It was January, 20, 1989 and Recchi had his first NHL goal.
Two decades later, Recchi is still getting to pucks first and making plays. His remarkable longevity is only topped by his production.
Recchi, who turns 41 on Feb. 1, continues to climb the charts of hockey history with 1,410 points (17th overall) in 1,456 games, while being tied for third on the Lightning this season with 29 points.
“To play that long and at that high a level, your competitiveness level has to be second to none,” Lightning center Ryan Craig said. “To see the way he competes every day is an inspiration, and he doesn’t look like he’s slowing down at all.”
Recchi doesn’t know any other way. As a fourth-round pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988, he knew the obstacles would be high. He had modest goals.
“At that point, I was just trying to make the big squad, make an impact,” Recchi said. “When you first started in those days, you knew the average was four, five, six years to play in the NHL. All of a sudden its 20 years and you’re wondering how did that happen?”
Recchi only had one goal in 15 games his first NHL season, but contributed 50 goals and 99 points in 63 games for Muskegon of the International Hockey League, leading the Lumberjacks to the championship.
His gifts got him far. His work ethic and focus may have been even more important in putting him on the road to the Hall of Fame.
Recchi, relatively small for NHL standards at 5 feet 10, 195 pounds, didn’t come to training camp each season to get in shape like many others in the 1990s. He was there already. Jay Caufield, a 6-4, 237-pound teammate in Pittsburgh, was often a summer workout partner.
“I’ve always been somebody that believes [the season starts] in August,” Recchi said. “I started working with Jay in the summer and that was very important to me.”
He knows exactly where to go and exactly the right time to be there. - Adam Hall
Recchi absorbed what he could on and off the ice. Something former Penguins teammate Randy Hillier stuck with him.
“He said, he wished he would have started watching his diet earlier,” Recchi said. “He started when he was 30 or 31 and it was almost too late. When I was 26-27, I started being more careful with my diet. That really benefited me.”
Recchi put up more than 100 points in three of four seasons between 1990 and 1994, winning the first of his two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 (the other was 2006 with Carolina). He scored 20 goals or more in 15 seasons, 30 or more seven times (53 in 1992-93, still a Philadelphia Flyers single-season record). His 878 career assists put him behind only Jaromir Jagr and Gordie Howe among wingers.
Not only was he known as a scorer, he was nicknamed “the wrecking ball” for his fearless play.
“I get hit more than I hit people,” Recchi said, laughing.
Despite the willingness for contact, he rarely misses games. It is a badge of honor. Part of it is his body makeup, a strong low center of gravity. Most of it is smarts, learning to absorb hits the right way.
“That goes to his character,” Lightning forward Adam Hall
said. “He is not a perimeter player. He goes to the hard areas in front of the net, into the corner and he always seems to come out with the puck. You want to learn from someone like that.”
Much of what Recchi does has become instinctive.
“The thing that sticks out to me is how smart a player he is,” Hall said. “He knows exactly where to go and exactly the right time to be there. It’s not a lucky, once in a while, kind of thing. He’s always where the puck is, and in position to score goals.”
The Lightning signed him to a one-year contract to provide veteran leadership. Instead, Recchi has been prominent on the score sheet and hasn’t missed a game.
“When we signed him, we figured maybe he’d play 60-65 games and be a good man in the [locker] room,” Lightning Coach Rick Tocchet said. “But I really use him a lot. Sometimes, I think I overplay him. He’s a big part of this team. …For a smaller guy, he still goes to the net as well as anybody in the league.”
Recchi and Tocchet were once teammates. They were also traded for one another in 1992.
“We need guys like him,” Tocchet said. “Playing with [six] different teams, winning Stanley Cups with two different organizations, he’s gone through the gamut in his career. He knows when teams are struggling, what is the right thing to say, the right thing to do. He’s almost like an extension of the coaching staff.”
Recchi said he is not sure his wisdom is the only thing younger players need these days. He has tried to lead by example.
“The young players kind of watch you to see how you handle yourself,” Recchi said. “Any young kid that wants to learn does that.
“We’re playing a great game, getting paid to do something we love and there’s nothing better than that. These losses never get easier. But the biggest thing is, the next day you come with a smile on your face, ready to work, and stay positive.”