Dalpe living in the moment of Stanley Cup run

Photo: Gavin Napier/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

📝 by Patrick Williams

Zac Dalpe describes himself in his Twitter bio as a “frequent U-haul renter,” and that would very much be a fair characterization.

Years of packing up and moving around North America brought him back to North Carolina, a place where he planted some of his early pro hockey roots.

Call it a dream deferred for Dalpe, whose career is in a much different place now than it was 12 years ago. This week, his time in the Tar Heel State is being spent in Raleigh, where his Florida Panthers are taking on the Carolina Hurricanes in the National Hockey League’s Eastern Conference final.

This one is for all of the AHL veterans who have been chasing their NHL dreams for years.

“I don’t really know how to describe it,” Dalpe said from his Florida hotel room this week.

“I don’t want to sound too cliche. It’s just been very … surreal,” he added, with a long pause. “I know that’s not a ground-breaking term, but that’s all I got. Life in the fast lane.”

Back in 2011, Dalpe was stationed in North Carolina as a rookie with the Charlotte Checkers on their run to the AHL’s Eastern Conference final. Dalpe was a second-round pick from the 2008 NHL Draft, he was 21 years old, and he had just secured a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team. That season’s Calder Cup bid fell short, but Dalpe laid much of the groundwork for what has become a long career as an organizational glue player, the type of personality who can lead a club’s prospects in the AHL while also filling in on the NHL roster when needed.

Today Dalpe is 33, a much-respected figure around the AHL, a captain with the Checkers, married with children, and a Charlotte homeowner. The Checkers are now affiliated with Florida.

But not everything is different.

Paul Maurice took a quick liking back then to the industrious game that Dalpe played. Then head coach of the Hurricanes, Maurice and Dalpe have followed their own winding journeys over the last dozen years, reuniting with the Panthers this season.

“I feel like he brings out the best out in us as a group,” Dalpe said of Maurice. “He knows what makes us tick. He knows what makes us laugh. He knows what kind of calms us in times where it could get tense. He’s a coach that coaches you. It sounds weird, but some coaches are motivators. He’s a motivator and a coach.

“I definitely look forward to his speeches and his one-liners. They’re really funny… He’s got some good ones.”

Dalpe played 14 games for Florida during the regular season, his most in the NHL since the 2014-15 season when he was with Buffalo. By April, he had settled back in with the Checkers as they prepared to begin the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Then came the call. The Panthers needed him back.

“There wasn’t really any indication that I’d be playing right away,” Dalpe said. “You’re kind of back to being the extra, which is fine. But you’re kind of torn, too, because your teammates were playing in Charlotte in the playoffs so you didn’t really know how to feel, but you’re kind of injected into both teams’ fights.”

Then an injury hit the Panthers. Dalpe dressed for Game 4 of their first-round series against Boston.

He has not left the Florida lineup since.

By the time Game 6 of the series against the record-setting Bruins arrived, the Panthers had already hung around longer than expected by many, though they still trailed three games to two. Boston was on the verge of finishing off the series with a 4-3 third-period lead when Dalpe scored his first career Stanley Cup Playoff goal.

The Panthers went on to win Game 6, then completed the upset with a Game 7 victory in Boston.

“That belief within the group is always there,” Dalpe said. “The outside world probably didn’t believe it, but we have a hell of a room, and I say that with all honesty. I’ve been in a lot of dressing rooms. This is a hell of a room.”

After knocking off Toronto in the second round, the Panthers are in the conference finals for the first time in 27 years. And even with more than 700 pro games under his belt, this spring has been a time of learning for Dalpe.

“It’s a weird feeling in a good way,” said Dalpe, whose only previous Stanley Cup Playoff experience was three games with Minnesota in 2016. “I feel like I’m still learning so much… how to approach the game for how I need to play, how to approach it within the team aspect.

“You’re always going to have a good bench, a lively, talkative bench during the good times, right? How important it is to keep that same mindset during the not-so-good times. [Maurice] is really good at that, and the whole team has jumped on board. There’s not a negative thing that is said. And it’s not like he’s babying us. He gives you confidence.”

That feeling hit Dalpe in Game 2 against the Maple Leafs. He did not get into a shot lane on Toronto’s first goal 2:20 into the contest. Then a tripping penalty on his second shift set up another goal only 2:50 later.

“I thought the first two goals were my fault,” Dalpe stated. “It’s almost like every single guy came up to me and told me not to worry about it and just settled me down. Then Mo told me to breathe. He calls everybody ‘baby.’ So he told me, ‘Breathe, baby.’

“It’s feeling like you have a lot of self-worth on the team. I hold myself to a high standard like anybody else, and every guy came up to me. And it wasn’t like a run-of-the-mill, cookie-cutter saying. They all took the time to say something sincerely.

“I called my dad after and was like, ‘I’d run through concrete for these guys.’”

A native of Paris, Ont., not far from Toronto, Dalpe heard plenty from his hometown friends during the Panthers-Leafs series.

“They all have ‘Core Four’ jerseys on,” Dalpe said, referring to the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares. “They don’t have a Dalpe jersey on.”

Through it all Dalpe has been living out of a hotel while his wife, Cassandra, is back in Charlotte with their three children. His family has made it down to Florida to visit and experience this playoff run together, though, and having them with him has been a welcome diversion from thinking about hockey non-stop.

“She did such a good job of making the kids realize how big of a moment this is,” Dalpe explained. “Obviously they’re fans of Dad. Obviously they know I play in the NHL, but my wife is hammering the fact home that it’s the NHL playoffs. To see her, she’s flying with three kids. You’re taking kids out of their element, so they’re getting sick. She doesn’t complain at all. She just wants them to be here to [see] me play. I feel like I’m forever indebted to her.

“That’s been really special and then seeing them in the stands and watching me score. I took that penalty in Toronto, and the first thing my kids said to me after the game was, ‘That wasn’t a good penalty, Dad.’”

Dalpe has several Checkers teammates back with him as well after they came south when Charlotte’s playoff run ended. They are serving as extras on the Florida roster and watching their captain pursue a Stanley Cup.

“They’re chirping my facial hair,” Dalpe said, “but they keep it light-hearted. I’m not a huge vocal guy in the Florida room, but I do have the gift of the gab, so I save up all my words for when I see them at the hotel.”

No matter how long this playoff run goes, Dalpe will come away with plenty of memories.

“Just the reaction, everybody’s been so supportive of me, it’s been eye-opening,” Dalpe said. “I like to think that it takes a village to raise a hockey player. In this case, I feel like it’s a city. Just grinding in my career… this is a good pay-off.”