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Are all Ironman Streaks Created Equal?

Doug Jarvis and Keith Yandle have accomplished something remarkable. But they've overcome very different obstacles playing in very different eras.
DougJarvis

The fun thing about ironman streaks in sports: they tend to last a long time. Lou Gehrig’s stood for 56 years in Major League Baseball before Cal Ripken Jr. blazed through it. Jim Marshall held the NFL record for consecutive starts at any position for 30 years before Brett Favre eclipsed it. Randy Smith held it in the NBA for 14 years before A.C. Green topped it.

Doug Jarvis, who won four Stanley Cups and a Selke Trophy as a player, has owned the NHL ironman record for more than 34 years. When he spoke to media Monday, he was enjoying the final hours of having it to himself. Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Keith Yandle, set to play in Monday night’s home game against the Dallas Stars, was about to tie the streak at 964 games, crossing his fingers he can stay healthy one more game and beat it Tuesday night on the road against the New York Islanders.

Because these streaks last so long, with each ironman becoming a symbol of enduring invincibility, sports tend to change drastically in the decades between the passing of the torches. How different was the NHL during Jarvis’ streak, which spanned from Oct. 8, 1975 to Oct. 10, 1987, compared to Yandle’s streak, which commenced March 26, 2009?

During Jarvis’ streak, which coincided with the peak of fighting frequency, there was a lot more overt danger on the ice on any given night. Not every player wore a helmet. Few wore visors. The were about five times as many fights per game as we see today. Hits to the head were legal. At the same time, ignorance was bliss when it came to playing hurt. Medical professionals simply didn’t know as much about what hockey did to the body, and players were allowed to grind through more injuries. Jarvis can think of at least one incident that would’ve cost him the streak had it occurred today. He estimates it came about 700 games into his streak when he was a Washington Capital.

“Near the end of the game, trying for an empty net, I got bodychecked at the center of the ice, helmet partially came off, and I didn’t remember a thing until the back of my head was stitched up,” Jarvis said. “Certainly in today’s game, that would’ve ended the streak at that point, with the concussion protocols that are in place. But at that time, I was checked out, it seemed like, ‘Why can’t you keep playing?’ and I did. That was probably the closest I came to having the streak end.”

Yandle has navigated a different environment which offers its own advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, Yandle’s streak has come during the cleanest, safest era of NHL hockey. We get about one fight every five games today. Yandle’s streak has overlapped with the NHL’s reinforcement of obstruction, slashing and cross-checking penalties and the advent of Rule 48.1 prohibiting illegal checks to the head.

On the other hand, those enhanced safety rules threaten ironman streaks on the other side of the coin, as it’s easier to get in trouble with the league now. Yandle’s been a relatively clean defenseman for his entire career, never missing time due to supplemental discipline, but there’s always the threat of being suspended for an illegal play. Andrew Cogliano would never be called a dirty player, but his ironman streak screeched to a halt at 830 games in 2018 when he earned a two-game ban for interference.

The game is also far faster now than it was during Jarvis’ career. Collisions are like car crashes. With so much more knowledge about health, too, team doctors are far more cautious with their athletes when they do get hurt. They don’t play through as nearly as many maladies as they did in Jarvis’ day.

It’s the era of load management, when few goalies play more than 60 percent of their teams’ games and players sometimes magically heal from long-term injuries just in time for the start of the post-season when their salary-cap hits don’t count anymore. It’s also, of course, the COVID-19 era, in which more than 75 percent of the league has landed in protocol this season alone, per Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli. That makes Yandle’s streak incredibly impressive for very different reasons.

“This era that we’re in, this COVID era, there’s a lot of things that can derail a player,” Jarvis said. “…The way the speed of the game has picked up, the size of the players, to be able to put a streak together like he has put together in today’s era, my hat’s off to him.”

So Jarvis and Yandle have gotten to 964 in different ways. That doesn’t change the respect they have for one another at all. Jarvis hasn’t spoken directly with Yandle yet, but says he has Yandle’s phone number and looks forward to congratulating him after Game 965. Perhaps what makes them kindred spirits, aside from the record itself, is a mutual love of hockey. Jarvis believes his passionate desire to be in the lineup every night played a crucial role in him setting the ironman record, and he sees it in Yandle, too.

“It takes a lot of commitment, it takes a lot of character, and it takes a real love for the game," Jarvis said, "and I want to commend him on all those things.”

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