No single player is left unscathed by the demands of the NHL. While it's a dream come true to play at the highest stage in the world, an 82-game regular season is a grueling and consuming challenge. For starters, it an all-consuming beast on the body to sacrifice every ounce of sweat for, at minimum, seven-straight months.
But perhaps what is overlooked more than not, is the exhaust that the mind endures. Players only hope to have one sharp enough to combat the inevitable highs and lows that will be encountered. Veteran players, in particular, understand the cruel reality and how fragile, or sturdy, one's mental state can fluctuate between.
To reach a milestone of playing 800 games in the league is an impressive feat and one fewer than 700 people have accomplished. There's the obvious physical rigor and tolls on the body that limit many from doing so. Maybe more impressively, the achievement is a testament to the character and resilience embraced along the way.
Josh Bailey (Oct. 8), Cal Clutterbuck (Nov. 2) and Derick Brassard (Nov. 5) all elapsed the impressive milestone within the span of a month. For each of the modest 30-somethings, the accomplishment served as a chance for nostalgic rumination of every triumph, frustration, obstacle and passion for the sport that has molded them throughout their respective careers.
"I think as you get older, the highs don't seem as high and the lows don't seem as low," Bailey said. "You just try to take it one game at a time and one day at a time. It's a long season so I think you realize you just have to stay tempered and take each day as it comes. The best thing you can do for yourself is to just stay even keel and focus on what you can control."
Bailey, who was drafted in the first round (ninth overall) by the Islanders in 2008, is quiet by nature, but is a respected leader among the room. His maturity has evolved over his 12-year resume and his daily actions have had a direct impact on the pupils of the team.
"Just his demeanor," Mathew Barzal said. "He's very calm and very poised. He's never too high, never too low. He's great in the locker room. He's definitely had an impact on my career. I get wound up sometimes pretty easily. He's generally there to help me settle down."
Bailey has been an Islander his entire career and recently passed Bob Bourne to become fifth-all time in games played in franchise history. As the longest-tenured Islanders on the team, the Bowmanville, Ontario native was most proud to be in company with Clutterbuck and Brassard.
"With Cal and Brass, just hitting that [milestone] that close together, you're proud of each other," Bailey said. "You think back to when you were just starting out and how you viewed those guys who had been around a long time. And now, to be one of those guys, I think that's what so surreal about it. There's a lot of pride there. Time seems to fly by faster and faster. I think it makes you really appreciate what you have in front of you a little more."
Upon reflecting back on his 12-year NHL career, which started in Minnesota, Clutterbuck took stock of just how long he has been a professional hockey player.
"It has felt like a while," Clutterbuck said. "It doesn't feel like a while when you're in it, but when you have a milestone like that you look back and remember certain things along the way. Then, you're like, 'Oh yeah. When was that?' And you realize it was 10 years ago, eight years ago. Even just realizing that I've been here for seven years is crazy. You don't realize that because the day-to-day is so consuming and you don't have time to think about it."
Clutterbuck reached the 800-game milestone at Buffalo's KeyBank Center just 26 miles from his hometown of Welland, Ontario.
"It was a special night," Clutterbuck said of the Isles 1-0 victory over the Sabres on Nov. 2. "It just worked out that I was able to have friends and family come in. I mean it was just a normal game really, but that was a nice touch."
For the Brassard, a newcomer to the Islanders, but a longtime presence in the league, his journey in the NHL has been a little windier than his counterparts, playing for seven total teams. Last year in particular, it seemed Brassard had hit a roadblock after a career-low season and being dealt from Pittsburgh to Florida to ending the season in Colorado. Include his former clubs of Columbus, New York and Ottawa to the mix and there's another level of esteem for the mental rigor Brassard encompasses.
But even for the thoughtful 32-year-old, he hasn't taken the last 13 years in the NHL for granted. Instead, he's opted to learn from them and in turn, better himself as a player and a person.
"I think the passion I have for the game is still there," Brassard said. "I really enjoy coming to the rink and watching games. When I got traded from Columbus to New York really helped me and my career when I was playing with a good team. We went on a couple of good Stanley Cup runs. I performed well in the playoffs and stuff as well. I think that helped. I feel like I grew as a person too. I like what I do. I always wanted to play hockey when I was younger. It's no different now. I still have all of those feelings. I still get butterflies, I'm still happy to be out on the ice."
Even as an established veteran that young players like Anthony Beauvillier admired when growing up, Brassard recognizes that he's still subject to change and facing adversity. He's opted to welcome those opportunities to learn. It's that mindset and candor that has helped him establish such instantaneous connections with the Isles youth as both a friend and a mentor.
"There's no age for that," Brassard said. "With experience and age, I think you can get out of that a little bit quicker maybe. You just have to take it one game at a time and one season at a time. There's always ups and downs for every player in the league. It's a really long season, but there's also ups and downs as a team. You have to forget about what happened yesterday. Today's a new day. You have to move on and try to improve every time."
While Bailey, Clutterbuck and Brassard all models of longevity and are still productive players, they're cognizant of where they are in the potential trajectory of their careers. In the meantime, they have the special opportunity at hand of rewriting Islanders history while also helping to sculpt their eventual successors before the official passing of the baton ensues.
"That's the way it goes," Bailey stated. "And that's just life in general. That's the way hockey is. Eventually, it all comes to an end. It hasn't yet, so I'm not thinking about that, but I know when the time comes our organization will be in good hands."