It's obvious that Jamie Heward loves to play hockey. Why else would the 37-year-old still be lacing up his skates for a living and toiling with the AHL's Norfolk Admirals?
But part of the fun comes off the ice, when Heward interacts with his new teammates, 10 of whom were either toddlers or in diapers when the Pittsburgh Penguins picked the defenseman 16th overall in the 1989 NHL draft.
“Physically, the younger guys these days are bigger than ever, but they're still kids,” Heward said with a smile. “You listen to them, what they do in their spare time and how they view things and you just shake your head and laugh.”
After beginning the season by picking up a pair of assists in three games with the parent Tampa Bay Lightning, Heward was recently assigned to Norfolk and finds himself in what might best be described as an open-ended situation.
Heward said if he's not recalled to Tampa by December, he'll have to decide whether to join a European team so as to enjoy a significant pay raise. He's on what's called a two-way contract with the Lightning, meaning he's paid significantly less in the AHL.
Also factoring into Heward's future plans is the chance to informally assist Norfolk head coach Darren Rumble and assistant Alan May. Heward plans on coaching when his playing career ends, and said he's hoping to share his experience and wisdom without stepping on any toes.
“In no way am I here to take anyone's job as a coach,” Heward said. “But getting involved with this organization while its new management is still in the early stages of coming together is a great opportunity for me.”
It's outlandish to think Norfolk's coaches and players won't seek the counsel of a man who's played nearly 400 NHL games and was once voted the AHL's best defenseman. Adding to what promises to be a good fit is Heward's sparkling reputation.
“I've never heard anyone speak badly of him and he's never had one negative thing to say about Tampa Bay,” May said. “He's a great person and appreciative of everything that's given to him.”
Perhaps that's because Heward didn't stick as an NHL regular until the 1998-99 season with the Nashville Predators. He later had significant tours with the Islanders, Blue Jackets and Capitals, sandwiched around three seasons in Switzerland.
Heward played more than 60 games in Russia last winter but said he wouldn't have lasted the entire season without the company of his wife, Ticia, 5-year-old son, Blake, and 9-year-old daughter Irelyn. The experience convinced Heward that his family needed to be put before his career, so his future will be built with that goal in mind. He's pondered the possibility of renegotiating an extended Lightning contract and residing in Hampton Roads.
“I don't want to miss my kids when they're at an impressionable age,” said Heward, whose family is based in his native Regina, Saskatchewan, and who he communicates with nightly via Internet video conferencing. “I want a good place to settle down with my family and this area is beautiful.”
All that's speculation for the moment, however, and Heward emphasizes he's taking his situation day by day and week by week. His performance, those of others in the Lightning system and injuries and trades will have an impact on how the season turns out.
“I still think I can play in the NHL but I don't want to take the spot of a young guy who's ready to play there,” Heward said. “Whatever way things unfold, I love hockey and being around it. There's never a boring day.”
That's the beauty of the game, whether you're 21, 37 or 99.