PITTSBURGH - When Shea Weber hits the ice at PPG Paints Arena on New Year's Eve, it will mark the 800th game of his NHL career.
That's a milestone that certainly doesn't go unnoticed by the 31-year-old defenseman, who is in the midst of his 12th season patrolling an NHL blue line, his first with the Canadiens.
"Obviously, as a kid your dream is to play in the NHL and it's been a dream come true," said Weber, who spent the previous 11 seasons with Nashville after being drafted 49th overall by the Predators in 2003, before making his NHL debut on January 6, 2006. "You never know how far you're going to take it or how your body is going to hold up. It feels like it's gone by pretty fast. It feels like it just started, but it's definitely been a long time."
Video: OTT@MTL: Weber blisters in one-timer for PPG
A long time, yes, but it's safe to say that the Sicamous, BC native has made the most of it along the way, having served as the Predators' captain for six seasons before joining the Canadiens, appearing in five NHL All-Star Games, and claiming the Mark Messier Leadership Award at the NHL Awards last June.
Statistically, Weber ranks second among active NHL defensemen with 175 career goals and fifth with 463 points. That includes three 20-goal campaigns and three 50-point campaigns - and he's still going strong. In addition to being the Canadiens' most-utilized player so far this season - 160 total minutes more than second-place Jeff Petry - he's currently the Habs' sixth-leading point-getter with 20 points on the year, including a team-leading eight power play goals. Weber also leads the Canadiens with a plus-16 differential and 74 blocked shots, and sits second with 75 hits.
So, how does the two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2016 World Cup of Hockey winner explain his incredible success at hockey's highest level?
"The love of the game is probably the biggest thing. I think all of us love the game and enjoy coming to the rink every day. We love putting in the work and trying to get better to keep improving," said Weber, before expanding upon some of the key figures who provided him with support and direction when he made the jump to the pros.
"It started in Milwaukee [with the Predators' AHL affiliate]. Rick Berry and his family helped take care of me. Greg Zanon was another guy there who helped a young guy living by himself get some good meals. Then, you get to Nashville and you've got a lot of older guys to work with: Jason Arnott, Kimmo Timonen, Paul Kariya, just to name a few of them. They all helped guide me and helped me grow as a player and a person along my career," added Weber, who is grateful to have had good role models to learn from over the years.
Video: DET@MTL: Weber beats Howard with huge slap shot
Weber is happy to pay it forward now, passing along lessons learned to the Canadiens' young guns when he can. His overall message to them is a poignant one.
"I tell the young guys all the time, just enjoy it and make sure you don't miss any days. It's not something everybody gets the opportunity to do," mentioned Weber. "Some guys don't get the chance to play for very long. You've got to enjoy every minute. Before you know it, you hit 800 games. I've been very fortunate and very lucky to be a part of this league for so long."
And to say that Weber is enjoying himself in his new surroundings would be a serious understatement.
"I'm having a lot of fun. It's a great group of guys. It's a group that comes to the rink with the right attitude and we're trying to accomplish the same things together," concluded Weber, who, along the rest of his teammates, would undoubtedly love to close out 2016 in style with a big win over the Penguins. "We're just continually trying to achieve our goal and improve as we go along the way here to get ourselves into the playoffs. You never know what can happen after that."