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Overcoming the odds

by Scott Burnside @OvertimeScottB / DallasStars.com

PITTSBURGH - One year ago, with the Pittsburgh Penguins on the brink of clinching the second Stanley Cup of the Sidney Crosby era, Trevor Daley's focus was pretty narrow.

The veteran defender, drafted 43rd overall by Dallas in the 2002 draft, needed to find a good place to watch Game 6 in the Shark Tank in San Jose.

Then he needed to figure out how quickly he could get into his gear if the Pens were able to close the deal.

"And if the medical staff was going to let me put on my skates was the other thing," Daley said with a laugh. "Those were my concerns."

The Penguins did indeed vanquish the Sharks and there was Daley, who suffered a broken ankle in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final, in his gear on the ice celebrating his first-ever Stanley Cup win.

In a moment that will live forever for Daley and his family, and really any hockey fan who understands the symbolism that comes with the delivery of the Stanley Cup, it was to Daley that captain Crosby handed the Cup after being presented the historic trophy by National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman.

These things don't happen by chance. And Crosby more so than any other player is never a 'by chance' guy.

He knew how much Daley, 33, wanted to be in the lineup for the Penguins, to whom he'd been traded by the Chicago Blackhawks during the regular season. And Crosby also knew that Daley had been able to spend some time with his mother who was battling cancer after he suffered the ankle injury.

Among her parting words when Daley visited last before Game 6 were that she hoped to see her son holding aloft the Stanley Cup.

Daley's mother got her wish. She passed away a few days after the Penguins win.

It's quiet in the Pittsburgh dressing room late Thursday night when Daley comes out to chat.

Most of the reporters who flooded the locker room in the wake of Pittsburgh's emphatic 6-0 victory in Game 5 of the current Stanley Cup final have moved on.

Daley has been taking treatment for various bumps and bruises incurred during what has been at times a brutal playoff run.

So much has changed for the soft-spoken Daley in the past year. Highs. Sure. Like the summer of celebration that follows all Cup wins. And yes, some lows including a knee injury just before this year's trade deadline.

But what matters now is that he's where he wants to be and where the Penguins need him to be, especially as they've had to play all spring without star defenseman Kris Letang, who is out with a neck injury.

"Obviously you're in the fire, you're in the battle," Daley explained.

"The whole time last year not being in it, all you wanted to do was figure out what it feels like," the Toronto native said. "It's an exciting time. The stakes are so, so high. Every shift is so important. Every play is so important. Having all you guys kicking around makes it come out a little bit more alive, just the stage that you're on."

Without Letang in the lineup, the Penguins have employed a kind of defense by committee with all six of their regular defenders playing roughly the same minutes per night, somewhere between 19 and 22.

But Daley's ability to move the puck and his veteran smarts have put him in a leadership role.

"Well, it's vital," said two-time Stanley Cup winner and veteran broadcast analyst Bob Errey, of Daley's importance to the Penguins' Cup hopes.

"He's just a difference maker when things are tight," Errey added. "You know in this NHL, you've got to look to your backside to be able to produce and I think, well I don't think I know, he's the guy you look to be able to do that."

Another two-time Cup winner in Pittsburgh, Phil Bourque, believes that when this is all over people will be shocked at what Daley is playing through.

"Not many people are talking about what he's been through," Bourque said. "The injury last year. His mom. The injury this year and what he's battling through right now. We probably won't find out about the severity of it until the day after it's all over. But I think it's probably a lot worse than people know. And how he's just trying to manage the pain, the discomfort and to find a way to play hockey for two and a half hours and not be a liability, and somehow help this team win."

After splitting time between Dallas and the American Hockey League in 2003-04, Daley spent the next decade as a mainstay of the Dallas blue line. In the summer of 2015, he was dealt to Chicago in the deal that saw Patrick Sharp come to the Stars.

The Blackhawks were never a fit for Daley and he was moved in December of 2015 to Pittsburgh.

"I think it was still kind of an unheralded move that's not talked about enough," Errey said. "I think a complete steal."

The father of a boy, seven, and daughter, five, Daley has become a galvanizing force in the locker room and a popular figure away from the rink.

He and veteran center Matt Cullen have formed a close friendship in part because their sons all attend what might be the greatest mini-school of all time, taking classes from a teacher in a room at the team's practice facility in Cranberry Township, and enjoying recess on one of the ice pads with local skills instructors.

The boys are regular visitors to the Pens' locker room. And on Thursday, the final day of 'school' Daley's daughter got to attend classes and an end of year water balloon fight with the boys.

"I'm really happy for him," Cullen said of Daley. "He's been a rock for us back there. He really has and he's battled through a lot. But I'm just so happy to see him playing as well as he can. Playing such a big part for us.

"I know it tore him apart to have to sit and watch last year," added Cullen. "So yeah, it's fun to see the way that he's grown as a player and become such a complete player, the maturity he shows as one of the leaders of our 'D' corps."

Daley is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, but for him the future extends only as far as Sunday and a chance for the Penguins to complete a rare back-to-back Cup run.

"It's so exciting," he said. "When you can see the light at the end and we as a team, I know what it's like at the end, what happens in the summertime and what type of summer you get to have as a champ. It's so special, it's so cherishable and it's something that you can never forget, and the opportunity that we have to be able to repeat in this day with the salary cap, the way the game's played, it says a lot about this group in here.

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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