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Keith Yandle: Keep on Trucking

Keith Yandle has gained a lot of skills on his way to playing 922 consecutive NHL games. it all started with a lesson from his hardworking parents on Day 1.
Keith Yandle

When it comes to forward thinking, Keith Yandle is definitely a beg-for-forgiveness-rather-than-ask-for-permission guy. 

Even when he’s aware of a commitment weeks in advance, he’s notorious for not letting people know until the last minute, which can sometimes make him really popular at the dinner table. His wife has been trying to get him to use the calendar on his phone for the past five years and has failed miserably in that endeavor. It’s just one of the many ways Yandle rolls. “Even when I was a kid, if I knew a week in advance about a sleepover, I would spring it on my parents the night before,” he said. “Even little things like the kids having piano lessons. I’d rather know that morning than the week before and figure it out as it comes. I’ve always been living for one day at a time, and it seems to be working out pretty decently.”

So it’s safe to say that Yandle does not have the Philadelphia Flyers’ home game against the Detroit Red Wings on Jan. 18, 2022 circled on his calendar. Or entered into his phone for that matter. That is the night Yandle, should he dress in each of the Flyers’ first 42 games of the season, will become the NHL’s all-time ironman, playing in his 965th straight game and breaking the record Doug Jarvis will have held for almost 35 years. 

It will be a triumph on many levels, not the least of which will be validating Yandle’s approach to his profession, which is born of that penchant for living in the moment. Show up for work today, do the best you can, take an ice bath and have a scotch, then do it all again tomorrow. The last time Yandle watched from the press box as his team played a (regular-season) game, he was healthy-scratched by none other than Wayne Gretzky, so, like, he’s got that going for him. There have been some close calls since March 26, 2009, the day he drew back into the Phoenix Coyotes’ lineup, the most perilous of which came last season when the Florida Panthers floated the idea of sitting him out of the opening-night lineup if he did not waive his no-move clause. This gambit proved as much when Yandle landed on Florida’s No. 1 power play in their first game. 

As he has done throughout his career, Yandle produced in that first game and played the next 55 to keep his streak intact before the Panthers bought him out in the off-season. The Flyers, looking to renovate their defense corps, quickly snagged the 35-year-old on a one-year, $900,000 deal. “Everything worked out,” Yandle said. “And there are no hard feelings there.”

Now close your eyes and say the following words: Bud Yandle. If you don’t picture a working-class Boston guy who drove from midnight until 9 a.m. for FedEx trucking to New Jersey and back every day for more than 30 years without complaining, you’re not trying hard enough. That’s nine hours a day behind the wheel of a double tractor-trailer with nothing but his lunch and a library of cassette tapes. Yandle’s mother, Patti, showed the same consistency and dedication as a dispatcher for FedEx, willing herself to work late in her career despite suffering from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis. She just recently retired after 40 years and was one of the first employees of the company. They were the ones who set the template for their son. 

And it wasn’t only work ethic that Keith received from his father. Yandle is known as one of the funniest players in the NHL and can eviscerate teammates and friends with legendary one-liners – in a most loving way, of course. He remembers teammate Shane Doan telling him early in his career that it requires much less energy to be a good guy than a bad one. “Whenever (Doan) said something, I always listened to what he said,” Yandle said, “unless it was how to dress. His Wrangler jeans…” Yandle remembers there were times when he was a rising star as a teenager and coaches from college programs called his household to try to set up a recruiting meeting. “I think the Harvard coach and the Brown coach used to call, and (my dad) was like, ‘If my kid could spell your school, I’d send him there,’ ” he said. “If you ever want to talk to (Bud), you’d better clock out about 45 minutes because he can talk. He can talk underwater.”

Yandle always marvelled at the energy levels and resilience his parents displayed when he was growing up. When Bud wasn’t driving a FedEx truck, he was working other jobs and coaching high-school hockey in suburban Boston, while his mother worked full-time and ran a busy household with three rambunctious kids. 

“The good thing was my mom was the kind of person who could make chicken soup out of chicken sh--. Any meal we had was what we had in the house, and it was unbelievable. It was one of those things where we never felt that we didn’t have anything that anyone else had, but there were times we were grinding it out with no hot water. But it’s all good.”

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It’s all good indeed. Give or take a bazillion dollars or so, Yandle has pulled down slightly more than $63 million to this point in his career. When he moved on from the Panthers in the summer, he sold his Fort Lauderdale house for $6 million, which was about $1.5 million more than he paid for it five years ago. But it does have an elevator, putting green and 6.5 bathrooms. When you establish yourself as the most durable player in the NHL in an era when staying healthy for long stretches is more challenging than ever, you’re going to get paid. And it’s even better when you don’t just show up for work every day, but you contribute. 

Since Yandle became a full-time NHL regular in 2008-09, only Patrick Marleau and Andrew Cogliano, both owners of lengthy ironman streaks of their own, have played more games. But he has also been remarkably consistent as an offensive producer. Among blueliners, only Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson have outscored Yandle in that time. If you prorate Yandle’s three truncated seasons over 82 games – 2012-13 because of a lockout and the past two seasons because of the pandemic – he has 12 straight seasons of at least 40 points to his credit.

And were you aware that, among defensemen, Yandle is almost 200 games clear of the next player on the ironman list (Jay Bouwmeester at 737)? There have been some dicey moments, however. 

Back in 2016, Yandle took an Aaron Ekblad shot to the foot in his 577th consecutive game and left the contest after playing fewer than five minutes. Tom Rowe, the gentleman who was coaching the Panthers at that time, opined Yandle would be out for “a while.” Well, a while turned out to be less than 24 hours, as Yandle was in the lineup for the Panthers the next night, thereby robbing Dylan McIlrath of an opportunity to make an impact. And even though he was a healthy scratch for three of the six games between the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning in the playoffs last season, his streak remained officially intact.

“Even when I’m not feeling good, I try to convince myself that I am feeling good,” Yandle said. “There have definitely been some times where the trainers have been, ‘Ah, maybe it would be better if you sat it out.’ A lot of it, to be honest, is a serious fear of missing out, FOMO. Even a little thing like going out to dinner on the road. If you’re hurt and you miss a road trip you might miss out on something fun happening. My FOMO probably has a little bit to do with it as well.”

Yandle wants to make clear that after he was bought out by the Panthers and was looking for a new team, the ironman streak did not even come up. At no time did he ask for any guarantees from the Flyers that he’d play in every game.

So it could end anytime. But it likely won’t because, even at 35, Yandle very much belongs among the Flyers’ top six defensemen. If he manages to play all 82 games this season, Yandle will become the first player in NHL history to top 1,000 consecutive games and will finish 2021-22 at 1,004. It will be interesting to see where all this goes, particularly with Phil Kessel entering the season with a 900-game ironman streak of his own. Yandle is on a one-year deal in Philadelphia and Kessel is on the last year of his contract in Arizona. “I’m a guy who wants to earn everything I get, not be handed anything,” Yandle said. “That’s kind of just the way I am.” 

This article originally appeared in The Hockey News' Numbers Issue.

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