The telltale ring usually comes early in the evening, cutting through Bryan Helmer
's Oklahoma City hotel room like a siren call.
It originates in Westport, Ontario, where Helmer's wife Pam, 9-year-old son Cade and 5-year-old daughter Rylan still live. On the other end of the phone is usually one or both of the children, who like to say good night to their dad half a continent away before they go to bed.
"I've never been without my family this long," Helmer said. "The kids are in school back in Ontario. To pull them out of school in January would be pretty tough. It's hard when you call home and they ask, 'Where's dad?' They know I'm here playing hockey."
If they haven't already, the kids will soon learn that answer before they ask the question. Nearly two decades into a pro career that's carried him to an age where he could almost be the father of some of his Barons teammates, the 38-year-old Helmer still talks about playing in a future tense.
That was assured earlier this month with Edmonton signed him to an AHL deal for the rest of this season and, surprisingly, through 2011-12 as well. The pact is more than just a farewell wave to one of the best blueliners in league history and a three-time Calder Cup champ. On his way to re-writing the AHL record books, Helmer has been a solid contributor for Oklahoma City with 4 goals and 10 assists in 26 games with the team.
On the flashier side, Helmer became the AHL's top-scoring defenseman of all time on Jan. 13 (currently 527 points and counting) and his total of 403 assists is also a league record for that position. On Feb. 18 he became the seventh player to play in 1,000 AHL games.
The plan next season is for the whole family to join Helmer in Oklahoma City. If he continues to scoff at the laws of aging, the relocations may have to continue beyond that.
"Some people would say I'm crazy. But I've enjoyed every minute of it," Helmer said. "I wouldn't have bet on it, to tell you that I would've been playing 18 years, at age 38. I really don't feel my age, yet."
Even if he represses that little tidbit, his teammates are quick to remind him with jabs and questions about his pro resume that dates back to the pre-historic times of 1993-94. Helmer said he's told some teammates that was when he broke into the AHL and they've coldly responded that they were 3 at the time.
"I tell the young guys, don't worry, your time will come," he said.
Helmer has to laugh along, because wise-guy talk is far preferable to the predominant sound he heard for most of last summer -- silence.
Helmer won another Calder Cup with Hershey last season and hoped to return to the Bears this year, but the organization let him go. San Antonio pitched an assistant coach's job to him, an offer he appreciated but put on the shelf. Beyond that, there was the dull and painful roar of indifference toward his services.
Helmer came into the game quietly all those years ago, as an undrafted player who spent almost his entire junior career in Tier II. An equally unassuming departure would be fitting, if also forced.
"It (worry) set in right after training camp started," Helmer said. "The first game of the season, panic started. What are you going to do? There was times I said I was going to retire. It was definitely stressful."
Helmer played rec league hockey at home, where at least he caught a little break. He dabbled in an over-35 league, as his age dictated, and the 35-under group also let him hang around. Months later, when he started posting points for the Barons, those buddies wanted a return on their development and texted Helmer with a request for Oklahoma City to scout them, too.
"I tell people if you put your mind to it and work hard, things usually work out," Helmer said of his general philosophy, which in the case of pro hockey probably applies to those with a little less wear than his back-home pals.
In January, Helmer got his break when the Barons brought him in for a peek. If the veteran had one thing working for him, it was fresh legs. In his first nine games there he piled up 4 goals and 8 assists.
"He has brought our team a wealth of experience and leadership since he arrived to Oklahoma City in January. He is a true professional both on and off the ice and exemplifies everything we want in a player as we continue to grow our footprint in the community," Oklahoma City general manager Bill Scott said in a statement.
"I was a little nervous at the start," Helmer said. "I was in really good shape. I'm sure having the six months off helped me out a lot. Maybe it was a blessing I didn't sign until January. I really don't feel my age yet. That was one of the reasons when they (Edmonton) offered me another year, I jumped right on it."
Helmer, a veteran of 146 NHL contests, understands he doesn't have that same spring in his game anymore, and has learned to take a different angle.
"I'm not as fast as I was. The way the game is now, it's so much quicker," he said. "You have to use your head a lot more. That's probably one of the reasons I can play so long. When I was younger, it was just go, go, go."
Anyone wondering when that momentum might finally run into an unyielding wall will have to stand in line behind Pam with that question.
"That's what my wife says. She throws that out at me. 'Are you ever going to retire?'" Helmer said. "My body feels good, my mind feels great. If I keep playing the way I'm playing, who knows?"