Kimmo Timonen risked everything for this moment

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CHICAGO -- Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall remembers the shock of sitting in his office across from Kimmo Timonen and hearing the ailing defenseman vow that his NHL career was not over.

Timonen was diagnosed with blood clots in his lungs and leg in the offseason. The assumption was that Timonen’s distinguished career was at an end. The assumption was that any discussion between the player and the GM would be about transitioning into life post-playing.

What was he thinking of doing? What would be next for one of the greatest of all Finnish defensemen?

But that was not on Timonen’s agenda.

"I was taken aback," Hextall told ESPN.com this week.

"I was just happy Kimmo was alive and doing well. I said to him right there you have to think long and hard about this."

But Timonen had done that. He understood that his medical condition plus his age -- he turned 40 in March -- meant that it was likely over for him, but he wouldn’t -- no, couldn’t -- hang up the blades for good without exhausting every avenue.

"You know what happened in August, the chances of me coming back were really slim," Timonen said shortly before Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals.

"We got back to the Philly by September and chances were even smaller when I saw the doctors there."

But he continued to talk to various doctors around the country.

Finally, in December he found a blood disorder specialist who said he thought there was a way he could keep the blood clotting issue under control and still play hockey at a high level.

"Until that point I was retired," Timonen said. "I was enjoying my kind of retirement life, which was nice.

"I was sleeping pretty well," he added with a laugh.

Even though blood specialists thought there was a way Timonen could return to the game, there were no guarantees about the side effects and whether it would be risk-free. It was a decision he had to make on his own. This was a life and family decision, not strictly a medical decision.

Timonen, a father of three, admitted his wife initially didn’t want him to play but understood how important the chance was to him. She still doesn’t watch the games but texts after to make sure everything is OK.

Since the time he found medical experts that would support his desire to return to the game, Timonen had to prove to Hextall it was going to be OK.

"We had a lot of meetings with Mr. Hextall and again had to turn his head around because obviously he was thinking about my best and was thinking about my family," Timonen recalled.

"And he said 'I’m not putting you on the ice.' And I said 'well, let’s hang on here, let me talk to these doctors and let them talk to you.' It was a rollercoaster, let’s put it that way. I needed to turn a lot of stones and heads and opinions and I’m sure if I, right now if I talked to a lot of doctors, they would say are you crazy. But I had to rely on the blood disorder guys who actually said we can find you a way."

Hextall, for one, recalls those conversations vividly.

"I remember looking at him and I said you are one stubborn S.O.B. and I said it with the ultimate respect," Hextall said.

"His whole mission was to take one last step at the Stanley Cup."

Hextall could understand the dynamics. He won a Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender. He was the playoff MVP in a losing effort with Philadelphia in 1987, but he only got his name on the Stanley Cup as an executive with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 and again in 2014 before he returned to the Flyers as the GM last offseason.

"I couldn’t be more thrilled to see Kimmo that close to his personal goal," Hextall said.

"Everything is for the team. He doesn’t do anything selfishly."

Now sitting one win away from the Stanley Cup, the moment that Timonen returned for is no longer a speck on the horizon.

It is a bit staggering to imagine all that has had to go into creating this moment, this opportunity for Timonen.

There was the medical issue to be resolved first and foremost. Then Hextall had to find a team that was interested in acquiring Timonen at the trade deadline even though Timonen had not played at all this season. Then that team -- in this case Chicago, which sent a second round pick and a conditional draft pick to Philadelphia for the native of Kuopio, Finland -- had to survive three grueling playoff rounds to arrive in the final series.

Not that everything has gone according to plan.

Timonen has struggled at times against speedy or physical opponents and was a healthy scratch near the end of the Western Conference finals and then again at the start of the Cup finals before drawing back in for Games 4 and 5.

"It's been tough and frustrating at times, but I knew it's going to be a struggle," Timonen acknowledged.

"We have to remember I'm 40 years old and I didn't skate for eight months. I didn't put my skates on for eight months, which is probably the biggest thing. But to me this whole thing wasn't about me -- and me playing 15 minutes [per game] and maybe getting 10 points -- it was all about getting to this point, playing or not. Obviously it's better playing, but just to be in this position just to win it."

In the pantheon of Finnish hockey stars, Timonen may not quite be at the level of Teemu Selanne or Jari Kurri, but he has played in five Olympic Games for his country. He won a bronze medal in Nagano in 1998 and a silver at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. Two years later he won a silver at the Turin Olympics and then a bronze in Sochi last winter.

He was captain of the Nashville Predators before his trade to Philadelphia and will earn more than a little consideration for the Hall of Fame.

More than that, Timonen has been one of the great gentlemen of the game, respected throughout the hockey world.

"He’s been one of the top defensemen [in Finland] for a long time," said Tampa forward Valtteri Filppula, who was part of the Finnish squad in Sochi in 2014. "Especially in Finnish hockey, he’s been at the very top for a very long time. I think players growing up look up to him. I think people in general, he’s a great guy so he’s really in that way too, a good role model for everybody."

It’s not just the journey that Timonen has embarked on this season, it’s the finality that accompanies it that adds an extra layer of emotion.

There will be no more hockey for Timonen after this season -- certainly not at the NHL level.

"I'm really trying to enjoy these last few days because let's be honest: It's five days left in my career," he said this time not with a laugh but a wry grin.

Now that journey comes down to one victory for Timonen. It has been both emotional and joyous and trying for the veteran defender.

"You trying to get me emotional here?" Timonen asked after I asked another question.

And then he laughed again, the kind of laugh that tells as much of a story as any words could ever hope to convey about what this moment means.

"Like I said a couple days ago, I'm living in a dream," Timonen said.

"Where I left in August and I'm standing here, it's crazy. It's crazy what I went through. There's a risk involved obviously, but I wanted to do it. It was totally up to me and I wanted to take that chance, to have one more chance.

"We're still far away. But in my dreams I was picturing this situation in December. Even by the deadline when we were talking about different teams, and options, you never know. I knew this team is really good, they have a really good chance to make something great, but you never know. I'm just really happy to be here and having this chance."