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Avs' ironman Skrastins set to break Horton's record Thursday night

The 32-year-old Latvian hasn't been scratched from an NHL lineup in seven years. "Yeah, it sounds funny," the Colorado Avalanche defenceman said Wednesday.

On Thursday night against the Atlanta Thrashers, Skrastins will become the league's all-time ironman at that position, breaking the late Tim Horton's record of 486 consecutive games.

"The record means a lot to me," Skrastins said. "It's one of those things that I can be proud about. I'm not a big goal-scorer, I don't get a lot of points. Tomorrow's game is one of those games that I'll remember for all of my life. It really means a lot to me. I'm very proud about this."

Here was Skrastins on an NHL media conference call, taking questions from reporters around the continent.

Before this streak came to light, he pretty much went about his business for seven seasons without anyone really noticing him.

"He's as under the radar as any guy I've ever been around," Avs head coach Joel Quenneville said Wednesday from Denver. "But it's well-deserved. He's one guy that really doesn't want attention, doesn't want accolades. But it's a great honour."

Former centre Doug Jarvis has the longest streak by any player, an amazing 964 games in a row from 1975 to '87.

Playing defence, some would argue, is a more challenging role from a physical point of view, which is why Horton's record has stood for so long. The Hall of Famer played in 486 straight for the Toronto Maple Leafs from Feb. 11, 1961, to Feb. 4, 1968.

"I've heard about him a lot," Skrastins said of Horton, who died tragically in a car crash in 1974 while a member of the Buffalo Sabres. "Tomorrow is the game where I break his record and after that I promised myself I want to find out more about him.

"Right now I just know he was a good defenceman, he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, and he played until he was 44 years old. That's amazing. I heard he was a tough and good defenceman."

Skrastins loves the legacy Horton left behind, the Tim Hortons doughnut chain.

"Every time I'm in Canada it's my favourite coffee shop," said Skrastins. "I love coffee and when I'm in America I drink Starbucks but when I'm in Canada I always go to Tim Hortons."

If Horton were alive today, he'd probably be OK with the guy breaking his record.

Skrastins comes by his craft honestly, a tough-as-nails defenceman who does what needs to be done to clear the puck from danger.

"He'll pay the price, whatever it is, to break up a play," said Quenneville.

Which makes the streak even more noteworthy. Skrastins isn't your finesse, puck-moving blue-liner. He puts himself in harm's way every night.

"He kills penalties, pucks are flying around him, he always gets in the lane of the shot, he's a shot blocker, he's a scrappy, get-in-the-way type guy," said Quenneville.

"He had a couple of issues last year that I don't know many guys would have even thought about playing," the coach added. "You could tell he was really compromised. But there was no complaints and he went about his business. He was still as scrappy as ever."

Skrastins played through a painful rib injury last season. No surprise there. He played through a knee injury late in the 2001-02 season with the Nashville Predators before having surgery after the season ended.

In 2003-04 with Colorado, he played with a broken wrist. Seriously.

"But my team doctors and trainers did a big, big job, they made a nice wrist pad for me," said Skrastins. "I played one game, a second game, and I was feeling good. Of course I was feeling pain but it didn't bother me from playing my game."

For Skrastins, it's mind over matter.

"I've had a lot of injuries during the streak, almost every year I had something," he said. "But pain is kind of part of our game. If I can get through the pain I'm going to play."

He stressed, though, that he's not crazy. He won't play one day if it's really too much.

"I'm not going to jeopardize my health if it's something that's really, really serious," said Skrastins. "But if I feel like I can keep playing and keep practising, I will do it. Because I love what I do."

What's equally impressive to the streak is that it was nearly longer. He's missed only one NHL game in his career, a shoulder injury preventing him from lacing them up Feb. 18, 2000, against St. Louis during his rookie year with the Predators.

Had he played, he'd be going into his 525th consecutive game Thursday night.

"Now I'm kind of thinking about that," he said with a laugh. "Had I known this would have gone this far, maybe. . . . But I think that shoulder injury was too serious for me. I remember skating that morning skate and I didn't feel good and that's why I didn't play that game."

The NHL hasn't been his only workload. Since beginning his ironman streak, Skrastins has also played in four IIHF world championships and two Olympics Games.

One would think he'd take a break at some point.

"When it gets closer to the world championships, it's hard to say 'No,"' he said. "Because in Latvia, the national team means a lot. Hockey is the No. 1 sport in Latvia.

"We don't have a lot of NHL players who can help our team so if I have a chance and I'm healthy. I'm always glad and excited to play for the national team."


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