Ahead of 1,000th game, Lucic reflects on journey from obscurity to NHL glory

Milan Lucic talked about the significance of playing his 1,000th NHL game and the history that comes with that.

Math was never one of Milan Lucic’s favourite subjects, especially after Ms. Agadachi took time out of her Grade 10 class to throw some oddly specific stats his way.

“She showed me the population of the world and the statistics of how many people end up making the NHL, basically trying to give me the reality of the situation,” recalled the 32-year-old Flames winger of a memorable exchange 17 years ago at Vancouver’s Killarney Secondary.

“I don’t want to say she doubted me, but I kind of just smiled and laughed at her and said, ‘Well, somebody’s got to make it.’”

Against all odds, he was convinced he’d be that ‘somebody.’

“I was always the kid who believed in myself, regardless of not getting drafted in the WHL or playing for the best organizations or team as a kid,” said Lucic, reflecting on the ride that led to his 14-year NHL career.

“Whenever anyone asked me, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ There was only one answer. I never had a backup plan.”

Turns out he didn’t need one, as East Vancouver’s biggest dreamer will hit a nice round number Tuesday in Toronto when he plays his 1,000th NHL game.

Much like he remembers that schoolroom exchange, it’s hardly surprising the man with the encyclopedic mind can vividly remember his very first game, played in Dallas as a 19-year-old.

Milan Lucic celebrates a goal during his time with the Bruins. (Elise Amendola/AP)

“I remember seeing Mike Modano wheeling around with his hair flowing on the other side, thinking, ‘Wow, I’m really about to play in the NHL,’” chuckled Lucic, who was sure he’d soon be sent down to re-join the Vancouver Giants to defend the Memorial Cup.

“We lost 4-1. I played six minutes. I fought Brad Winchester, that was the highlight of the day. It was one of those premeditated ones where you’re like, ‘Wanna go?’ I felt like if I fought it would give me the best chance to stick in the NHL. A lot of people might not know this, but I fought three times in five pre-season games, then four times in the first 10 games. That’s seven times in 15 games." (See, his math is fine).

“Actually, it was really funny, my last year in Boston (coach) Claude (Julien) told me if I didn’t hold my own the way I did in those 15 games and seven fights, they would have sent me back to junior. Say what you want about fighting, for me it was a big reason why I made and stuck in the NHL. I’m happy I did it and would have no problem doing it again if that’s what it took.”

Whatever it takes is what Lucic has always been willing to do.

Given his rugged approach to the game, Lucic is very much unlike most of the 350 people who have previously hit the NHL’s century mark. He is one the league’s perennial hit leaders who has dropped the gloves 77 times while adding 537 points.

Numbers even Ms. Agadachi should appreciate.

His six-foot-three, 231-pound frame is an inch or two shorter than it should be due to Scheuermann’s Disease, a hunched back condition discovered when he was in his mid-teens. It was right around that time the big kid from his tiny, Tier 2 association in a rugged part of town was overlooked in the WHL’s bantam draft.

“Devastating — I honestly felt like my hockey life and career and dreams were over that day,” said Lucic, who was soon buoyed by invites to six different WHL camps and thoughts of going the U.S. college route.

Alas, after a looksee, Kamloops coach Dean Clark told Lucic he wasn’t Blazers material, leaving the feisty son of Serbian immigrants with nothing but a walk-on tryout with the Junior B Delta Ice Hawks.

“He showed up in camp and the first thing you see is this big guy, and every time he stepped on the ice he gave his heart and could do everything,” said Ice Hawks coach Shane Kuss.

“We thought, ‘This might be a guy to put with two of our highly skilled vets,’ and from there he took the ball and ran with it. I remember one game he had a couple goals early on against a tough, older team and a guy challenged him, and (Lucic) beat him up pretty good. I looked at my assistant coach and said, ‘Well, he’s not going to be here very long.’ We knew he’d move up pretty quick from there. Little did we know two years after playing with us, he’d be in the NHL.”

Well before Christmas he jumped to the Coquitlam Express of the B.C. Junior League and capped the year by debuting with the WHL’s Giants. It was there he won a Memorial Cup in his hometown as tourney MVP and was a second-round pick of the Boston Bruins.

His days of toiling in obscurity were well past him.

It was in Boston where he’d continue defying the odds to be a Stanley Cup champion and 30-goal scorer with one of the league’s winningest franchises over eight years.

“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to (former Bruins GM) Peter Chiarelli and Claude Julien because they were the ones that gave me a chance to make the Boston Bruins as a 19-year-old,” said Lucic.

“I was pretty raw, but they saw something in me and believed in me and thought I could handle it even if I wasn’t totally ready in 2007. They rode me hard for eight years after that. They never made anything easy for me and held me accountable for a lot of things.”

He also heaped praise on Boston assistant Geoff Ward, as well as Darryl Sutter, who helped him get through a tough time in Los Angeles in 2015 after a trade by the Bruins and his father’s suicide.

A passionate family man, Lucic heaps praise on wife Brittany and his three young kids, who will be watching dad on TV with friends while wearing sparkly jackets and shoes Brittany had made commemorating the milestone event.

He also gives credit to Vancouver strength and conditioning guru Ian Gallagher, who has helped mold Lucic’s unique frame since he was 17.

“Without him helping me take care of my body, I don’t think getting to this mark would be possible, given the way I play,” said Lucic, who has 1,357 penalty minutes, including playoffs.

“Durability is what he’s built for,” said Gallagher, whose son Brendan plays for the Canadiens. “He’s got a torso and core and power that was meant to persevere that punishment, and he put the work in. He knew his identity and how to prepare himself. He embraced the work and all of that. Pretty lucky to work with people like Milan in the hockey community because it reinforces to us everything today’s players have to do.”

A five-time 20-goal scorer who has altered his game over the years to be a team leader as a third-line grinder, people forget Lucic was once so dominating he was invited to Canadian Olympic team camps in 2010 and 2014.

“My initial reaction was, ‘Really? Me? I had only played two years and I’m looking around at camp and see guys like Sidney Crosby, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger and Marty Brodeur and I say, ‘This is pretty cool I’m actually around these guys,’” chuckled Lucic, who has amassed 76 points in 124 playoff tilts.

“I’d never played for Team Canada so I never knew guys outside of the Bruins and the Giants. The second invite, we just won a cup and lost in a final to Chicago and I was one of the last cuts. I was having a good year but they decided to go with Matt Duchene and Jamie Benn over me, which was obviously a good decision because they ended up winning.

"It was one of those moments I pinched myself as I had a chance to make the Olympic team, which was in Vancouver. Can you imagine if we could have added that to the list — a Vancouver kid in Vancouver on the Olympic team? It would have added to the whole story.”

As it is, the story is pretty cool.

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