DENVER– Fourteen years. That’s how long it’s been since Darren Helm has held the Stanley Cup over his head.
He was 21 years old when the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the 2008 Stanley Cup Final at Mellon Arena, 25 games into his NHL career.
Now he’s 35. Mellon Arena no longer exists. The forward is playing for the Colorado Avalanche against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final, trying to recapture that glory almost 900 games later.
The Avalanche lead the best-of-7 series 2-0 heading into Game 3 at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Monday (8 p.m. ET; ABC, ESPN+, CBC, SN, TVAS). Helm scored a goal and had a game-high 12 hits in their 7-0 win in Game 2 at home Saturday.
[RELATED: Stanley Cup Final coverage | Stanley Cup Final schedule]
If the Avalanche win the Cup, Helm will become the fourth NHL player to go at least 14 years between championships. Chris Chelios went 16 years (1986 with the Montreal Canadiens to 2002 with the Red Wings), Mark Recchi went 15 (1991 with the Penguins to 2006 with the Carolina Hurricanes) and Bill Guerin went 14 (1995 with the New Jersey Devils to 2009 with the Penguins).
“That’d put me in some pretty fine company, that’s for sure,” said Helm, who has played 805 regular-season games and 80 Stanley Cup Playoff games since 2008. “Pretty cool.”
Helm was in his first season of professional hockey in 2007-08 and played 67 games for Grand Rapids of the American Hockey League and seven for Detroit. He had no points for the Red Wings and said he had no reason to think he’d play in the playoffs.
But he warmed up before Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, and then with the series tied 2-2, he found himself in the lineup for Game 5 against the Nashville Predators at Joe Louis Arena, another building that no longer exists.
“I was just kind of in shock that I was playing a playoff game in the NHL,” he said.
Helm seized the opportunity and stayed in the lineup for the rest of the Red Wings’ run, playing 18 games and getting the first two goals and two assists of his NHL career. He remembers the final seconds ticking down in Pittsburgh, jumping onto the ice, hoisting the Cup.
“I just remember it being a lot heavier than I expected it to be,” he said. “It was just such an incredible feeling.”
Helm had no idea the weight of that moment. The Red Wings had made the playoffs each season since 1990-91 and won the Cup in 1997, 1998 and 2002. He thought they would have many more chances at championships.
But though they made it to Game 7 of the 2009 Cup Final, they lost to the Penguins. They lost in the first or second round each of the next seven seasons, and then missed the playoffs each of the next five.
“I think I was probably a little naïve to have those thoughts, playing with two really great teams,” Helm said. “You know, we won the one year. We almost won it the second. We didn’t really lose a ton of guys, so I thought we were going to have opportunities almost every year.
“Like most players in this league, you find out pretty quickly it doesn’t happen that easily.”
Helm became an unrestricted free agent after last season and signed a one-year contract with the Avalanche on July 29. He was hard to leave the only NHL team he had ever known and the city his family likely will call home after his career, especially with three daughters — ages 10, 7 and 5 — who have grown up there. But he knew he couldn’t wait much longer to feel that weight again.
“I didn’t really want to end my career on that kind of note,” Helm said. “I want an opportunity to win, and Detroit’s in a rebuild, so it was an opportunity for me to kind of go somewhere else. I saw Colorado as a team that could win a Cup. I saw a lot of great things. They were always a tough team to play, and just want to come here and be part of it and have a chance, and here we are.”
Helm had 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 68 games during the regular season and has four points (two goals, two assists) in the playoffs, adding speed and grit to the bottom six, helping to kill penalties.
His first goal this postseason was a big one. It came with 5.6 seconds left in Game 6 of the Western Conference Second Round and gave the Avalanche a 3-2 win against the St. Louis Blues, putting them in the Western Conference Final for the first time since 2001.
Video: COL@STL, Gm6: Helm ends it with 5.6 seconds to go
It was his first playoff goal since 2016, when he scored against the Lightning in the first round. It was his second series-clincher, and it came 13 years after his first one, the overtime goal in a 2-1 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final in 2009.
Helm became the second player to go at least 13 years between series-clinchers (Adam Oates went 16). He scored the winner for the Red Wings in a 3-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the 1987 Norris Division Final, and then scored the winner for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in a 2-1 victory against the Minnesota Wild in Game 4 of the 2003 Western Conference Final.
“If I take out anything, it’s how hard it is to make it to this situation,” Helm said. “It doesn’t happen every year. It doesn’t happen for…”
“Sometimes 14 years,” he continued. “So incredibly grateful to be here and be part of this team.”