Just two months into his job with the Hartford Whalers, Jim Rutherford, sensing that his new team needed more character and leadership, made his first ever trade as a general manager in the National Hockey League.
On that day in August of 1994, he traded three first-round draft picks to the Boston Bruins, getting just one player in return.
It was quite a splash for the rookie GM, who took his share of criticism for the heavy price he paid that day.
Thirteen years later, Glen Wesley is still a key member of Rutherford
’s Carolina Hurricanes team. He will play his 1,400th NHL game tonight, something only 25 other players have ever done in the history of the league.
, that’s been quite a healthy return on his investment.
”He has been a very important part of the building block to the success we’ve had,” said Rutherford
“I never questioned at any time making that trade, and as time has gone on it’s certainly shown that it was the right thing to do.
He is a player that you can rely on every game, every year.”
So far, Wesley has played 855 of his 1,399 games with the Hurricanes. The cliché is to say that he’s been here since day one of the team’s 10-year history, but he was here even before that. After three years with the Whalers, he moved with the team to North Carolina - first to Greensboro, and then to Raleigh.
Now on the cusp of joining the exclusive 1,400 club, no one is more amazed by the accomplishment than the player himself.
“Never,” said Wesley, completely without hesitation, when asked if he thought he would ever get to this point. “You hope to just play 500 games. I can remember way back when I was with Hartford and I had played my 700th, and you think, wow, you’ve got to play 300 more games, and that’s a lot of games, to play your 1000th.”
Not only did he get to 1,000, but he played another 400 after that – a number that most players would be happy to reach in their entire career. He is now third among active players in games played, trailing only Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings and Brendan Shanahan of the New York Rangers.
“1,400 games is a tremendous accomplishment. That’s a lot of hockey” said Hurricanes Head Coach Peter Laviolette. “I think when you make it that long it says something about you as a person and your dedication to the sport, your fitness, your health and your commitment. He’s certainly shown all of that.”
It’s not as though Wesley, now 39 and in his 20th NHL season, is merely taking up a roster spot, either. He has displayed remarkable consistency over the years, continuing to kill more penalties than any other Hurricanes defenseman while being tied for fifth on the team with a +5 plus/minus rating. He’s also still providing the leadership that Rutherford saw in him all those years ago, serving as one of the Hurricanes’ alternate captains.
Part of that leadership involves guiding the team’s younger defensemen, including Tim Gleason, who sits next to him in the locker rooms of both the RBC Center and the team’s practice facility at the RecZone.
“For an older guy of 39 and me being 24, he doesn’t have to say a word to me if he didn’t want to and it wouldn’t make a difference,” said Gleason. “But he does, and I can call him a friend and someone to look up to. I’m lucky to sit next to him.”
As someone just starting on his career, it’s easy for Gleason to appreciate the magnitude of Wesley’s impending accomplishment.
“You look at it and you’re blown away by it.” he said. “Being a young guy, this is just my fourth solid year, and I only played my 200th the other day. If you look at that, it’s a long ways away and it’s a lot of games and a lot of years ahead. It’s an achievement that he can be happy about and proud about.”
As the team continues to celebrate their 10th anniversary season this year, no one player is more synonymous with Hurricanes hockey than Wesley. From the move from Hartford through the early days in Greensboro, the first playoff runs and finally winning the Stanley Cup, he’s the only player to have been along for the entire ride.
”From day one here when we came, everybody said it wouldn’t work, and now this is a real hockey city,” he said. “People love hockey here and you just go around and you see Hurricanes stuff everywhere. It’s been incredible to see that.”
Besides the dedication and durability that allowed him to stay in Carolina for so long, his loyalty to the team cannot be overlooked. He gave up free agency in order to stay with the team long-term and promptly returned to the organization after being loaned to Toronto for the Maple Leafs’s 2003 playoff run.
”I wanted some security and I knew that this team was going in the right direction and they had a commitment to winning,” said Wesley. “Any guy that plays here can tell you that this is a great place to play and a fun place to play. You get the best of both worlds with the weather and the game of hockey and that helps with coming to the rink and enjoying yourselves.”
As for how he managed to stay around for so long, Wesley, modestly but correctly, points out that he has been lucky to avoid a rash of significant injuries throughout his career.
Not that it’s been a fluke by any stretch of the imagination.
“I don’t believe in a whole lot of luck, but you earn your breaks and you work hard for your breaks, and that’s something I’ve always taken pride in,” he said.
For now, as he continues to make Rutherford’s trade look better with every game that he plays, Wesley will stick to the old adage of taking it one season at a time to determine what the future might hold for him.
His boss, however, may have other ideas.
“I’d be very disappointed if he didn’t get to 2,800 games,” said Rutherford with a smile. Glen can play for our team for as long as he wants. If he plays 25 years, that would be fine with me, and he may very well be able to do that.”