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Hurricanes 2006 Stanley Cup Reunion: Staal, Ward, Brind'Amour Reflect On The Championship

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Relive the magic of the spring of 2006 through the eyes of the players still with the team ten years later.

Twenty-five Carolina Hurricanes players were immortalized on the Stanley Cup in 2006. In 2016, just five - Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Andrew Ladd, Justin Williams and the ageless Matt Cullen - remain active NHL players.

Ten years may not seem like much, but in pro sports, an entire career can be launched, played through, and ended in that time.

As the 2006 Hurricanes gather for a family reunion-cum-anniversary celebration this weekend, it's a time for reflection and reminiscing. Staal, Ward and Rod Brind'Amour, the three members of the team still involved in day-to-day activities on the ice, look back at what made that run so special.

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Photo: Getty Images

Eric Staal's face shows the battle scars of an eleven-season NHL career. It's not like it was in 2006, when a baby-faced Staal completing his second full season reached the peak of the NHL mountain at age 21.

In some ways it's a bit bizarre to ask a 31-year-old to reminisce about the past, but the Canes' captain's perspective on the 2006 Cup run has changed over the years, and it isn't done changing yet.

"When you're still playing, it's sometimes hard to totally reflect," Staal says. "When you're done playing, there will be more to reflect and remember. No question, there's good feelings that come back. The group that we had, the area supporting our team, the fun of the playoff run, those are all things that you remember and you want back as a player."

There was plenty of skepticism around the team going into the 2005-06 season, and while it took a while for the narrative to shift around the league, Staal says that coach Peter Laviolette instilled optimism in his team from the first day of training camp.

"The first couple months of the year, we were pretty dialed in. Not a lot of people picked us to be very good that year, and we were pretty good right from the beginning. The belief in our room was there from the get-go."

Out of the 2004-05 lockout that cancelled the season, the advent of the salary cap caused a mass movement of players all over the league the likes of which haven't been seen since. The Hurricanes that took the ice in October of 2005 bore very little resemblance to the team that left the ice in April of 2004.

Staal says that made it even more important for the Canes to gel quickly, and the makeup of the locker room certainly helped.

"The pickups that we made - Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman, myself and Cam coming from the minors - we didn't get a lot of credit for. We had a good group of players that fit together, an older group of guys with some young guys sprinkled in. Everyone bought in from the beginning.

"The guys that I played with were men that brought it every practice and every game. We competed hard, we cared, and we wanted to win. We had hard workers on and off the ice. Those are things that you take from players ahead of you, and those are things that I picked up that year."

And in the playoffs, when adversity presented itself, it was those leaders that led the charge that eventually culminated in the Stanley Cup. In overtime of Game 5 of the Final, Staal was the intended recipient of a pass from Cory Stillman that went awry, stolen by Fernando Pisani who converted the breakaway to send the series to Game 6.

"Cory stepped up and took responsibility, and we had to drop it and move on," said Staal. "It was great that we had veterans who knew what you had to do in the playoffs in terms of letting things go and moving on."

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Photo: Getty Images

It's one of the enduring images of Game 7: Pisani, a tie game on his stick, denied by an incredible stretch from Cam Ward to preserve the Canes' one-goal lead with under four minutes to play.

At the time, Ward, who rode the bench behind Martin Gerber for most of the season, was in uncharted territory on the way to the Conn Smythe Trophy. But going all the way back to the beginning of the playoffs, when he took over in the crease for a team that was in a 2-0 hole heading on the road to Montreal in the first round, it was the continuation of a mindset that propelled Ward to the ultimate prize.

"I remember at the time thinking to myself that no matter what happens, I'm just going to enjoy the moment," Ward says. "To have my first playoff start in Montreal, remembering the atmosphere the fans created, it still gives me goosebumps. It was an important time that jump-started my career, and fortunately things went the way they did."

Ward had his shaky moments at times, being pulled from Game 3 in Buffalo and watching Gerber shut out the Sabres in Game 4 before riding to the rescue in Game 5 as the Canes came from behind to take the series lead. Ward never left the crease again.

He was in the right place at the right time, one of many pieces that fell into place almost perfectly.

"We had a lot of veteran leadership: Rod Brind'Amour, Glen Wesley, Bret Hedican, all those guys - just go down the list," he says. "Then we had some young guys who stepped in. Overall, it was a fun team to be around.

"The chemistry was key, and that was something that Lavi preached during the year. We knew that we were in it all together, and we peaked at the right time."

The "Whatever It Takes" mantra that was as much a part of the playoff run as tailgating and "The Rising" was a mindset that infused every corner of the organization, no matter the time or the situation. And it wasn't a top-down directive, but something that everyone in the room believed in and held their teammates to the same standard.

It was one of the lessons that Ward took from his rookie season that still influences his game today.

"Everybody held each other accountable," he says. "It was important to everybody, even in practice. You had to put in work to achieve success, and we had the guys who were willing to do that."

"You definitely appreciate the memory that we have, and how difficult it is to get back to that point."

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Photo: Getty Images

Rod Brind'Amour had no time for pleasantries after Game 7.

Yes, Gary Bettman was on the ice addressing his, ahem, adoring public. There were congratulations to the Edmonton Oilers that needed to be passed along. There were the requisite mentions of the Canes' ownership and management, the lines about hockey in the South designed to draw a pop from the crowd, the photo ops, and all the other pomp that went along with awarding the Stanley Cup.

