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Never too old for a big season

by John Kreiser
Though hockey is increasingly a young man's game, there's always been a place for the older player who can contribute both on and off the ice.

Landmark achievements like seasons with 50 goals and 100 points, or winning the Norris or Vezina Trophy, usually belong to younger players. But players 35 and over have made some history of their own.

Here's a look at some of the best seasons by the NHL's 35-and-over crowd:


Gordie Howe, 1968-69 (age 41)
Johnny Bucyk, 1970-71 (age 35)
Jean Ratelle, 1975-76 (age 35)
Wayne Gretzky, 1995-96 (age 35)
Joe Sakic, 2006-07 (age 37)

There is no athlete in the history of North American professional sports comparable to Gordie Howe. "Mr. Hockey" was a great player as a youngster and as a senior citizen. But his best NHL season, in terms of points, was in 1968-69. One day before his 41st birthday, Howe scored a goal in Detroit's 9-5 loss to Chicago (the Red Wings' 76th of 78 games) to reach the 100-point mark for the first (and only) time in his NHL career.

Howe finished with 103 points (44 goals, 59 assists). After two more seasons with the Wings, he went on to play six in the World Hockey Association before returning to the NHL with Hartford in 1979-80 -- scoring 15 goals as a 51-year-old.

Johnny Bucyk had enjoyed a long and productive career before becoming a key part of the "Big Bad Bruins," who rewrote the record books while winning a pair of Stanley Cups. Bucyk had just turned 35 when he became only the fifth player in League history to reach the 100-point mark, scoring a goal in Boston's 6-3 win against Vancouver.

Ratelle is the only 35-and-over player to reach triple digits in points while splitting his season between two teams. The New York Rangers dealt him to Boston in November 1975 after he had 15 points in 13 games; he added 90 points in 67 games after the trade to complete the second 100-point season of his career. Ratelle went on to average better than a point a game for five more seasons in Boston.

Gretzky was 35 when he hit triple figures for the 15th and final time in his career in 1995-96 (he turned 35 in January 1996). Gretzky recently had been traded from Los Angeles to St. Louis when he earned an assist during the Blues' 4-4 tie with New Jersey for point No. 100. He finished with 102, including 79 assists. Gretzky signed with the Rangers that summer and barely missed another 100-point season in 1996-97 (97 points). He also had 90 points in 1997-98.

Perhaps the most surprising 100-point season by anyone 35 and over belongs to Joe Sakic, whose 36th goal and 100th point in 2006-07 came in Colorado's season finale against Calgary on April 8, 2007. It was the sixth 100-point season of his career -- but the first since 2000-01. He had scored just 87 points in each of his last two seasons. Injuries limited Sakic to just 59 games in the next two seasons, and he announced his retirement this summer.


Johnny Bucyk, 1970-71 (age 35)

It's rare enough to find a 50-goal scorer who's over 30, let alone 35. In fact, it's been done only once.

Three days after reaching the 100-point mark, Johnny Bucyk became only the fifth player in NHL history to score 50 goals in a season, beating Roy Edwards in the Bruins' 11-4 victory against Detroit on March 16, 1971. It was the only 50-goal season of Bucyk's Hall of Fame career.

Since then, the oldest 50-goal scorer has been Jaromir Jagr, who scored 54 times in 2005-06, his age-34 season. It was the third 50-goal season of his career. After Bucyk, the oldest first-time 50-goal man was Joe Mullen, who turned 32 during the 1988-89 season -- when he scored 51 goals for Calgary.



Doug Harvey, 1960-61 (age 36); 1961-62 (age 37)

His offensive numbers don't begin to tell the tale of Doug Harvey's greatness. Harvey could control the tempo of a game like few players before or since, and he was a key to the Canadiens' dynasty of the 1950s, which saw them win a record five consecutive Stanley Cups.

