Ninety-nine percent of the time, the lessons of professional sports are lessons in humility. Hostage to the whims of chance, unexpected bounces and bad breaks to begin with, athletes don’t even have the consolation of knowing years of experience are guaranteed to bring them that much closer to their ultimate goal.
That’s why I’m always fascinated and impressed to watch once-great hockey players deal with the punches doled out by Father Time and slipping skills. Steve Yzerman is perhaps the NHL’s most famous example of a superstar-turned-role-player, but the league’s history is laden with stories like his.
Funny how superstars in other sports rarely adapt to the twilight of their careers as gracefully as NHLers do.
Basketball stars have a difficult enough time accepting a simple switch from the starting lineup to a bench role in the prime of their life, let alone drastically reduced on-court minutes toward the end of their playing days.
Top-level quarterbacks in the NFL don’t take too kindly to any suggestion they should be anything other than the clear-cut, without-a-doubt starter for as long as they can stand upright. And elite baseball pitchers sulk relentlessly at the mere mention of slotting them and their less-effective arms into long-relief jobs.
To be sure, there have been a handful of NHLers who’ve recoiled when confronted with the stark realities attached to the inevitable increase of aches and pains and slowdowns in speed. But there’s something about the team nature of hockey that’s made it possible for many of the game’s all-time greats to accept a lesser role than their resume would dictate.
And some have been fortunate enough to have their sacrifices rewarded with the gift of a lengthy playoff run.
Look no further than Dallas’ Mike Modano for a prime example. The first ballot Hall-of-Famer, who’ll turn 38 in June, was rumored to be in line for a toe tag at the end of last season after he was stripped of the Stars captaincy and a severe knee injury limited him to 43 points in 59 games.
Modano played much of the ’07-08 campaign on the second line, but was bumped down to third-line checking duties once the team acquired Brad Richards at the trade deadline.
Initially, he was not enthralled with the manner in which matters were playing out.
“(The adjustment has) taken some time,” Modano told the Dallas Morning News last week. “But I think I understand things better now.”
Strange how you always understand things better when your team is on a roll like the Stars are currently enjoying.
Jeremy Roenick, another American hockey legend, has recently discovered a similar level of patience and flexibility with the Sharks.
The man some call “Styles” was far from in vogue after two lackluster post-lockout seasons with Los Angeles and Phoenix. However, after he was humiliated by an off-season in which his agent could only solicit one GM (Doug Wilson) to inquire about his services, Roenick dedicated himself to a rigorous conditioning schedule and resurrected his career this year by leading San Jose in regular season, game-winning goals.
Even then, though, another slice of humble pie awaited Roenick. Sharks coach Ron Wilson put him in the press box for Game 6 of the team’s first round series against Calgary.
To be sure, it was another tin of tough beans for such a longtime star, but the famously talkative Roenick zipped his lips – and when he was re-inserted back into the lineup for Game 7, he put up one of his best post-season performances ever, scoring twice and adding two assists to push his team into the second round.
The old Roenick, he admitted, would not have taken the Game 6 sit-down as well as the older Roenick did.
“(There would have been) a lot of broken items in the locker room,” he told the Globe and Mail.
Either Modano or Roenick will have his championship aspirations dashed in the next week or so. But both have added polish to their legends, thanks largely to the type of selfless acts their chosen game is famous for.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News’ online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.
Enter THN’s Free Playoff Challenge for your chance to win a 2008 Harley-Davidson Night Rod Special Motorcycle. Contest closes at the start of the third round.