Against the odds, Sullivan to play in 1,000th game
The notion of playing in 1,000 career regular-season games seemed ludicrous to Steve Sullivan, a ninth-round draft pick, when he played his first game in February 1996 with the New Jersey Devils.
But the idea of reaching 1,000 games seemed even crazier in December 2008. Sullivan was a member of the Nashville Predators at the time, but he hadn't taken the ice in nearly two years because of a back injury he suffered in February 2007. He missed the rest of that season, all of the 2007-08 campaign and the early stages of the 2008-09 season.
Sullivan was at a party that December for teammate Jason Arnott, who had reached the 1,000-game milestone not long before Sullivan was set to make his comeback. Sullivan had played 723 career games at that point, but that was when he decided he would one day reach the same plateau as Arnott.
"I think that being able to play until my age is not something I ever imagined," said 38-year-old Sullivan, who will fittingly play his 1,000th game Thursday in Nashville as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes. "Tell me that five years ago and I would've called you a liar. I was about 10 days away from coming back and we celebrated Jason Arnott's 1,000th game in Nashville, and at the party, when his wife was introducing him, she said he was the (232nd) player to reach that milestone. When she said that number, I thought it was very small.
"At that moment, that was a goal I had set for myself. I was at 720-odd games. At that moment there, that's when I thought it was attainable."
Sullivan had 11 goals and 32 points in 42 games in 2008-09 and won the Bill Masterton Trophy. He said at no point during his lengthy time away from the game did he contemplate retiring, but there were instances when the rehabilitation and frustration would get the best of him.
"That was … good days and bad days," Sullivan said. "I don't think there was any stretch where I was that part of me said I was never going to play. There are some days when you're having a rough day that you think this is probably it. But the next day probably is a good one and you bounce back from it. There were some days during that stretch of two years where I thought maybe that was it."
Sullivan was hampered by a groin injury during the 2010-11 season, but he has been extremely durable otherwise since his comeback. He played 82 games for the Predators in 2009-10 and 79 games for the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. Sullivan signed a one-year deal with the Coyotes in the offseason and has played in 30 of 33 games, posting five goals and seven assists.
After 33 games in 1996-97, the Devils shipped Sullivan to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a five-player deal that sent Hall of Fame center Doug Gilmour to New Jersey. Early in the 1999-2000 season, the Maple Leafs waived Sullivan and he was claimed by the Chicago Blackhawks. He spent three-and-a-half seasons there before being dealt to Nashville for draft picks.
"You don't get to this path by yourself, that's for sure. You need a lot of support. You need a lot of believers in you. At every level, there's a certain person I can look back on and say they were huge keys to me making it to the next level." -- Steve Sullivan
The 5-foot-9, 165-pound wing spent six seasons with the Predators, making this milestone game even more special.
"A little bit. It does. I'd be lying if I said no," Sullivan said. "I spent seven great years there and made a lot of friendships and a lot of friends away from the game. It's a great organization that treated me extremely well, even through that rough patch. They just stuck with me and just believed in me for that stretch. It'll be nice to go back and reach that feat on that ice."
Through 999 games, Sullivan has 288 goals and 742 points. That's not bad for a player who was selected in a draft round that no longer exists, was waived and spent nearly two years recovering from an injury that could've been career-ending.
"This is a tough road," Sullivan said. "You don't get to this path by yourself, that's for sure. You need a lot of support. You need a lot of believers in you. At every level, there's a certain person I can look back on and say they were huge keys to me making it to the next level. I was fortunate to have someone like that for quite a few years in a row."