CHICAGO - It was late May in the spring of 2004, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. Then just 27 years old, Michal Handzus would provide the sole assist on a goal from Kim Johnsson, the lone marker as the Flyers fell 2-1 to the Lightning, a berth in the Stanley Cup Final lost for Philadelphia and the 101st overall selection in the '95 draft.
For nearly a decade, that would be as close as Handzus would come to the Cup. But now, after 15 years in the National Hockey League and 950 regular season games, the now-36-year-old Blackhawks vet is getting his first and perhaps final opportunity on the game's grandest stage.
"You always think that you have a chance to come back," said Handzus, Chicago's second oldest player, fully bearded but no longer sporting the long locks of his youth.
And yet for years after that fateful fall with the Flyers - a squad that also featured a young Dennis Seidenberg and an even younger Patrick Sharp - Handzus never got that chance to come back again. First round exits would follow in Los Angeles (twice) and San Jose and it appeared his career would wind down quietly without a chance to battle for the Cup.
"I've been on very good teams and I always felt that we have a chance," he said, "but we never got back. It's the reality of life."
Fate would seemingly intercede on the first of April this spring. Searching for additional help down the middle and on the draw in their quest for a second Cup in four years, Chicago would send a fourth round pick to San Jose in exchange for the veteran centreman. An unheralded move at the time, Handzus is now the club's trusted second line pivot, chipping in with nine points and about 16 minutes of ice in all situations during the postseason thus far.
His long road just to get to this point has made the moment all the more special.
"You think a little bit more about it," Handzus conceded on Friday afternoon, ahead of Game 2 at the United Center on Saturday, Chicago swiping the opener in triple overtime on Wednesday night. "I'm 36, I don't know if I get a chance like that ever after [this]. [But] I don't try to put pressure on that; I just want to enjoy the moment."
Handzus entered the league in the fall of 1998, joining a Blues squad that featured aging future Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr and Al MacInnis, a star in his prime in Pierre Turgeon and a future Norris Trophy winner in Chris Pronger. Standing behind the bench for St. Louis was none other than Joel Quenneville, the current coach of the Blackhawks.
Among the final players still in the league from that Blues team, Jamal Mayers, a teammate once more in Chicago, recalled a personality who was "very quiet" upon entry into the league and North America and a player who would form one-third of all Slovakian line that included a still green but incredibly talented Pavol Demitra.
"They formed a pretty remarkable trio," Mayers said of the line, which also featured the lesser known Lubos Bartecko.
Of Handzus in particular, Mayers remembered a "very smart player, very strong on his stick, very much aware defensively and played a real significant role on our team then when we won the President's Trophy and made a couple good runs."
Experience of such depth has made Handzus a welcome presence among the many youthful Blackhawks. "He speaks my language so it's kind of easier for me to talk to him," said 25-year-old Michal Frolik, noting the faceoff tips his senior teammate has passed along.
"He's a guy that you can depend on and I'm sure that's why they brought him in," added Mayers, the only player, at age 38, with more years to his name than Handzus.
Just 10-years-old in the Czech Republic when Handzus first entered the league with St. Louis, Frolik had no trouble recalling the once flowing locks that made Handzus so distinctive, a testament additionally to the place he'd earned within the game. "Oh for sure," Frolik grinned. "It was huge once, a big afro. It was pretty funny. Hopefully one day we can see that again."
Chicago would oust Los Angeles in five games earlier this month to secure the first trip to the Stanley Cup Final for Handzus, now sporting a tame hairdo in definite contrast to his younger self. Upon finally garnering such a chance, he had one thought.
"I want to win a Cup," Handzus recalled of the moment the Blackhawks clinched. "It's fun to be in the Finals, but you want to win it … you win in the Conference final and you take a picture with the trophy and you say 'I don't want this trophy, I want a different one'."