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Ryan Getzlaf: Still in the Driver’s Seat

Ryan Getzlaf could have gone elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent during the Anaheim rebuild. But he remains at the wheel with every intention of taking things full circle.
Ryan Getzlaf

By now, of course, we’ve all had a chance to look over the April 2009 issue of Neurobiology of Aging. 

Heck, most of us probably flipped through it while standing in line at the grocery store, choosing to catch up on our favorite scientific journal instead of checking in on what’s new in the world of those who are young, restless or, heaven forbid, both. (Oh, curse you, Victor Newman.)

But for those who are foggy on the details, which is ironically fitting, perhaps we’ll skip to the most newsworthy bit for a refresher. Among the research found in the journal was that of professor Timothy Salthouse, whose seven-year study found cognitive skills began their slow and steady descent around age 27, with memory starting to decline around 37. And, hey, anecdotally, it’s hard to argue there.

Once the greys start creeping in, so, too, do the instances of asking oneself what exactly it is you were intending to do when you entered a room, and the occasions where remembering what you choked down for breakfast is a lost cause.

Given Salthouse’s findings, it’s easy enough to let Ryan Getzlaf off the hook when he’s asked if he can recall his first NHL point. Sure, some players are said to have memories like steel traps. Notably, Sidney Crosby has a mental rolodex of every point he’s registered. But while Crosby is getting up there in age, he’s not as long in the tooth as Getzlaf, who celebrated his 36th birthday in May and finds himself right in Salthouse’s fading-memory wheelhouse.

This is to say that when asked to recall the first time his name appeared on an NHL game summary, Getzlaf responded with near incredulity. “My memory is not that great to begin with, let alone trying to remember individual points,” Getzlaf said.

In his defense, this might not be an age thing. At least not entirely. As he inches closer to that 37th-year milestone, Getzlaf has a lot more on his mind – and a much deeper pool of big-league memories – than he did in those early days. Four young children at home will do that to a guy, as will a career that has spanned 17 seasons and more than 1,200 games across the regular season and the playoffs.

There’s also the matter of the sheer mental real estate memorizing every single point he’s put up would take up in Getzlaf’s mind. In mid-November, Getzlaf became the 92nd player in NHL history to reach the 1,000-point plateau. He’s one of only 45 players to score at least 1,000 points with one franchise, too, and his offensive output in Anaheim has given him an additional place in the league’s lore.

On Oct. 31, the Ducks captain netted his 989th point, surpassing Teemu Selanne as the Ducks’ all-time leading scorer. For the record – and to answer the trivia question Getzlaf couldn’t – that point, a primary assist on Troy Terry’s game-winner against Montreal, came 5,861 days after Getzlaf registered his first, which was a primary assist on a Joffrey Lupul goal against Columbus on Oct. 14, 2005.

Make no mistake that it was clear even back then Getzlaf was primed to have this level of scoring success. Former Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, who was behind the Ducks bench for the first seven seasons of Getzlaf’s career and an additional two-plus campaigns from 2016-17 to 2018-19, saw the early signs, most notably his dominance of the AHL as a rookie. “He had the ability to make plays,” Carlyle recalled of Getzlaf’s early years. “He could always make plays, he was strong on the puck. He was a big man. The thing is that he wasn’t intimidated by any of the situations that he was presented with and just continued to grow as an NHL player.”

What you quickly come to learn about Getzlaf, however, is that his offensive successes, the millennium milestone or franchise points-scoring record, don’t mean all that much to him. He’s proud of them, sure, but Getzlaf sees them as nothing more than his job and individual accomplishments in a sport where only team success is truly rewarded.

Plus, his approach to putting up points is too practical for him to accept plaudits and praise. “I always joked that if you play anywhere long enough, you’re going to break records,” he said. “It’s been a result of hard work and being blessed with playing with some great players. I’ve had a great surrounding cast around me for many years, guys who can put the puck in the net, and the points have gone along with that.”

Truth be told, Getzlaf isn’t wrong that his longevity aided in surpassing Selanne. In fact, Getzlaf set the franchise’s games-played record two seasons ago. (Coincidentally, it took the same number of games as it did points – 989 – to move into top spot.) But what Getzlaf is omitting is that this entire journey to the top spot could have been halted last season.

With the Ducks finding themselves in a period of transition the past few campaigns, leaning younger and bringing in fresh faces, Getzlaf was, for the first time in his career, playing for a Ducks outfit designed less to compete and more to rebuild its foundation with high-level prospects.

No moment made this metamorphosis clearer than the June 2019 buyout of Corey Perry, Getzlaf’s longtime running mate and someone the savvy center called “the most influential person in (his) career.” What followed was a steady decline and, eventually, the chance to make a decision.

