Stastny's lifelong love for hockey still burns ahead of 1,000th NHL game

Winnipeg Jets veteran Paul Stastny discusses how honoured he feels to reach the 1,000 game mark in the NHL, and takes this opportunity to thank the people that helped him get here.

WINNIPEG — Paul Stastny is like a chameleon.

No matter where you put him — either on or off the ice — the veteran Winnipeg Jets centre usually finds a way to fit right in.

He’s quick to make a connection with teammates and has a genuine zest for life and learning that has served him well as he prepares to play his 1,000th NHL game on Tuesday night against the Vancouver Canucks.

The milestone moment is something he’s going to cherish for quite some time, even though it’s arrived during one of the toughest stretches of the season for the Jets, who have dropped nine of the past 10 games after falling 3-1 to the Canucks on Monday.

When you look at his lineage — his father Peter is a Hall of Famer, his uncles Anton and Marian were NHLers, as was his older brother Yan — a career on the ice seems like a natural fit, if not a foregone conclusion.

While it’s certainly turned out that way, Paul participated in a number of sports growing up before eventually choosing hockey and finding a way to turn it into a vocation.

“I always loved it. I feel like I’m a kid out there when I’m watching or when I’m on the ice playing. There is nothing better in the world than that,” Stastny said during an interview earlier this season. “I was a late bloomer. I tried to play as many sports as possible. Today you see it in a lot of sports, where you have these 365-days-a-year athletes and they specialize in one sport all of the time. Sometimes it turns out and sometimes it doesn’t. Growing up with a European background, my dad and my mom were big believers that they wanted us to be active. In the summers, a lot of time we wouldn’t play hockey or we’d play once or twice a week. The other times we were playing soccer, tennis or roller hockey. Just doing other stuff. In a sense, it probably helps with hockey because you’re working on agility or hand-eye (co-ordination).

“At the same time, it also gives you a mental break from being on the ice all the time. When you’re that young, you don’t really want to focus on one thing because it’s not a job. It’s a hobby and a sport you want to play. As you get older, it becomes kind of a full-time hobby/job. Then there comes a time where you do start specializing. As we got older, we just gravitated to playing more and more hockey.”

That obviously turned out to be a wise decision.

As for the milestone itself, Stastny was reflective in a Zoom call ahead of puck drop Tuesday, but also made sure to shine a light on the people that helped him reach this point.

“Yeah, it means a lot. I think it just means you've done a pretty good job your whole career, been a consistent player. It's just an honour to be able to play the game this long, and to keep having fun and enjoy it,” he said. “Call it a job, but from four or five years old to me it's always been what I love to do, and I still love to do it. So the love's still in the game and that's the most important thing for me. I enjoy it, my family enjoys it. So if they're happy, I'm happy, then we're all happy, so that makes it a little easier

“Something like today to me more is just about an opportunity to thank the people who got me here, whether it's my parents or my brothers and sisters, they're always my biggest supporters and always have my back and always want the best for me. They get a lot of love internally, quietly. I'm not a guy who likes the public limelight. But it's times like these I can thank them for everything they've done and everything they still do for me.”

When a question was posed about how he would describe his career to this point, Stastny was uncomfortable shining a light on himself.

“Pretty good. I don’t know, I’m not one to talk about it, would prefer you ask other guys,” said Stastny. “You know, I’ve learned a lot, I’ve enjoyed every step I’ve had. I had no regrets. When there have been bumps in the road, I’ve looked at the positives that came out of it. You know, every team I’ve played on, every year I’ve been in, I think I’ve grown from there and matured from all those situations. And I think that’s something I take a lot of pride in.”

After being chosen in the second round (44th overall) of the 2005 NHL Draft, Stastny broke into the NHL during the 2006-07 season with the Colorado Avalanche on a team that included future Hall of Famer Joe Sakic and his other stops include the St. Louis Blues, Vegas Golden Knights and two stints with the Jets.

“I play a simple game, but I think it’s very effective,” said Stastny, who was reacquired by the Jets in a trade with the Golden Knights on Oct. 9. “In today’s age, there are so many people that try to do the fanciest things and sometimes overcomplicate it. The less is more or work smarter, not harder mentality has always stuck with me.

“When you have that hockey sense or IQ, part of that is being able to adapt and being able to evolve and keep trying to tinker with your game and not ever being satisfied.”

Stastny has often spoken about the importance of having his father as a sounding board in both good times and bad.

That’s been a valuable resource, both in Stastny’s younger years and then later on when he transitioned into the veteran phase of his NHL career.

“He’s a student of the game. Most people don’t have dads who are in the Hall of Fame. The way that he grew up and how much he was around the game is a lot more than most,” said former NHL defenceman Matt Carle, a teammate of Stastny’s in the USHL with the River City Lancers and in the NCAA with the University of Denver Pioneers.

“He knows so much about everybody in the game today and from the past. It’s pretty much been a part of his life since the day he was born.”

