The New Jersey Devils will raise No. 26 to the rafters on Saturday night before their game against the New York Islanders, retiring the number of winger Patrik Elias. He’s the all-time franchise leader in goals (408) and points (1,025), having won Stanley Cups with the Devils in 2000 and 2003.
We caught up with Elias recently in Newark to talk about his career, the NHL and that time the career Devil nearly bolted for the rival Rangers.
ESPN: Why did you choose No. 26?
Elias: I didn’t. It was given to me. We really didn’t have a choice of numbers. I had a couple of numbers before that, and every time someone was traded here that wore the number that I had, I had to give it up. I was a rookie, obviously. I would have worn No. 24. I had that as a kid, a little bit in the minors. But No. 26 is me. No. 24 is no more. It went out of the window pretty quickly.
ESPN: When you were a player, did you like having to sit through number retirement ceremonies?
Elias: I enjoyed them. I enjoyed the moment. You see how special it is for the players that are being honored, and their families.
ESPN: You’ve mentioned the 2000 Stanley Cup run was your favorite. Was there one playoff series you enjoyed more than others?
Elias: Yeah, 2006 against the Rangers. It was the first round, and we beat them 4-0. I had an unreal series, and it was a lot of fun.
ESPN: Speaking of that: How close did you come to jumping to the Rangers as a free agent in 2006?
Elias: It was very close. At the end of the deadline, I was talking to them for most of the night. It all came down to part of the contract, part of the agreement — the no-trade [clause] — and that’s why it didn’t happen. I didn’t have any prior conversations with the Devils regarding my contract. I knew there wasn’t interest from them at that point. Not after the season, right away, or during the summer. There was nothing. The only thing I was told by the management is that there were going to be teams interested in me, and that they wanted to wish me good luck.
So with that, how do you prepare yourself? You feel like you’re definitely going somewhere else in the summer.
ESPN: Did talking to the Rangers get the Devils interested again?
Elias: I’m not sure. At the end of the day, I called Lou [Lamoriello]. I told him I was having talks with one or two teams, and I told him who they were. Letting him know what the contract was about. So I told him that if he had any interest in signing me, now was the time. So he said he’d talk to the owners, he called me back and said, ‘What if we do this, this and this instead,’ and I said if there’s any way to stay in Jersey, I’d love to. Within five minutes, we had a deal.
ESPN: When you think back to how you first started in the NHL, is there one part of your game you’re most proud of having improved?
Elias: Huh … good question. It’s not so much something in the game. It’s more about being able to adjust and adapt to different situations. Like not playing top line all the time, especially at the end of your career. Not always playing with the top players. Sometimes even linemates from the fourth line. Just playing with your teammates, and doing whatever you can to make them better. But when you play with less talented players, you take more shots. You might not be able to get too many passes from other players.
ESPN: Most Devils fans remember you from your time with the “A Line” with Petr Sykora and Jason Arnott. What was it like being on a line that just seemed unstoppable at times, that clicked so perfectly?
Elias: It was unreal. Playing with each other telepathically. Knowing where we were at all times. It’s amazing: We didn’t play together that long. It was just two years. But it was like we were playing together forever. With Petr, it was because we saw the game the same way. We knew where we wanted to move, where we wanted the puck. Reading off of each other.
Sykora and I lived together a little bit, but I don’t know if hanging out off the ice matters for what happens on the ice. [The A Line] cared for each other. But we had fights. There were times when we didn’t speak to each other after games. It was OK. On the ice, we were fine. We might not have talked to each other before the game, but we were fine. It was our job. That takes over.
ESPN: Do you have a favorite Jaromir Jagr story?
Elias: I don’t. Simple as that. I don’t.
ESPN: Do you have a favorite Lou Lamoriello story?
Elias: There were good times, there were bad times. There were times, different situations … like when I wasn’t happy with ice time. And I wasn’t happy that he didn’t back me in those situations. And he wasn’t happy with me because I wasn’t focused on playing hockey. But it was a normal relationship, up and down. He’s tough on everyone. But how do you argue with that when you have a chance to be in the playoffs every season and win a couple of Cups?
ESPN: How serious was your Hepatitis A situation, when you got sick during the 2005 lockout while playing in the KHL? Was it life-threatening?
Elias: It was. That’s what the doctors said to my wife, not to me. I got sick. I was already in Russia for two weeks, sick. After that, I flew back home and my liver was still not functioning. They tried a couple of treatments, they didn’t work. They said there was a steroid treatment, there was dialysis. There was a chance I wouldn’t be able to play anymore.
But it was life-threatening. They told me there was a kid there, 10 years younger than me, that had half the amounts of the blood test, and he didn’t make it. I knew I was bad. I felt bad.
When you take one month in the hospital … being in the best shape of my life, at 28, it helped me. It was the lockout, and I was working out more than usual. Being in that shape got me back to being healthy.
ESPN: In today’s NHL, with so much open ice, what could you have done in this league?
Elias: I don’t know if it’s about open ice, to be honest. I think the differences back then were a lot higher. You had a few highly talented guys, and then you had a gap. Now, you have unreal talent, but even the third- and fourth-line players are incredibly skilled. Everyone is so mobile, I don’t know if there is so much room. But this game is the way I wanted to play, the way they’ve played for the last few years. So I want to say I would have been just fine in this league.
ESPN: Finally, what are your thoughts about Devils fans, so many of whom will honor you at your number retirement?
Elias: I was always open [to interacting with fans]. Just being a kid, having fun. I have a great relationship, and that went all the way back to Continental [Airlines Arena]. The older I got, the better the relationship was. As a player, you start to really appreciate that more with age.