In the final season of an eight-year, $66-million deal, and with full no-movement clause protection, chatter surfaced about the possibility of Getzlaf heading elsewhere as he entered the twilight of his career. True as it may have been he was mired in a career-worst scoring rut, there were no doubt teams who kicked the proverbial tires.

No trade came to fruition, however, and then-Ducks GM Bob Murray indicated one never came all that close. The decision was mutual, though, and Getzlaf made his commitment to Anaheim clear this summer. Allowed to test the market as a UFA for the first time in his career, Getzlaf took some calls and got insight into the free-agency process, but when push came to shove, the Regina, Sask., native decided his adopted home was where his heart was.

Getzlaf signed a one-year, $3-million deal – which, with bonuses, can rise to $4.5 million – to remain a Duck. “Over the trade deadline last year,” he said, “when I went through the possibility of being moved, and the summer, it definitely solidified the fact I really wanted to finish my career here and be in that sweater for the whole thing.”

Hitching his wagon to the Ducks, though, makes clear the direction Getzlaf’s career will take over the remaining years. No doubt, it differs from the shape it would have taken had he decided to bolt. In greener, Cup-contending pastures, Getzlaf could have played out his final seasons as a middle-of-the-lineup pivot and secondary scorer. No one would have blamed him for taking his final shots, either. He couldn’t do that, though. It’s difficult to separate the desire to win – and win now – with what he feels he owes to Anaheim.

To Getzlaf’s way of thinking, the Ducks have never wavered on him. The organization gave him every opportunity and committed to him every step of the way. That weighs on Getzlaf, as does his yearning to do for the next generation of Ducks what the past generation did for him. “I feel a certain responsibility and pride in leaving the dressing room better than I came into it,” Getzlaf said. “If that means I can help some of these young kids along, that’s great. If that means we can change things in the organization to be better, that’s great. I enjoy being around the guys, I enjoy being around the dressing room, and I enjoy trying to make people better around me. That’s the mindset I go in with every day.”

As someone who has had the luxury of watching Getzlaf grow up from a spot on the bench, Carlyle isn’t the least bit surprised to see Getzlaf embrace that role at this point in his career.

Carlyle noted Getzlaf’s ascendence to the captaincy – which was, in a sense, untraditional as it was decided by player vote instead of by management – came about because the then-Ducks saw in Getzlaf exactly the qualities he now displays. “He’s an icon in the franchise for his accomplishments on the ice,” Carlyle said. “But then there’s all the stuff that happens off the ice in the captaincy role and the leadership role and the community-service role. All those things are a big part. People don’t understand how many things he’s asked to do and how many things he represents the organization in, and he’s done an excellent job being the face of the franchise since those other players moved on.”

For his part, as he considers what it means to be the greybeard in the room, Getzlaf chuckles to himself about adopting the dad-isms he swore he’d never repeat and how he feels as the player in the room with the most miles on his body. (“Every other morning it feels like I’ve been in the league for 17 years,” he quipped.) Getzlaf also sounds a lot like the old pro he is when he mentions the young guys walking into the room talking about “God knows what.”

But there are upsides, too. It’s been said that youthful energy can breathe new life into the careers of veterans in much the same way a puppy can give a jolt to an old hound, and Getzlaf buys into that theory. He admits there are times when a career as long as his can hit its lulls. But this campaign hasn’t been one of those times.

He’s enjoying the game more this season than he has in recent years. He’s also finding fulfillment in being able to pass along lessons he’s learned. “Age gives you wisdom,” Getzlaf said. “A lot of things I talk about are experiences in my own life, whether they were good or bad, I pass them along if the kids are interested. I love helping people who want to be helped, and luckily enough, we have a pretty good group down here that we’re able to work through some things and get better and better all the time.”

The on-ice results, at least early in the season, bore that out. Pre-season prognostications were not kind to the Ducks despite their place in what is considered the weakest division in the NHL. Expectations were that this would be another transition year.

Yet Anaheim found itself among the Pacific Division’s leaders through more than one-fifth of the campaign, and, if nothing else, the Ducks were showing signs of growth, of a winning attitude, of true, honest-to-goodness promise.

And speaking of promise, there are a couple players who are doing what Getzlaf did all those years ago. Watch a Ducks game these days and you can start to see the shift in power, the talent of those waiting in the wings. Players such as Trevor Zegras, Jamie Drysdale and Isac Lundestrom are beginning to come along, and it’s been impossible to ignore what Troy Terry has been able to accomplish through the first quarter.

Given Getzlaf’s records-are-made-to-be-broken outlook, there’s a tinge of genuine excitement as he ponders whether his record will ever be broken, if he’ll ever get to be the one handing out the gold puck rather than receiving it. “Well, there’s definitely a few kids that are working towards that,” he said. “We’ve got some great young talent in our locker room right now, and they have an opportunity to do a lot of things, whether that be break my record or bring another Cup to Anaheim or whatever it is. I would gladly be there to support and help and pass that torch if that time comes.” 

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