GLENDALE – Steve Sullivan will play in his 1,000th NHL game tonight when the Coyotes take on the Nashville Predators at Bridgestone Arena.
“It means a lot,” Sullivan, 38, told me before the team departed on its current road trip. “If you look at the amount of players that have been able to accomplish that feat, it’s pretty rare. I’ve been fortunate enough to hang around long enough to reach this milestone. So in a game where, rightly so, all the milestones should be team oriented, I am looking forward to this personal milestone.”
Only 284 other NHL players have played 1,000 games.
Sullivan - who was sidelined from February of 2007 until January of 2009 because of a serious back injury - paused for a few seconds when I asked him what the key to his longevity has been throughout his NHL career, which began on Feb. 23, 1996 when he took the ice for the first time - and scored a goal - as a member of the New Jersey Devils.
“I think my one asset is being able to skate,” said Sullivan, who credits the rule changes made after the lockout in 2004 for helping him stay in the League. “… I think if you kept the rules the way they were before that lockout - with the clutch and grab - it would’ve been tough to make it this far.”
I then asked Sullivan to envision what he would have said to anyone who asked him in 1996 if he’d still be playing in 2013.
“I definitely would’ve said no,” he said. “Being able to play until my age is not something that I ever imagined. If you would’ve told me that five years ago I would’ve called you a liar then, too.”
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Sullivan said watching then teammate Jason Arnott play his 1,000th NHL game while both were with the Nashville Predators a few years back inspired him.
“I think I was about 10 days away from coming back (from injury) and we celebrated Jason’s 1,000th game in Nashville,” Sullivan recalled. “At the party, his wife was introducing him and she said he was the 230-some player to reach that milestone, and when she said that number I thought it was very small. At that moment I was ready to come back and at that moment that was a goal that I set for myself. I was at 720-odd games and I think at that moment is when I thought that moment was attainable.”
Sullivan will play his 1,000th NHL game in Nashville, a place where he spent a large and memorable chunk of his career. That will make reaching the milestone even more special, he said.
“I spent seven great years there,” he said. “I made a lot of friendships (and) a lot of friends away from the game, and it’s a great organization that treated me extremely well, even through that rough patch (with his injury). They just stuck with me and believed in me through that stretch. It will be nice to go back and reach that feat on that ice.”
Sullivan has played for six NHL teams: New Jersey, Toronto, Chicago, Nashville, Pittsburgh and the Coyotes. Along the way, he has met key people at each stop that have helped him reach this special milestone. He said he would be thinking of many of them tonight.
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“You don’t get to this path by yourself, that’s for sure,” Sullivan said. “You need a lot of support, you need a lot of believers in you, and I think at every level there’s a certain person that I can look back on and say that they were huge keys to me making it to that next level. I was fortunate enough to have someone like that for quite a few years in a row.”
Sullivan tipped his hat to his junior coaches with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. He also recognized his former American Hockey League coach Robbie Ftorek and New Jersey Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello for selecting him with the 223rd overall pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft and giving him the opportunity to play in the League.
With my final question, I asked Sullivan if he was still having as much fun playing in the NHL today as he had as a younger man.
He smiled and said: “I’m having a blast. I don’t picture myself doing anything else. That’s the scary part, right? I’ve done this almost half my life at a professional level. So, this is what I love to do and I get to do it every single day. It’s definitely a blessing.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: Follow Dave Vest on Twitter @davest4yotes.