BROSSARD, Que., — What is the 1000-game mark if not a reminder that the end is near?
Not that the accomplishment shouldn’t be celebrated. It’s quite a feat to do what only 323 of 6,989 players in NHL history have been capable of, to compete for at least that many nights at the highest level of a sport that exacts a physical toll most people wouldn’t be willing to pay more than once, to accumulate more air miles than some career pilots would, and to consistently summon the mental strength to tackle whatever adversity pops up along the way. That’s something special.
But few players skate past the milestone while appearing unfettered by the collateral damage of all of that, and Tomas Plekanec is no exception to that rule.
Toronto’s Patrick Marleau, who scored 37 goals and added 36 assists in the year he passed the 1,000-game mark, is.
Joe Thornton had at least 60 assists in two of the first four seasons he participated in after playing his 1,000th game. And Duncan Keith, who skated in his 1,000th game last week, has four points in his first five games and leads the Chicago Blackhawks in average time on ice at 24:25 per game.
They have withstood the test of time, but Plekanec, who is gearing up for Game No. 1,000 on Monday—this one against the Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre—is most likely on his farewell tour after signing a one-year, $2.25 million contract this past summer.
The 35-year-old entered the league on New Year’s Eve 2003, playing 10:40 in a 1-1 tie against the Dallas Stars, which was exactly 1:56 more than he played against the Pittsburgh Penguins this past Saturday. He has been pushed to the margins, scratched for three of four games the Canadiens have played, and these won’t be the days he’s remembered by when all is said and done.
Some highlights from a 69-point season on the NHL’s highest scoring team, alongside linemates Alex Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn in 2007-08, will surely be featured in the video tribute to Plekanec Monday night. There will have to be a clip or two from his career-high 70-pointer in ’09-10, when he, Kostitsyn and Mike Cammalleri formed a rather lethal trio for the Canadiens. And those precious seconds will remind everyone of who Plekanec used to be rather than who he is.
“I don’t see anything negative in it,” Plekanec said on Monday morning. “It’s the stage of a career every player goes through. I’m glad that my role as it is. I wouldn’t be playing anymore if I were just a one-dimensional player. I’d be gone by now. It’s a positive thing that I’m still around and still playing in this league.”
Plekanec’s influence off the ice has much to do with it as anything.
He’s made a career of conducting himself as a professional; often the first to arrive at the rink and the last to leave, and never skipping a workout. His work ethic has been unimpeachable all along, and he now serves as a shining example for the players that currently make up the NHL’s second-youngest team.
“He’s a veteran, he knows where he is in his career,” said coach Claude Julien, who was behind the Canadiens’ bench for Plekanec’s first-ever NHL game as well. “I think we have a young team, we need guys like Tomas to come in and give us that experience when he’s dressed on the ice. If there’s some times where he’s not, he’s certainly a guy who’s been helping young players on the ice during practice, and we’ve seen that with [18-year-old Jesperi] Kotkaniemi but also when [Artturi] Lehkonen first came in Pleky really took him under his wing. He’s been great that way. He’s a real pro. You need guys like that in your room, guys that are also respected for who they are and what they stand for and he’s certainly one of those guys.”
With eight 20-goal seasons under his belt and a penchant for always taking care of his own end, Plekanec has certainly earned that respect.
He’s also earned the reputation as one of the chippiest players to lace up the skates over the last two decades, wielding his stick like a pickaxe at times and sticking to whichever player he’s assigned to like glue, provoking Boston Bruins rival Brad Marchand to once refer to him as the player he hates playing against most.
“He was one of those guys who kept pissing you off on the ice,” said Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar, who lined up many times against Plekanec as a long-time member of the Red Wings and as a stable presence on the Slovakian national team. “He was a guy you really didn’t want to play against.”
For most of Plekanec’s 999 games—all of them but 17 played in Canadiens uniform—he has been that guy.
That’s cause for celebration, even if it magnifies the fact that Plekanec has reached the beginning of the end of his NHL career.