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The more Ken Daneyko thought about it, the more he knew the time had come. After well over 1,000 regular-season games and well over 150 Stanley Cup Playoff games, something clicked in his head that told him the next chapter of his life was calling.

Being able to skate away on his own terms carrying the Stanley Cup overhead was simply the icing on the cake.

The New Jersey Devils and Daneyko made it all official Friday morning at Continental Airlines Arena in a funny, poignant and emotional press conference that moved Daneyko to tears on several occasions. Well into remarks that thanked a host of people, Daneyko looked up at the assembled media and asked "Have I mentioned I'm retiring?"

By then, the decision was apparent to all. Actually, Daneyko made his decision final during the second half of the regular season and said winning his third Stanley Cup was the icing on the cake for a career that was spent entirely with the Devils.

"Dreams certainly do come true," Daneyko said. "I've been living one for the last 20 years. I never thought something like this was going to be possible.

"I've always been treated like family here," Daneyko said, fighting back tears. "Bear with me, this may get worse. But this is a happy day for me. I'm ending my career on a high with a championship."

It all came to a head for Daneyko in Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Reinserted into the lineup after sitting out the series' first six games, Daneyko received a thunderous ovation from the fans at the start of the game and the roar continued with each shift, right until the end when coach Pat Burns kept him on the ice for the game's final seconds, a fitting tribute to a man who so came to symbolize the Devils.

"I never could have imagined playing anywhere else or would have wanted to play anywhere else," said Daneyko, who offered emotional thanks to Devils CEO-President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello; former owner Dr. John J. McMullen; his wife and two children; his teammates, who were represented by Scott Stevens and Jay Pandolfo; coaches and office staff, who packed the press conference.

In an era where big-name stars play for multiple teams, Daneyko was a throwback, having been drafted by New Jersey with the 18th selection of the 1982 Entry Draft. He never left, becoming the Garden State's sporting equivalent of Bruce Springsteen.

Daneyko realized he was facing a reduced role with the Devils this season. He missed 13 regular-season games as coach Pat Burns rotated some of his defensemen, and Daneyko's streak of having played in every New Jersey Stanley Cup Playoff game ended in the first round against the Boston Bruins when he was a healthy scratch. In all, Daneyko was scratched for 11 of the Devils' 24 games in the 2003 postseason, certainly a bitter disappointment. But Daneyko didn't become a distraction. He embodied the team-first approach that has come to symbolize the Devils' approach and remained a positive, supportive presence among his teammates.

"Even when you're out of the lineup you can contribute," Daneyko said after the Devils' Cup triumph. "This right now is very special; regardless of the role or whatever it may be. I've been in a lot of games and it's not about that. It's about winning and with this organization and this team and these guys. I'm very excited to be in this position again. A lot of guys play their whole lives to try to get here. Thank God I've been very fortunate to be here four times with a group of guys -- about five or six of them -- who've been with me through it all and I've been with them through it all."

Burns played a hunch in Game 7, dressing Daneyko for the first time in the Finals. But the coach insisted he wasn't being sentimental about what was possibly Daneyko's final game, but rather pragmatic in using a veteran player and team leader in what was going to be the most pressure-packed game of the season. The move paid off as the Devils pitched a shutout to win the Cup and Daneyko, cheered lustily by fans throughout, was on the ice in the game's final seconds to savor his third Stanley Cup with the Devils.

"It was a real nice touch that Pat put me out in the last minute," Daneyko said. "I was so damned nervous, I dropped my stick, I did everything. I didn't know what to do out there. I was trying to follow the puck, swim it up. I was shocked, really, like I said earlier. I really didn't expect it, and like I said, with guys like this, it was pretty easy, guys working this hard, I was just trying to do my little part.

Daneyko was an intimidating presence on the Devils' blue line for nearly two decades.

"I'm just grateful that Pat showed faith in me," Daneyko said of his coach's decision. "I was flabbergasted when he told me. But this group of guys makes it so easy to play. To have another opportunity with this group of guys is very special and you don't take that for granted, especially at my stage of my career."

"I talked to Scotty Stevens about it," Burns said of the decision to insert Daneyko into the lineup. "Scotty said, 'You know what, I think it would be good.' We knew (Daneyko) wasn't going to get 20 minutes, 25 minutes of ice time, but his presence -- and you saw the fans -- I'm glad for him. You know, to be able to get him in there one last time, to hoist that Cup was something for him I'm sure he won't forget."

"I was nervous like a kid. I told my wife 'I don't know if this is the right decision. She said; 'Just relax. You've done this thing for 20 years,'" Daneyko said. "Like I said, I thought Pat might have been a little bit crazy, but, hey, it was a nice feeling to get back.

"This was a special, special moment."

"He was the perfect guy for the job with all the experience he has," forward Jim McKenzie said that night. "He acted like he was 20-years-old. He had 20-year-old legs out there, but the difference was obviously being the age he is gave him the experience that the 20-year-old doesn't have. It was just incredible the way he stepped in. He kind of gave me the heads up when he knew that he was in and from that moment on I just kept watching him. He was so excited. He brought that excitement to the room tonight."

Daneyko, who was the winner of the 2000 Masterton Trophy for dedication to hockey, in addition to three Stanley Cups leaves an indelible impression on the New Jersey franchise. In all, he appeared in 1,283 regular-season games, scoring 36 goals and 142 assists. He picked up 2,514 penalty minutes and was a plus-80 for his career.

In 175 Stanley Cup Playoff games, Daneyko added five more goals and 17 additional assists as well as 296 penalty minutes. For his postseason career, Daneyko was a plus-19.

But those numbers don't do justice to the role Daneyko played with the Devils. He played tough, hard-nosed defense, cleared the front of his net, played through pain and wore his heart on his sleeve.

And now he skates off into the sunset with the Stanley Cup held over head.

It doesn't get much better than that.

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