A notable and somewhat rare milestone occurred Sunday night in Ottawa for two different but essential pieces of the Carolina Hurricanes’ lineup.
Defensemen Joni Pitkanen
and Tim Gleason
each played in their 500th National Hockey League game, something that hasn’t happened since November 2007, when Henrik Sedin and Brad Isbister did the same with Vancouver.
“I didn’t really know it until after the game,” Gleason said. “I got messages about my 500th. You look back like, ‘Wow, it’s pretty quick.’ And you think hopefully I can do 500 more.”
Pitkanen said fellow Finn Jussi Jokinen
made sure to let him know it was his 500th. But Pitkanen had also been counting for a couple of weeks since he was sidelined with an injury. He had missed eight games prior to Sunday’s match-up in Ottawa.
“I kind of knew because when I got hurt, it was 499 games. So I had to wait,” he said.
Gleason and Pitkanen – now both 28 years old, born nine months apart in 1983 – broke into the league in 2003-04. Pitkanen played 71 games with the Philadelphia Flyers in his rookie season, while Gleason skated in 41 for the Los Angeles Kings and 22 for their AHL affiliate.
“It was day-to-day for me. I was 20 years old. I was putting everything I had on the line every single day to stay there,” Gleason said. “So, no, I didn’t really think about 500. I never would have thought I’d hit 500 games. Being 28 years old, 500 games is not a bad career, but you want to continue winning.”
Pitkanen recalled his first game in the league – a 2-1 win for Philadelphia over the Buffalo Sabres. Pitkanen played over 18 minutes and recorded an assist.
“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “Time goes fast.”
As many young players in the league did at the time, including Eric Staal
and Cam Ward
, Gleason and Pitkanen spent the lockout year in the AHL – Gleason with the Manchester Monarchs and Pitkanen with the Philadelphia Phantoms.
Gleason joined the Hurricanes organization in September 2006 via a trade that saw defensive prospect Jack Johnson head west. Pitkanen came on board two years later in the summer of 2008. Today, they are important pieces on the Carolina blue-line.
“They’re guys that play a lot of minutes,” said Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes President and General Manager. “It’s hard to find defensemen that can play big minutes. They’re both strong guys, but they’re different players.
“Timmy is a leader on the team that we view as more of a defensive player, and Joni is a guy that kind of plays both roles,” Rutherford said. “[Pitkanen] can put points up, and he’s a big, strong guy. It was obvious when he was out of the lineup that it hurt our defense.”
Rutherford saw the same last season in the 10 games that Pitkanen missed with injury. Knowing this and knowing what he brings to the team, Rutherford re-signed Pitkanen to a three-year contract before the free agency period opened in the off-season. Gleason will be due a new contract this summer.
“He’s an important piece for us,” Rutherford said of No. 6. “At the appropriate time, we’d like to talk about that.”
With now over 1,000 games between the two defensemen, the Canes’ blue-line isn’t short on experience, especially considering the veteran presences of Bryan Allen
and Tomas Kaberle. But even with the D (500 in Roman numerals) mark eclipsed, Gleason and Pitkanen said they’re both still students of the game.
“I think it’s almost harder to stay [in the league] because the game is getting younger and younger,” Gleason said. “It’s more consistency that you concentrate on, and you realize that you have to come to the rink every day knowing that your job can be taken away.”
“I think I’ve learned a lot of things. You learn that there are ups and downs,” Pitkanen said. “Sometimes you’re losing 6-7 games and then you’ll win 5-6 games, so you learn how to deal with those kinds of things.”
New defensive coach Dave Lewis has aided in the learning process. Gleason called him a “very good teacher,” as he often notes subtle ideas in different situations.
“I’m glad he’s behind us,” he said. “You’re always learning something new every day, especially in the games and video the next day.”
What’s next for the two defensemen? In the immediate future, both would like to get the team back in the win column. If recent practices have been any indication, that isn’t too far away. They’re also both in search of their first Stanley Cup. Pitkanen has been to the playoffs twice – once in his rookie season and in 2009 with the Canes – and Gleason’s first playoff appearance came in 2009.
And, who knows? Maybe each has another 500 left in the tank. Gleason said he hopes to reach the millennium mark. Pitkanen?
“Yeah, I hope so, some day. That’s a lot of games,” he said, smiling. “I still feel pretty young and fresh.”