy who was going to get it done.”
On most nights, the Panthers played in front of sparse crowds. But again, the culture is different as Weiss learned on his first shift during the season-opener against Buffalo.
“Just being in a hockey environment is a huge advantage,” he said. “I loved playing in Florida, but the buzz around the building on a game day, the packed building, the oohs and aahs over little plays like a finished check or scoring chance. You might not get those there, but those are the things that I notice the most here.
“My first shift here I had a body check and you hear the crowd roar. That was pretty cool, so it gets you fired up and makes you realize that you’re in a hockey town. For me, that’s really exciting.”
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