As he prepared inside the road team locker room for his first National Hockey League game in 2005, Valtteri Filppula can remember a conversation with Steve Yzerman.
Filppula had spent the start of the season with Detroit’s AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids. Three-and-a-half years after being selected 95th overall at the 2002 NHL Draft, Filppula was recalled to the big club and made his league debut December 15 in Florida against the Panthers, becoming the first Finnish player to skate for the Red Wings.
Yzerman, Detroit’s captain since the 1986-87 season, made his way over to talk to Filppula.
“I never thought I’d play so long in the league I’d play with a Finn,” Yzerman deadpanned before grinning, revealing the joke to the then-21 year old.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Filppula recalled. “I wasn’t yet familiar with his sense of humor.”
Filppula assisted on a third-period goal in his NHL debut and made his second start two nights later at Tampa Bay, logging only 1:30 of time on ice.
Today, Yzerman is Filppula’s general manager in Tampa Bay.
And Filppula is preparing for game No. 700 in the NHL, reaching the milestone tonight (provided he’s in the lineup, as expected) when the Lightning host the Arizona Coyotes.
“I was pretty much the youngest when I first came (to Detroit),” Filppula said. “The team had a lot of older guys. It was a good place to learn. Now, it’s kind of the opposite. I think I’m the oldest guy on the team. I think both have been really good teams. They were a really good team over there and we have a really good team over here. So that hasn’t been that big of a change. It’s been fun to make the playoffs every year here too. That’s what you want to play for.”
Filppula has spent his entire 11-year NHL career with two teams. He played eight seasons in Detroit, winning a Stanley Cup with the Red Wings at the conclusion of his second year in the league. Following the 2012-13 season, Filppula was signed by Tampa Bay as a free agent and set a career high for goals (25) in his first year with the Bolts.
He’s currently in his third season with Tampa Bay. The now-31 year old has never missed the postseason during his time in the NHL, playing in 10-straight postseasons.
“Hopefully that keeps going,” Filppula said. Nearby, Jason Garrison is listening to the conversation and knocks three times on the wooden table where he eats. “It’s nice to be part of good teams. I think you need a little bit of luck in that too. The Red Wings have a long history of making the playoffs every year, 25 years now or so. If I had been drafted to a different team, things might be totally different.”
Filppula is Tampa Bay’s second-longest tenured player and becomes the second Bolt to reach the 700-game mark in a week, joining defenseman Matt Carle, who participated in his 700th Feb. 16 vs. San Jose.