NHL's oldest player is hardly slowing down
Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau was asked on Sunday what he saw in a 42-year-old Teemu Selanne, now participating in his 19th NHL training camp.
“That he’s almost as old as me and looks just as good or better,” Boudreau answered.
Don’t sell yourself short, Gabby.
Selanne, 15 years Boudreau’s junior, enters the 2013 season as the league’s oldest player. It’s a transition that has gone largely unnoticed as 43-year-old Dwayne Roloson, the league’s last player born in the 1960s, quietly remains an unrestricted free agent.
But as Roloson struggled in his 42-year-old campaign with the Tampa Bay Lightning a season ago, Selanne led the Ducks in scoring at age 41 with 66 points, Finnish Flashing his trademark speed to gain leverage on defenders while appearing in all 82 games.
“For his age, he’s the best athlete in the world,” Boudreau continued. “You play this sport at 42 and you’re leading the team in scoring — there are older players playing in older sports, but they might be a kicker in football, or a pitcher in baseball, a relief pitcher, like a special one-out guy. But they don’t play the grind of having 16 to 20 minutes a night like he does against the best players at this level in the world.”
The “best athlete in the world” is about to receive the challenge of his career: staying healthy in a 48-game schedule against a league entirely comprised of younger players. As one of 10 active players who experienced the shortened season of 1994-95 — the others are Adrian Aucoin, Sergei Gonchar, Roman Hamrlik, Nikolai Khabibulin, Jamie Langenbrunner, Ryan Smyth, Martin Brodeur, Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr — he remembers the natural advantage of youth in such a compacted sprint.
“At that time I was young, so it was quite easy,” Selanne said. “But this is obviously going to be a bigger challenge, to recover from the game-to-game. It’s a big challenge for everybody.”
It’s much better than the alternative, which was a “rollercoaster” of emotion expressed throughout the volatile collective bargaining negotiations, a time that left him shaken and unsure when — if? — he would ever play again.
“When it started getting to the end, at least we knew whatever happens, at least we’re going to know,” Selanne said. “I think the worst thing was that you didn’t know what was going on, how long this was going to last. For sure there were a lot of days that when I was driving to the rink, and there were three, four guys skating, I was like ‘We are just wasting our time.’ Still, it was important, and obviously you try to stay positive and optimistic, and I’m so happy everything got together, and we’re back and playing.”
The season lost to the 2004-05 lockout was a much more forgiving experience for Selanne, allowing him a broader time frame to rehabilitate a surgically repaired knee following a disappointing 78-game, 32-point season in Colorado. He returned to Anaheim fully healthy in 2005-06, totaling 40 goals and 90 points while appearing in 80 games.
Since around that time, he hasn’t been particularly concerned with his individual accomplishments.
“When you’re young, you have all kinds of individual goals more, but I haven’t had since the last lockout — I just try to enjoy. That gives you a chance to succeed. When you enjoy, it’s fun to come here.”
His 42-year-old season is likely to open with his placement opposite Bobby Ryan on a second line centered by Nick Bonino, combining the young center’s playmaking ability with the explosive bursts of speed inherent in Selanne’s and Ryan’s games.
An asset that gradually declines amongst aging hockey players, Selanne still possesses that game-breaking speed, with his fitness level characteristically amongst the league’s best.
“It is amazing at how good a shape he’s in, and he doesn’t get winded,” Boudreau said. “You watch him — he’s never bent over on his stick. His face might look drawn sometimes, but he’s a pretty remarkable specimen.”
Speaking on how he planned on gauging the 42-year-old’s endurance throughout the season, Boudreau referenced Jonas Hiller’s lack of practice time when the goaltender made a franchise record 32 consecutive starts last season.
“I’m sure that there are going to be days where I say, ‘Saku [Koivu]. Teemu. Take the day off. You just relax and don’t do anything,’” Boudreau said.
It’s a point that becomes paramount when realizing that playing 48 games isn’t Anaheim’s goal this season.
“Hopefully he could play 65, 70, maybe,” Boudreau said.