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Binghamton assistant 'feels like a million bucks'

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
The ice at the Bell Sensplex was filled on Friday morning with talent, no doubt accompanied by an abundance of youthful nerves.

And yes, 61-year-old Steve Stirling knew exactly how they felt.

"I feel like today, I was a rookie and it was my first pro camp and my first time on the ice," said the Binghamton Senators assistant coach, back on a frozen patch of water for the first time since undergoing quadruple bypass surgery in June. "I remember going to the Bruins camp in '71 and I felt the same way. It was just wonderful to be there and I was excited.

"(Friday) I was pumped up and ready to go. I couldn't wait to touch a puck and get in there and start teaching. It was pretty special."

It has been a long road back for Stirling since he was rushed to hospital back in June, the day after the B-Sens took a 3-2 lead over the Houston Aeros in their Calder Cup Finals series. Calling it a "life-changing event," the B-Sens assistant said the heart procedure forced him into an exercise program and necessary changes in his eating habits. He also underwent a lengthy rehab program in Binghamton and back home in Boston.

"Between a healthy diet and a decent exercise program, it's not hard," he said. "But every day, I've got to get on the bike or go for a walk or get on the treadmill for an hour on a regular basis. I feel like a million bucks because I know I'm headed in the right direction and I've got a new lease on life."

Seeing Stirling back where he's most happy brought a smile to the face of B-Sens head coach Kurt Kleinendorst, who admitted "it was a close call" for Stirling back in June.

"Stirls and I have obviously become very close, having gone through what we've gone through just last year (all the way) through the playoffs ... and through the surgery he went through," said Kleinendorst. "I know what it means to him. He absolutely loves what he's doing. He was such a big part of what we did last year, the success we had and the development of our players.

"To see him out there .... it really was a nice feeling. You can just tell he's really thrilled to be back."

Their beloved assistant coach became a rallying point for the B-Sens when they journeyed to Houston for what eventually became the Cup-clinching win. It was a 3-2 nailbiter and Stirling took in as much of it as possible from his hospital bed, with his surgeonr's approval and his wife at his side.

"I started to watch but I dozed off through two periods," said Stirling, who'll help Kleinendorst guide the Senators prospects at the rookie tournament that begins Saturday in Oshawa, Ont. "At the start of the third, the nurse said 'I think you better watch this, it's 2-2 in the third.' So I did watch the third, I did watch them win, and then I was up all night, I was so excited."

The next day, when the B-Sens returned to Binghamton with the Calder Cup, they immediately paid a visit to Stirling and gave him the honour of placing the last puck into a board that marked the 16 wins it took to win the American Hockey League's top prize.

"I'm not a real emotional guy," Stirling said in recalling the moment. "But they'd won a championship, they travelled the next day, they knew there was a parade coming (in Binghamton). It was hot day and they were excited to get home. So for them to think of (me) first and come over, and let me put the last puck in the board ... I was pretty choked up. It was a pretty good bunch of guys. That's why we won it."

Stirling also learned that when Binghamton captain Ryan Keller accepted the Calder Cup at the Toyota Center in Houston, he held up Stirling's name plate in front of it, a clear indication he was very much a part of it all.

"When that happened, it was pretty special for me," said Stirling. "It's something I'll always remember. There were a million things they could have been worried about, but they were worried about me, which was pretty cool."

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