If you didn't know better, it could have been 1999 again, a morning skate on the day of a Stanley Cup final game. Michael Peca was skating around the Pepsi Center last Thursday morning, wearing a smile and that signature half-beard of his.
Observed from across the ice, Peca seemed fit and young. Not impossibly young, like Nathan Gerbe, Tim Kennedy and Patrick Kane, who were also taking part in an unofficial workout. But the former Sabres star looked like a player in mid-career. He looked as if he belonged.
Of course, Peca isn't young. He's 35, and with training camps set to begin, he is a man without a team. Peca is among a large group of veteran NHL free agents (Mats Sundin, Miro Satan and Maxim Afinogenov, to name a few) waiting for offers in a constricted market.
"I've talked to several teams in the East," Peca said. "There's a lot of guys who are still unsigned. I've put a lot of work in and prepared myself to play. If it's meant to be, I'll find a spot to play. If it's not, I can always look back and feel fortunate I've had a great career. It's not like I'm going to feel sorry for myself. But I've got a feeling something will come up and I'll be ready."
It's hard to imagine that no one could use Peca's experience and grit. He's a two-time Selke winner as the league's top defensive forward. He's gone to two Cup finals. He's played for six NHL teams, four in the last five seasons.
Peca is one of those players whose intangibles make any team better. No one plays tougher for his size. That's the problem. The word around the league is that Peca hit so hard, for so long, that there's little left to give.
"I do hear that," he said. "It's in the back of your mind. But then you find a real purpose to play again. My sole purpose is to try to win a championship. That's my motivation, to win a Stanley Cup. I don't want to play just to play and have a job or make money. I want to be in a position to win, or a position that's going to be great for me and my family."
Family is big with Peca. He's a Toronto native, but Buffalo is his home. He and his wife, Kristin, a Buffalo native, have owned a house here for 12 years and are about to build another. They have two children -- Trevor, 9, and Emily, 6. Trevor plays hockey and that's one reason Peca would like to stay in the East, so he can watch his son play.
"Trevor plays in some of the same tournaments I went to as a kid," Peca said. "I tell my dad and he gets more excited than I do. Trevor loves the game. The Sabres are his favorite team, after the team his dad plays for. I wish I had been a Buffalo Sabre when my son was old enough to appreciate it. He was born four days before my last game here."
Imagine how gut-wrenching it must have been in 2000-01, when Peca sat out an entire season in a contract dispute with the Sabres. True to his nature, he stood his ground. It cost Peca a full season and a job in his adopted hometown.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't look back with some regrets," he said. "I probably should have been more involved in the process than just allowing my agent to handle things. I should have made it more clear how much I wanted to stay. There's things in life you look back on and wish you could change, but you can't. You just hope to learn from them."
Some fans never forgave Peca. Others hoped he would return here one day. Peca says he talked with the Sabres two years ago, but he wound up in Columbus. When his contract expired after the season, the Blue Jackets told Peca to test the market. He's still waiting.
There's little room for sentiment in the NHL today. Budgets are tight. It's no country for old men, on either side of the border. But there has to be a place for Peca. Say what you will, but he's always been his own man. It would be nice to see him go out on his own terms.