Stastny’s passion for hockey is evident to anyone who’s been engaged in a conversation with him.

“He was a typical rink rat. He’s a hockey junkie. He loved hockey and he talked about hockey and he followed hockey and he studied hockey,” said former University of Denver head coach George Gwozdecky, who had Stastny for two seasons before he turned pro. “He knew trivia and all of this kind of stuff.”

That passion persists even into his 15th NHL season.

"He’s a phenomenal resource because he can articulate the game. He can recall plays,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice on Tuesday. “That number, 1000, you’ve seen an awful lot of things in the league — different systems that were run, different plays that were run. He’s great to talk to. What he’s got is a really good general feel of what’s going on, besides specific plays. Those guys you get to. ‘How’s it going, what are you thinking? How’s the power play?’ He’s just got so much experience. There are lots of players with lots of experience, but they don’t capture it the same way.

“I’ve felt Paul Stastny is as close to Ron Francis as any player I’ve coached. That’s what Ronny’s incredible strength was. He could, as a player, articulate the game from a coach’s point of view. They played it the same way. Either guy, not blinding speed, but because of their reads on the ice, they got to the right spots. They’re very responsible defensively and then those great small-area hands. There aren’t a lot of guys that are really good offensive players that are really good defensive players as well. There might even be fewer and fewer of those guys. Some of these guys coming in now are pure offensive guys and haven’t spent time valuing the other side of the puck. Paul is a throwback in his style of play.”

Stastny, who has 13 goals and 29 points in 54 games this season, is constantly in conversation with teammates or a member of the coaching staff, whether it’s during a practice or a game situation.

“He’s just a hockey man. If you want to talk hockey to a guy you go talk to Paul Stastny,” Maurice said recently. “He’s got great experience, a great view of the game, a great love of the game. His entire life would have been in some ways in the NHL. His dad’s a player there, he’s around the NHL room.

“He’s spent his entire life as a really important player on every team that he's played. He’s a great encyclopedia of the game. What’s happening now, what it was like 10, 20 years ago. If you like talking hockey, (Stastny) is a great guy to have a coffee with.”

He’s also a great guy to play on a line with.

Stastny has long been known for making the players around him better, and that quality was on display long before he made it to the NHL.

“He enjoyed making plays more than he did scoring. He really was a heady player, a great playmaker,” said Gwozdecky. “Whoever we put on his line, you knew that he was going to score big because Paul knew how to delay, he knew how to buy time and he would make a beautiful dish for an easy tap-in.

“He’s one of those guys who is a great point guard. His strength is knowing where that play is going to be before it happens. He’s got great anticipation skills and great smarts.”

Stastny isn’t just curious about how things are done, he wants to know why certain decisions are being made and if there might not be alternative solutions that might yield even better results.

“He was always in pursuit of why — and 'What about this? or 'What do you think of this?'” said Minnesota State University-Mankato head coach Mike Hastings, who was Stastny’s bench boss in the USHL for two seasons with the River City Lancers. “And you better be real honest because he would call you on it. And not in an irritating or a challenging way, but in an inquisitive way like ‘I don’t understand that.’ There was a knowledge base because of the environment that he’d been in growing up. Seeing some of the best players in the world and being around them in his own house, he had an understanding that others at that level hadn’t experienced.

“There was always a confidence in what he was doing. When we first got him, he was still underdeveloped physically, but there was a quiet confidence. He wanted to play with the best players and there was always an expectation of success.”

Even when some questions persisted about whether his skating might prevent him from becoming an elite player, Stastny kept finding ways to quiet those doubters.

“Some people said ‘He can’t skate’ and I could never figure out what that meant. But my thinking was that people thought he wasn’t fast enough or quick enough,” said Gwozdecky. “And yet, with his brain, he was playing chess and everybody else is playing checkers on the ice. He loved to work on his game and you knew that his skating would improve. He would probably never become a burner, but he didn’t need to be.”

While the longevity is impressive, Stastny’s ability to perform at a consistently high level is what stands out to his teammates.

“Just an amazing pro and battles every game. Just kind of one of those guys that does everything right every single night and that’s why he’s not only lasted as long as he has but had the type of success he’s had in the NHL,” said Jets captain Blake Wheeler.

“So it’s been just unreal to be his teammate and certainly a great friend as well. It’s going to be a big night for him.”

Earlier this season, Stastny passed his father for games played in the NHL (977), and though he won’t pass him in points (1,239), there are more important dreams he’s pursuing.

“A lot of guys his age that are still playing, they’ve had to make adjustments to their game. He still can play in any situation,” said Carle. “Those guys don’t come around very often and it’s not a surprise that he’s been around as long as he has.

“Guys that stick around that long, that’s usually the case. It’s all about winning. Come playoff time, whatever team he’s on is who I’m cheering for because it would be fun to see him win a Stanley Cup.”

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