Brind'Amour stood there, bouncing around like a kid on Christmas morning waiting for his parents to tell him it was time to start opening presents. And when it was time, he didn't even give Bettman the opportunity to hold the Cup to take a picture, swiping it from the commissioner and leaving him as an awkward bystander. Brind'Amour took five steps, embraced the trophy and uncorked a primal scream that still resonates in PNC Arena to this day.

The captain of that team knew early that the 2005-06 Canes had a chance to be a special team. Brind'Amour was a veteran of another Cup run, when his Philadelphia Flyers lost the 1997 Cup to the Detroit Red Wings. And right from the start, he had a feeling that something could be brewing.

"I thought when we put the team together, in the preseason, we were taking some of the best players on other teams: Ray Whitney, Cory Stillman, even Martin Gerber. I knew he was a good goalie. We're getting these guys and we're not giving up anything."

And with the rule changes coming out of the lockout, Brind'Amour says, the coaching staff took full advantage, implementing a style of hockey that not only entertained the crowd but was highly effective in the post-lockout NHL.

"He was ahead of his time. He pushed every right button a coach could push. I never played on a team that was so tight - not just the guys, but the families. The style of play was perfect, right from the start."

What might get lost - at least, until you look at the list of retirees ten years hence - is that the Hurricanes weren't an exceptionally young team. Brind'Amour was 35. Glen Wesley was 37, Ray Whitney had just turned 34, even Secret Weapon Niclas Wallin was 31. But that played to the team's advantage, according to the captain.

"What made this team special is that it was a lot of guys there who had played forever and hadn't won. The carrot was still there. They knew how to play it right, and they were all willing to do what they needed to at that point in their careers."

All season, Brind'Amour set the tone in the locker room with his legendary training regiment. No one wanted to be seen slagging off and not doing what needed to be done. In Game 1 of the Final, he led by example with a two-goal game, capping it off by stealing the puck off Ty Conklin's stick with less than a minute left, quite literally snatching a win when overtime seemed preordained.

But the lasting memory of his summer was set in the final game of the series, when he saw something he had never witnessed in his 16-season NHL career: the crowd standing the entire game, loudly cheering from the second they entered the arena.

"There's not enough said about the [Game 7] crowd," says Brind'Amour. "That lifted us. Right from the warmup, you could feel the energy, and it never subsided. That was what was unique about that game, that it just kept going."

But there was no doubting the quality in the locker room. "We knew we were good," says Brind'Amour. "We knew early that we were going to make the playoffs, but you never know how good you're going to be. It takes so many things to work in your favor to win a championship."

Ten years ago, those things all went right, delivering the Triangle a summer it will never forget.

***

Now, for a bit of personal comment, if you don't mind.

The spring and summer of 2006 was quite possibly the most enjoyable time of my life, thanks in large part to the Hurricanes. A year and a half earlier, I had just proposed to my now-wife (on my grandmother's couch, a story for another day) and we set a wedding date simply by looking at a calendar, figuring out when she would be graduating from N.C. State with her master's degree and going with our gut.

The date we picked? May 27, 2006.

As the season got rolling and it became evident that the Canes were going to be way better than I ever thought they would, I started getting a little nervous about that wedding date. Not like there was anything I could do about it, but what if the Canes were still playing then?

By Christmas, my fiancée had started getting into the team. I had season tickets up to that point, and she bought a Subway stretch pack (remember those?) to go to some of the games in the new year. By the time the Olympics rolled around in mid-February, we had a decision to make.

We bought two playoff packs of tickets, spending our wedding money even before we got to the wedding. After all, I was 24 years old and a native of Cleveland; my sports teams doing well was something I couldn't process. I had never seen a team I cheer for win a championship, in any sport, ever. I figured this might be the best chance I ever have.

With the wedding set in stone for May 27, now we were just left to hope that the schedule would work with us, and I wasn't optimistic given that it was a Saturday that would fall somewhere in the Eastern Conference final. By some stroke of good fortune, it ended up being an off day. Game 4 was the night before, and Game 5 in Raleigh was the day after.

So there were only two requirements: that we be able to watch Game 4 somehow, and that we hightail it back to Raleigh the following day for the 7:30 game. The second was straightforward enough.

As for the first: let's just say I was probably the only groom in history to sit with his back to the wedding party at the rehearsal dinner so that he could watch a game on a tiny television at a minuscule bar.

When we planned our honeymoon, I looked around for the NHL's playoff schedule. Every year, the league publishes well in advance the major dates of the postseason, including the final possible date of a potential Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Monday, June 19, 2006.

Again, fortune smiled on us. We postponed the honeymoon when we booked it in February, and decided that we would leave the following weekend. You know, just in case.

The Canes won the Cup on Monday. The parade was Wednesday.

We left Miami on a cruise ship on Saturday.

To this day, I still can't believe that the team I cheer for won a championship in an arena twenty minutes from my house. I look up at that white banner and am still stunned that it actually happened.

Ten years later, I wouldn't trade those memories for the world. I have a daughter now, who hopefully won't have to wait 24 years like I did. Someday, when she's old enough, I'll pull out the DVD of that magical run and show her what it was like. I already can't wait.

Lord, were we young.

At the end of Apollo 13, Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) looks up at the moon, with a voiceover that's always stuck with me:

I sometimes catch myself looking up at the Moon, remembering the changes of fortune in our long voyage, thinking of the thousands of people who worked to bring the three of us home. I look up at the Moon, and wonder when will we be going back - and who will that be.

I find myself doing the same with that white banner hanging over the south end of PNC Arena. Someday, there will be a second one to join it. I don't know when, and I don't know who will lead the Canes there, but it will happen.

And I can't wait to see it.