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NINE HUNDRED

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

The night was Oct. 5, 2007. A crowd of 18,632 had gathered inside the then-six-year-old American Airlines Center.

"I'm just standing there during warm-up, by the bench, taking it all in," Milan Lucic is reflecting, a dozen years later. "Mike Modano's over there and his hair's flowing. Just … flowing.

"Exactly like you saw on TV.

"He had that special jersey-flow going, too, remember?

"Playing in that big arena in Dallas was something. Obviously, coming from junior rinks to a place like that, you almost felt you were inside a football stadium.

"I'm 19 years old. And I remember thinking: 'This is pretty darn cool.'"

 

 

The Boston Bruins' second pick of the previous summer's draft, 50th overall (Phil Kessel had been selected fifth), logged six minutes and 53 seconds that night.

No surprise, he also got into his first NHL fistic spat with Brad Winchester of the Stars 2:45 into the second period, only a face-off removed from Shawn Thornton and Todd Fedoruk being incarcerated in the penalty box after finishing a knuckle tango of their own.

The Bruins lost 4-1.

Eleven further season openers, 888 regular-season games and a Stanley Cup ring later, the hulking left-winger marks NHL game No. 900 tonight at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

"Luckily, my mom had worked for Air Canada since 1977, so her and my dad flew down and were able to come and share that moment, my first NHL game, with me," the 31-year-old Lucic recalls.

"Pretty special.

"I didn't have much time to digest what was happening, really, because we played the next night in Arizona. Everything was just kind of a blur.

"After the Arizona game we had a couple days off in L.A. and were staying in a Ritz-Carlton - my first time - in Marina Del Rey. Pretty nice.

"That's what I remember about Game One and right after."

A week following that debut in Big D, Lucic would tally his first goal, against Jonathan Bernier of the Kings, add an assist and shuck the mitts with 240-lb. Raitis Ivanāns to commemorate his first big-league Gordie Howe hat-trick.

"When you're a kid, in your first year, you know that nine-game threshold is in effect so you were just kinda living in the moment. I stayed in a hotel from training camp all the way up until Game 10. I'd only packed for two or three weeks.

"I remember (GM) Peter Chiarelli telling me, David Krecji, and Mark Stuart together after Game 8 that we'd be staying and for us to go find a place.

"It's one of the most thrilling things you can ever hear, that you're going to stay. But in another way I was kinda upset that I didn't go back to junior. We'd won the Mem Cup the season before in Vancouver, had a lot of the same guys coming back and I was supposed to be the captain that year.

"So I was looking forward to going back, being a captain and defending.

"And I knew nothing - nothing whatsoever - about Boston."

But, he stresses, it was a dream-come-true to make the bigs, one shared by so many others across this country and one that rarely comes to fruition.

"There's nothing else I wanted to be but an NHL. Ever. I remember my Grade 10 math teacher at Killarney in Vancouver giving me the statistics on the percentage of people that actually make it. It was like .06, or something like that.

"My answer to her, with a smirk on my face was: 'Well, that means somebody has to make it, right?'

"It wasn't a prove-you-wrong type of thing. She didn't mean it in a critical way or anything like that and she saw that I had a spark in me. She got a laugh out of my answer, too.

"I'm glad she told me. I used that as motivation."

The Bruins finished eighth in the Eastern Conference during Lucic's rookie campaign, but the seeds were being sewn for an assault on title glory.

 

 

"I always say that all the new kids who have come into Boston and are now Bruins, love the organization and love being there, didn't have to experience the hard times that some of us walked into in '07," he points out.

"We were getting 8,000-9,000 fans a game. This is a couple years after the Joe Thornton trade. A lot of people had given up on the Bruins back then. Every time you'd be around town and tell people: 'Oh yeah, I play for the Boston Bruins' the answer was always the same: 'Ah, we don't pay much attention anymore. We were fans when it was Bobby Orr and Johnny Bucyk and Phil Esposito and Ray Bourque and Cam Neely, those guys.'

"So to go on and win the Cup in 2011 … it meant so much more, especially to the guys who started with (coach) Claude (Julien) in '07. Me, Krecji, Big Z, Timmy Thomas, Tuuka (Rask) was up and down a little that year but he still counts, Shawn Thornton, Andrew Ference and (Patrice) Bergeron, obviously, even though he got hurt 10 games in and missed the rest of the season after that hit from behind.

"So to build it back up, help bring the history back, the fan base back, felt pretty special. And given the way that I played, it fit perfectly in that city, that market. To be a part of that city, that tradition, was a lot of fun, really gratifying."

Naturally, much has happened since Oct. 5, 2007. Lucic and girlfriend Brittany were married in 2012, and Valentina, Nikolina, and Milan Jr. have joined the family. His career path has taken him from Boston to L.A. to Edmonton and now here, to Calgary.

There've been highs and lows, joys and disappointments.

And tonight, one of the few who cracked that exclusive .06 barrier reaches the 900-game summit.

 

 

"Going forward," Lucic reckons, "probably less and less guys are going to reach the number, I'd say. Just because of the business part of the game today.

"It's funny, now, but I go back to my first year, and I remember Big Z, Glen Murray and Shane Hnidy telling me: 'Enjoy it. It goes fast.' As a kid, though, you just don't think in those terms.

"Well, here we are, at 900 games. And, man, it really did go fast. I know a lot has happened. Some bad stuff, sure, but so much more good.

"You almost wish that everything would've slowed down, at some point, so you could soak it all in.

"I'm just fortunate enough to have been healthy enough to play this long.

"Guys that know me, teammates, will tell you that I've embraced it and I've enjoyed every moment of being an NHL player."

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