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Back in the game

by David Hochman / New York Islanders
Jay Pandolfo overcame injuries and almost a year away from playing professional hockey to earn a roster spot on the Islanders after a training camp tryout.

Almost 1,000 players appeared in an NHL game this season. Only 28 of them were older than Islanders forward Jay Pandolfo.

The NHL becomes younger and more competitive every year, making it harder and harder for experienced veterans to win roster spots. The exceptions to those rules come in the form of living legends like Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom and the original age-defying NHL superstar, Gordie Howe.

This year, Pandolfo made his NHL return after a year off. The Winchester, MA native, who turned 37 in December, overcame injuries and almost a year away from the game to play his way onto the Islanders opening night roster initially as a training camp invite.

“At that age, you’ve got to be dedicated and he was amazing in camp,” Matt Martin, one of Pandolfo’s linemates this season, said. “He’s still got the fire and passion for the game. That’s what you need to be successful in this league and have real longevity.”

After playing an injury-filled season with the New Jersey Devils in 2009-10, Pandolfo couldn’t find the right fit with an NHL team and waited until November, 2010 to accept a tryout with the American Hockey League’s Springfield Falcons. He played a dozen games in the minors for the first time in over a decade, then took the rest of the season off to completely heal a shoulder injury.

Pandolfo regrouped mentally as much as physically over the next six months and entered the 2011 offseason chomping at the bit to continue his career.

“Last summer I told my wife, ‘I think I’m going to try to keep playing’ and the support she gave me was huge,” Pandolfo said. “It was tough – I wasn’t sure if my career was done or not. I didn’t think it was, so I stuck with my training and everything. I thought if I could get back in shape and stay healthy, I could hopefully help a team.”

Once Pandolfo signed a tryout agreement with the Islanders in September, he helped the team as much as anyone on the roster. Bringing over 800 games of NHL experience to a squad full of young talent, mentoring those growing stars was one of many expectations for Pandolfo.

“There were a lot of times I went to him to ask questions,” Martin said. “There were other times when I just went to talk to him about things that happen on and off the ice, too. He’s one of the best guys off the ice to talk to about the game, the league, the grind, about everything.”

I’ll take some time to decide, but if I had to say right now, I’d like to play again next year - Jay Pandolfo
Aside from speaking with the Islanders youngsters, Pandolfo mainly led by example on the ice and in the room.

“I remember when I played in New Jersey, a big thing with the older guys was to just watch what they do and follow their lead.” Pandolfo said. “Most of them led by example. I learned to do the right things on and off the ice at all times because someone’s always watching. That’s a big thing I learned back then, so I try and do the same thing.”

That’s exactly what stood out to his linemate.

“At 37 he’s still out there putting his face in front of pucks,” Martin said. “That’s all you need to see. Over the course of his career, he’s gone through everything. He’s been a great two-way player and won Stanley Cups. I learned a lot from watching him and playing with him this year.”

Somehow, it doesn’t seem like there’s any secret to his durability either. Pandolfo still feels like he’s in the prime of his career and has plenty to give.

“Physically I feel great,” he said. “Just playing at this level keeps you going. Playing with a bunch of young guys keeps you young and that was enjoyable. There’s a lot of talent here. I had fun playing with these guys and they’re definitely headed in the right direction.”

As for his future, the Islanders’ ageless wonder is still undecided on his plan for the 2012-13 season.

“I’ll take some time to decide, but if I had to say right now, I’d like to play again next year,” Pandolfo said. “I’d like to come back here, if possible, next season.”
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