SUNRISE, Fla. — Stephen Weiss knows about the effort it takes to start over.
Weiss poured his heart into numerous attempts to rebuild the Florida Panthers franchise. Since joining the Detroit Red Wings over the summer, the former Cat has learned to carry on through the transition at a personal level.
“When your time comes to an end in the place you’ve been for a long time, it’s not the easiest thing to do, to move on,” Weiss said.
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The summer served as a new beginning for Weiss in many respects. He tested the free agent market after spending 11 seasons with Florida. Days later, he married his long-time girlfriend Ashley. They relocated to Michigan.
When the 30-year-old talks about why he chose Detroit, the answer is clear: “I came here to win hockey games, be part of a winning culture.”
“Winning some hockey games early in the season, looking up and being toward the top of the standings has been a real good feeling, being a part of that,” he said. “It’s no fun the other way. That’s been the case for a long time. It’s fun to be on the other side.”
With change came adversity.
A groin injury limited Weiss during training camp and the early part of the season. A prolonged slump saw him dropped to the third line in November. Through 26 games, he has two goals, two assists and a minus-four rating.
“We’ve had lots of guys who have signed big contracts. They were on our own team and suddenly feel more pressure,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “In a new place, you’re feeling pressure and it hasn’t gone very good.
“How do you get your confidence back? You get to work and be mentally tough. You talk to people and get people to help you. The first thing to overcoming anything is admitting things aren’t going very good. He’s done all those things. We feel he’s going to start playing better and better.”
Weiss acknowledged he has yet to play up to his potential.
“For whatever reason, I’ve got to get it in my head to go out and play loose like I always have,” Weiss said. “When I do that I’ll be fine.”
The Panthers paid tribute to the center with a video montage during Tuesday’s game. Unlike the returns of Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay or Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa earlier this season, though, Florida could not present any hardware on film that exhibited the dedication Weiss displayed during his tenure.
Weiss ranks as Florida’s all-time leader in games played (654) and assists (249), but he never registered more than 30 goals or 65 points in a season. He never won an award or represented the Panthers as an All-Star.
Through no fault of his own, Weiss’ career coincided with the last vestige of a stable Florida franchise.
One season removed from its third playoff appearance in five years, Florida selected Weiss with the fourth overall pick in 2001.
“It was a very special day, to be drafted by the team that was hosting the draft is pretty neat,” Weiss said. “I remember my agent turning to me when Florida was picking and giving me a wink like this could be it. Everything else after getting your name called is a blur.”
With a sparse few left from the Panthers’ inaugural squad and superstar Pavel Bure shipped to the New York Rangers just prior to his first full season, Weiss became the first piece in the team’s rebuilding effort. The two-way forward with playmaking ability and leadership qualities was the core of Florida’s future.
“I think the first couple years are trying to establish yourself in the NHL,” Weiss said. “Once I did that it was about putting this team first and trying to turn this team into a playoff contender every year and trying to get respectability back to South Florida. It took some time.”
Quite a bit of time.
During his decade with the Panthers, Weiss seemed to be the only constant for a franchise in flux. Losses piled up. Teammates came and went. He outlasted three owners, seven general managers, seven head coaches and countless shifts in strategy from the top down.
Even when offered the opportunity to avoid yet another rebuilding effort, this time undertaken by GM Dale Tallon in 2010, Weiss remained faithful to the Panthers.
It was not until 2012, Weiss’s 10th season, that he finally experienced on-ice success with the Cats. Florida captured the Southeast Division title and returned to the postseason. Weiss registered a pair of goals in the team’s first playoff win since 1997.
“We were able to have a great season a couple years ago,” Weiss said. “We almost snuck by there in Game 7 to move on in the playoffs, which would have been fantastic.”
The lockout-shortened season that followed brought similar frustrations of years past. Weiss struggled to rekindle the chemistry developed with Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann that made the trio one of the more dangerous lines in the NHL. He endured the passing of his grandmother and a wrist injury.
Weiss underwent season-ending surgery in March 2013, which also marked the conclusion of his time in Florida.
“I had a good feeling that was going to be the case,” Weiss said. “Dale was first class the whole way through. He tried to make it work, maybe get some proposal, but at the end of the day it didn’t happen.”
In Detroit, Weiss has found a confidant in veteran Daniel Alfredsson. Like Weiss, Alfredsson left the team he had been drafted by and spent his entire career with. They’ve discussed everything from moving to a new city after putting down roots in another to joining a revered organization with high expectations.
“We both struggled early with the change. He’s handled it a lot better than I have,” Weiss said. “Certainly early on in the season we chatted a little bit about things, the system here. He’s a great guy to bounce things off of because he’s been around for so long and been a leader.”
And they realize their situation is increasingly unique. The salary cap era has led to more movement of players, by choice or because that is simply how the business of sports works these days.
“I think you won’t see it as much in the past, guys sticking with one team throughout,” Alfredsson said. “I think both of us were fortunate to be with one organization for so long.”
Looking back at his time in Florida, Weiss bookends his accomplishments with the 2001 draft held here and the 2012 Southeast Division title. It was fitting, in Weiss’ first game back, to look up from the blueline during the national anthem to see banners commemorating both.
“To finally break through for one season was something that I am proud of,” he said. “I enjoyed my time here. I made a lot of good friends here. I had a lot of great teammates that I learned a lot from.