CHARLOTTE — Pat Dwyer still gets uneasy riding on the team bus after a hockey game, when all is dark and quiet. That will never go away.
“When it’s at night and you hear the rumble strips going, it brings back memories,” Dwyer said Friday.
On an icy night in February 2009, Dwyer was with the Albany River Rats, then the Carolina Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate, and returning from a game. The Rats bus skidded and hit a guard rail, then flipped onto its side on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
Dwyer was fortunate and not injured in the crash. Nor were there any fatalities. But several players suffered serious injuries — defenseman Casey Borer had a broken neck — and everyone was left mentally scarred.
Never miss a local story.
Dwyer called it life-changing, saying, “It brings to light how quickly things can happen. You can’t take anything for granted. You never know.”
So much has happened since that night for Dwyer. Now 33, he is again in the AHL, a forward for the Charlotte Checkers, doing all he can to help them win a Calder Cup playoff series against the Chicago Wolves.
Dwyer played 416 games for the Hurricanes and can say he was in the Carolina lineup for Game 4 of the 2009 Eastern Conference finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That was the last Stanley Cup playoff game for the Canes, who were swept by the Pens, and now seems eons ago.
After parts of seven NHL seasons with Carolina, Dwyer said he had surgery for a double sports hernia after 2014-15 and was not re-signed by the Canes. His best option was overseas, playing for MODO in the Swedish Hockey League, taking his family to live in Ornskoldsvik, a scenic city of more than 30,000.
After a professional tryout this season with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Dwyer accepted the opportunity to return to the Carolina organization with the Checkers. Signing an AHL contract in October, he has given the Checkers dependable play while mentoring some of the young forwards, being the consummate organizational man.
“I still think I can play at the (NHL) level but as a realist I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Dwyer said. “I’m not holding my breath on that happening. I’m just a guy who loves the game. I can still play the game at a high level. These young guys keep you young and on your toes. It’s still fun to me.”
In 58 games with the Checkers, Dwyer had 14 goals and 26 points and closed with a plus-4 rating as Charlotte fought its way into the AHL playoffs.
At 6 feet and 176 pounds, Dwyer has always relied on his quickness, hustle and instincts on the ice. A fourth-round draft pick by the then-Atlanta Thrashers in 2002, he spent four years at Western Michigan before turning professional and then paid his dues in the AHL.
Dwyer made his NHL debut with the Canes in the 2008-09 season, playing 13 games. Needed in the playoffs when Tuomu Ruutu was injured, he was used in Game 2 and Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
There was another Carolina game with playoff implications that also stands out. On April 9, 2011, the Canes needed only to beat the Tampa Bay Lightning at home in the regular-season finale to again reach the playoffs. That close. The Lightning won 6-2.
“We knew it was win and you’re in,” Dwyer said. “There was such a good feeling in the locker room and we came out and they took it to us. That was our chance when I was a fulltime player to make it. It was tough.”
But Dwyer said he has a lot more good memories than bad. With Carolina, he played his first NHL game, scored his first NHL goal and, yes, was in his first playoff game.
“To be with an organization that long is something I take pride in,” he said. “They must have liked something I did and I’m still in the organization, which must say something about the respect both ways.”