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'I think our team is in a great spot, I like the make-up of it ... I want to be part of something special.'

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Posters plastered all over WinSport are advertising an upcoming I Love the '90s Tour concert, featuring yesteryear hit-makers such as Vanilla Ice and Salt-N-Pepa.

Matt Stajan's first NHL training camp doesn't stretch back quite that far, but …

"(Sidney) Crosby just turned 30,'' the versatile centreman is protesting, with mock severity, following a pick-up, hour-long on-ice stretch of the legs out at COP on Tuesday late morning.

"I'm 33.

"So I'm like: 'He's only three years younger than me …'

"Yeah, I've been around a while. But sometimes the way people talk you'd think I was 10 years older (than Crosby); that I was 40."

With a 16th NHL training camp coming into clearer focus on the horizon, a month or so away, the inner drive that's given him lasting power in the best league in the world since the fall of 2003 remains undiminished.

"The game's obviously changed as the years go by,'' Stajan, part of an early-bird group skating at WinSport that includes Micheal Ferland, Michael Stone and Troy Brouwer, acknowledges.

"Adjustments have been made along the way. Nothing stands still. Nothing stays the same for long. The speed of the game, first and foremost, is what's changed the most.

"When I came into the league, the number of players in their late 30s was way higher than it is now. There are more and more younger guys.

"Skating, quickness, younger legs, those things are more important today.

"That's just been the way the game has evolved. And I'm sure 10-15 years from now it'll be different again.

"You just try and go with it and adapt."

Video: SJS@CGY: Stajan swats home heavy rebound in front

Stajan's first camp at Air Canada Centre, after being the 57th overall pick in the 2002 NHL Draft out of OHL Belleville, bore only a passing resemblance to the one upcoming at the 'Dome.

"Still the old rules back then,'' he reflects. "All kinds of clutching and grabbing going on. As a young player you were just trying to fight your way through it. The older guys were allowed to get away with a lot more than they can now. Now you can't put a stick on anybody or it's a penalty.

"And the camps are set up differently.

"Two days in now and you're playing pre-season games whereas my first few years we'd go in as a team, 40 guys, to Hamilton for, say, 10 days. A camp within a camp, to build some team bonding.

"These days you're thrown right into it.

"So you've got to be ready to play your game right away. No easing into game pace."

The iconic Mats Sundin still was captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs at that time. The abrasive Darcy Tucker was on hand. And Gary Roberts. Tie Domi. Bryan McCabe. Shayne Corson. Alexander Mogilny. Eddie (The Eagle) Belfour.

Not exactly the cast of Cocoon, but close enough to spot the grizzle from the far blueline.

"You just tried to fit in,'' Stajan reminisces. "You'd be split up into three teams and scrimmage against all those guys, NHL guys, right away.

"I remember my first day of camp. As a young guy, you'd be trying and stand out a little bit, right? Try a move to draw attention or steal a puck from one of the older guys. You had to get noticed.

"I remember doing something of that nature and then during one of the intermissions, Cors yelling down at me: 'Watch yourself!'

"That's just kind of how it was. You still see that a little bit of it in today's game but overall it's just so much younger now."

The years have flown by. Beginning his eighth full season here, Stajan has made Calgary, this community, his home. The Flames, his team. He begins this season only 65 starts away from the touchstone number of 1,000. 

So with any luck …

"I try not to think about it. Obviously I don't want to get ahead of myself, jinx anything. But I know it's there. There are constant reminders from family and friends and teammates and media.

"But I'll have the same focus as always. Be ready for the game or the practice, whatever it might be that day, and push forward.

"If you look at it any differently, maybe try and coast your way into something, bad things will happen. And before you know it, you could miss that chance.

"My focus is to come into camp, be ready and do a good job for this team."

At 33, Matt Stajan fully understands that the NHL is only becoming more and more youthful. But a fella doesn't last as long as he has without being able to redefine, re-invigorate and, if need be, even reinvent.

"You just challenge yourself,'' he says by way of explanation. "Everything about this league is about the young guys now.

"I can't change that.

"As an older guy, you've got work hard and prove people wrong. People want to write you off. That's the way it is. Every year you come in, you've got to prove yourself all over again. And that's fine.

"Nothing's ever handed to you, no matter who you are or what age you are. As an older player, it's different now. You've got to earn everything.

"When I look back I'm proud of what I've been able to accomplish in terms of longevity, the way I've tried to handle myself, tried to be a good person and a good teammate.

"I'm trying to enjoy every day. I want to work hard and I want to win. That's what's really keeping me hungry. I want to win.

"I think our team is in a great spot, I like the make-up of it, and I want be a part of it. I want to be part of something special.

"That's the real drive, the real motivation. Now matter how long you play, how old or young you are, that never changes.

"Every camp is different. Every camp is exciting in its own way because of those differences.

"So I'm looking forward to getting started."

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