Six years ago ona cold January morning, during an improbable blizzard in Raleigh, RodBrind'Amour was at the lowest point of his career. He was, by his own account,"shocked" by the trade that had shipped him to the CarolinaHurricanes--a nonplayoff team toiling in a hockey outpost--after nine seasonsas a leader and fan favorite with the powerful Philadelphia Flyers. Now, lessthan 48 hours removed from a tearful goodbye to Philadelphia, he was standingin 1 1/2 feet of freak North Carolina snow, grimly scraping ice off his car."I had to use my bare hands, and I was wearing a suit. I didn't haveanything else," he says. "But I got out of there and made it [to thearena]. No one else did because they called everyone else to cancelpractice."
The Hurricanes captain and first-line center is no longer miserable in Raleigh,and he's certainly never overlooked. After scoring his third game-winning goalof the playoffs, before a roaring home crowd of 18,730 last Thursday,Brind'Amour stretched his arms high, figuratively lifting the franchise to thesecond Stanley Cup finals of his Carolina tenure. On Monday night Brind'Amourscored two goals, backhanding in the game-winner with 31 seconds remaining togive the Hurricanes a 5-4 win and a 1-0 series lead over the EdmontonOilers.
Young, dazzlingEric Staal may lead the team and league in playoff points (seven goals, 14assists through Game 1 of the finals), but Brind'Amour is the franchise's mostvaluable and most relentless player. Through 19 postseason games he haddelivered 11 goals, six assists and two players-only meetings, both of whichresulted in momentum-shifting wins the next day. Backing up his speeches aboutaccountability and confidence, Brind'Amour clinched Game 7 of the EasternConference finals against the Buffalo Sabres when, midway through the thirdperiod, he pounced on a loose puck outside the crease and fired it into thenet. Says linemate Cory Stillman, "He's always in the right positionoffensively."
And now, aftermore than 1,300 career games, he's in an ideal position to win his first Cup.He's gotten here the old-fashioned way: as a workaholic. An ice hog (his 24:05minutes a game leads Carolina forwards), Brind'Amour kills penalties, thriveson the power play (NHL-best six goals this playoffs) and is called upon todouble-shift late in games. Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette can entrust suchyeoman duties to a nearly 36-year-old forward--and also count on him to be adominant force in the most trafficked parts of the ice--because the 6'1",205-pound Brind'Amour has a conditioning regimen that would make most NHLplayers wilt.
Nicknamed Rod theBod when he came into the NHL as a St. Louis Blue (out of Michigan State, wherecoach Ron Mason once padlocked the weight room to keep Brind'Amour fromovertraining), he has a physical intensity that can literally be frightening."When I break the team into two groups [for training drills]," saysCarolina's strength and conditioning coach Pete Friesen, "the guys want tosee which side Brind'Amour is on and go to the other side." Laviolettecalls Brind'Amour the NHL's best-conditioned player, the product of a dailyroutine that includes exhausting postgame sessions on the squat rack andstationary bike. Says Staal, 21, whose locker is next to Brind'Amour's, "Tomodel yourself after a guy like him will keep you here a long time."
This season,Brind'Amour's 16th, may be his most satisfying. That's not just because his 70regular-season points, his nomination for the Selke Trophy as the league's topdefensive forward and his increasing dominance in the face-off circle (a 60.3winning percentage) add up to arguably his best year but also because he almostdidn't play at all. In 2003--04 he had his worst season--12 goals, 26assists--his play dragged down by a separation from his wife, Kelle. (Thecouple, now divorced, has three children.) "That killed his game," saysBrind'Amour's father, Bob, who has been closely involved with Rod's careersince it began in the youth leagues of Campbell River, B.C., some three decadesago. "It was slowly choking him."
When Brind'Amour,his confidence shaken, agreed to a brief stint with the Kloten Flyers in theSwiss League during the NHL lockout, he brought Bob to watch him play."Tell me honestly if I can't skate with these guys," Rod told hisfather. "If I can't, my career's over. I'm not coming back." Bob sawRod score six points in five playoff games, a decisive run but one rather lesstaxing for both men than this spring's. Before Game 5 of the Eastern Conferencefinals Bob was briefly hospitalized after fainting in his Vancouver Island,B.C., home. "The doctors couldn't find anything wrong. I think I had ananxiety attack," he says. "We've been pulling so hard for Roddy. Thiscould be his last shot at it."
It's a shotBrind'Amour never thought he'd have on that snowy day in Raleigh (for therecord, when he got to the deserted arena that day, he went into the weightroom) but that he has willed for himself and his team. To win the Stanley Cup,Laviolette suggests, "your big-time players have to come in with big-timeperformances. [Brind'Amour] has done that."
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