left wing Andrew Brunette
comes to play every night.
No, really! No cliché here. Brunette has played in every one of his teams' games since Jan. 2, 2002, when he was a member of the Minnesota Wild
. And that was the only game he missed in 2002.
If he can maintain his streak through the end of the regular season, Brunette will have played in 453 consecutive NHL games. He has missed only 12 games in his 12-year career.
And a productive career it has been. Brunette is a big-bodied grinder who has gotten most of his 189 career goals from, in his words, "around, in front of, and behind the net."
In the 13 seasons they've been playing in Denver, the Colorado Avalanche
never have had a winner of the Masterton Trophy, which is named for the leader of the University of Denver Pioneers hockey team that won two consecutive NCAA titles in 1961-62, Bill Masterton
. The trophy rewards perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey, qualities Brunette has in spades.
Brunette had an interesting explanation for his durability.
"It's something that I think stems from earlier in my career when I sat out some games and hated the feeling," he said. "I just became very determined to play. Honestly, I can't stand to watch my team play. I need to be part of the action and part of the team and I don't feel a part if I'm watching.
"The closest call I had this year was Dec. 1, out in Los Angeles, when I had a bad case of the flu and tried to play," Brunette said. "I had to come out after the first period. I didn't know if I'd be able to continue the streak. Last year, I slammed my knee hard into the boards and kind of had a slight tear. We had two days off before we played again so it calmed down and I played.
"That game I sat out in 2002 with Minnesota? Looking back, I probably could have played. I was a little sore."
Every hockey player everywhere constantly should work to improve his skating and his foot speed, but players like Brunette and the retired Larry Murphy
are exceptions to the rule. When he hung up his skates, Murphy joked that he hadn't skated past an NHL rival in five years.
Brunette has similar skating limitations, but like Murphy he has fashioned a fine career with superior skills in other areas. That hasn't stopped teammates from hanging needling nicknames on him. The Avs call him "Kitty," for his un-cat-like movements.
"I'm not going to beat anybody down the wing and you won't see me dipsy-doodling out on the perimeter," Brunette agreed. "I live on the side, front or behind the net. That's the strength of my game, and it's not an easy place to do business. I go to the net and try to use my backside as much as possible."
Brunette doesn't care where a shot hits him as long as it ricochets into the opposing net. He's had more than a few of those type of goals.
"It's a knack, playing in that area," he said. "I think I got it from when we were kids playing road hockey. We were in a space only a few feet wide and we had 30 kids playing. If you wanted the puck or the ball, you had to learn how to protect it. I never thought of it as much of a skill back then. I just thought if you were willing to pay the price, something good will happen.
"Hand-eye coordination is obviously a factor, but I think the willingness to go into the 'dirty area' around the net and work hard is the key to my success."
This is Brunette's third season in Colorado, and he remains happy about the decision he made to sign with the Avalanche. The team has been in contention for the Northwest Division lead for most of the season, but now needs a strong finish just to qualify for a Western Conference Playoff bid. He believes the team is strong enough to be a serious playoff factor.
"That's one of the reasons why I signed here," Brunette said. "When I was playing against them, the Avalanche always did whatever it took to win a championship, and they did win a few. Winning is a top priority here. When I got here three years ago I was lucky enough to play with Joe Sakic
. We had Rob Blake
back then and we've had other good players in those years.
"This year we brought back Adam Foote
and Peter Forsberg
. That's the kind of tradition this team has. It was embarrassing a year ago to miss the playoffs by a single point. The run they had here before that, since the team arrived in Denver, was phenomenal."
Brunette is the second-leading scorer on the Avalanche, behind Paul Stastny
, but was counted on for much of the scoring load while Sakic sat out 38 games after December hernia surgery. Sakic's absence helped Brunette adapt his game to play with other linemates.
"The forwards have been all over the lines this year," Brunette said. "With all the time that Joe spent out of the lineup, we used a lot of combinations. I've been very lucky to play most of my time here with him. There's a lot to learn from, especially the way he goes about being a leader. He has no ego and his work ethic is surreal.
"The coaching has been great. The city and fans are great. I really like it here and hope I can stay healthy and help us win a Stanley Cup. I'm as good right now as I have ever been, doing the same things I've done throughout my career. I feel I get better every year."