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Fiddler on the brink

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

PITTSBURGH - There is something wonderfully circular about Vern Fiddler's journey to the brink of a Stanley Cup championship.

Circular in both time and space, and on a kind of metaphysical level too.

The 37-year-old, who fell in love with Dallas during his five seasons with the Stars and who plans to retire to the area when his playing days are at an end, returned to his NHL roots at the trade deadline this season and has provided a calming, veteran presence to a Nashville Predators team looking for its first-ever championship.

"They weren't at the top of the standings (at the deadline) but I knew there was a lot of potential," Fiddler said during an interview after the Predators arrived in Pittsburgh in advance of Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final that sits at two wins apiece.

The father of two - he has a son, 10, and a daughter, 7 - has been apart from his family, who remained in Dallas while Fiddler began this season with the New Jersey Devils.

It was a hardship the family was willing to endure as Fiddler looked to take another run at the championship that has eluded him thus far in his career.

With New Jersey in a rebuilding mode and with Fiddler having to deal with injuries that limited him to 39 games with the Devils, he and GM Ray Shero talked often about various possibilities as the trade deadline approached.

Shero was approached by a handful of teams about Fiddler's services but in the end Shero, who first met Fiddler when both were with the Nashville Predators, allowed Fiddler to make the final call.

"Ultimately, he left it up to me," Fiddler said.

It turned out to be an uncomplicated decision.

After all, it was Nashville that first gave the undrafted Fiddler an opportunity to play professional hockey after his junior career in the Western Hockey League ended.

Shero, then with Nashville, recalled getting positive scouting reports on Fiddler when Fiddler was playing in Roanoke of the ECHL. In the days before cell phones, Shero ended up having to call directory assistance and calling five or six V. Fiddlers before actually speaking to Vern about joining the Predator organization. Later, Fiddler would play a pivotal role in a Calder Cup championship for the Predators' top farm team.

"He's old school," Shero said.

Fiddler played his first NHL games in 2002-03. Whatever it took to stay in the lineup, he did without complaint.

He killed penalties, he won faceoffs, he took the odd shootout attempt and constantly got under opposing players' skins.

Now almost 900 regular season games and closing in on 15 years after his first NHL game, Fiddler brings both the same skill set and the same mindset to the Cup-hopeful Predators.

It hasn't been without its frustrations, as he has been in and out of the lineup, filling in admirably late in the Western Conference Final when the team was hit by injuries and now biding his time as the finals wind their way to a conclusion.

"I've never been an in and out of the lineup kind of guy my whole career," Fiddler said.

"But I'm trying to embrace every minute I can," he said. "All I've tried to do is to stay committed on the ice."

Former NHL netminder Chris Mason played with Fiddler during Fiddler's first stint in Nashville. The sense of humor and the dedication remain unchanged, said Mason now a broadcast analyst.

"First of all, he was an unbelievable teammate," Mason said. "He's a great guy. He's hilarious. Everyone loves Fidds."

What strikes Mason is how so much about what Fiddler represents at this juncture of his career is reminiscent of what he brought to the table as a young player.

"He had to earn everything that he was given," Mason said. "He might not have been on the radar when he was younger but he put himself on the map. Just the work ethic and never quitting attitude and doing the right things.

"You can just tell he's loving every second of it," Mason said. "I think it's awesome. There's no doubt Nashville thinks the world of Vern Fiddler, otherwise there's no chance (Nashville GM) David Poile would ever have brought him back."

Netminder Pekka Rinne has known Fiddler since both were trying to make their way from the American Hockey League to the NHL. He said Fiddler's experience and demeanor have been a welcome addition to the Predators locker room.

"I think any time you have a veteran's presence, it kind of calms everybody down," Rinne said.

"Yeah, I know him from a long time, really solid player," the netminder added. "Adds a lot of depth for us. A really solid center iceman for our team. He's been a great acquisition for us."

Before this spring, Fiddler had never played beyond the second round of the playoffs. He recalled getting a text from his brother after the Predators knocked off St. Louis in the second round.

 It said, simply, 'this is getting real'.

"I think I'll remember that text for the rest of my life," Fiddler said.

What is real, undeniable, is that Fiddler and the Predators are two wins away from a Stanley Cup and all that winning sport's most difficult championship.

What is also real, undeniable, is that Fiddler understands that these moments may be his final ones as an NHL player.

He and his family built a house in Dallas and there are two growing children who need their dad around. And this season reinforced that sometimes the mind won't listen to the body when it comes to what is physically possible at age 37, especially when you play the game the way Fiddler plays it, which is to say never taking the easy way around the rink.

And so, in or out of the lineup, Fiddler is embracing every moment, trying to soak up every nuance of a trip that has taken him to the edge of glory.

This story was not subject to approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. You can follow Scott on Twitter @OvertimeScottB

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