But after the Canadiens had their streak ended by Chicago in 1961, the Habs were content to let Harvey move along, even though he was coming off his sixth Norris Trophy-winning season in six years. He went to the New York Rangers, who hadn't made the playoffs since 1958 -- and showed that he was anything but washed up.

With Harvey solidifying the blue line, the Rangers outfought Detroit and made the playoffs -- their only trip to the postseason between 1959 and 1967. Harvey's numbers (6-24-30) weren't spectacular, but his performance was enough to earn him his seventh Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.

Harvey played one more full season with the Rangers, then spent several seasons in the minors before playing 70 games with the St. Louis Blues in 1968-69 -- and helping the second-year franchise to the Stanley Cup Final.

Nicklas Lidstrom, 2005-06 (age 35); 2006-07 (age 36); 2007-08 (age 37)
The post-work stoppage rules changes that accompanied the resumption of play in 2005 didn't affect Nicklas Lidstrom. The sensational Swede won the Norris Trophy in 2001, 2002 and 2003, missed in 2004, then came back and won three more in a row before finishing third in 2009.

Lidstrom is the prototypical 21st-century defenseman -- a smooth puck-mover who's solid in his own zone, makes a good first pass, can carry the puck, runs the power play and devours minutes. Though he's not a big hitter, he's so positionally solid that his man rarely pops free, and although he's on the ice for nearly half the game, he's very hard to hit cleanly.

At age 39, Lidstrom is still one of the elite players in the NHL. He shows no signs of slowing down and looks like he could play at a high level for a few more years.

Hall of Famer Ray Bourque was also an elite player after 35, but won the last of his five Norris trophies when he was 33.



Dominik Hasek, 2000-01 (age 36)

Hasek's NHL career got a late start -- he didn't come to North America from Czechoslovakia until he was in his mid-20s and wasn't made a full-time starter until he was nearly 30. But Hasek quickly made up for lost time, becoming the dominant goaltender of the late 1990s and becoming the first goaltender in more than 40 years to take home the Hart Trophy as League MVP.

Hasek was still at the top of his game for Buffalo in 2000-01, during which he turned 36 -- winning 37 games with a 2.11 GAA and a League-high 11 shutouts. That was enough to win the Vezina Trophy for the sixth time in eight years. He was traded to Detroit that summer and led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup in 2002. At age 43, he also combined with Chris Osgood to win the Jennings Trophy and was part of a second Cup-winner with the Wings before retiring.

Martin Brodeur, 2007-08 (age 35)
When he finally hangs up his pads, Martin Brodeur will probably own all the major goaltending records. He's shown few signs of slowing down, and was as good as ever in 2007-08, when he edged San Jose's Evgeni Nabokov to win the Vezina Trophy for the second year in a row and fourth in five years (he was second to Miikka Kiprusoff in 2005-06) by going 44-27-6 with a 2.17 goals-against average and .920 save percentage in a season that concluded just before he turned 36.

Though Brodeur sustained the first major injury of his career (a torn biceps) in 2008-09, it's not unthinkable that he could win another Vezina.

(prior to 1981-82, the Vezina Trophy was awarded to the goaltenders on the team that allowed the fewest goals)

Tony Esposito, 1979-80 (age 36)
Like Hasek, Tony Esposito's career got off to a late start -- he didn't play his first NHL game until he was 25 and had to go from Montreal to Chicago to become a starter. But 10 years after posting 15 shutouts and winning First-Team honors as a rookie, Esposito was again the NHL's best goaltender in the new 21-team NHL, going 31-22-16 with a 2.97 GAA and six shutouts for Chicago.

Glenn Hall, 1968-69 (age 37)
The Blackhawks let Glenn Hall, then age 36, go to St. Louis in the 1967 expansion draft, thinking he was too old to carry the load in an era that still saw many teams give the vast majority of work to one goaltender. But the combination of Hall and another old-timer, Jacques Plante, worked perfectly for the Blues, who made it to three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.

Hall became the first member of an expansion team to become a First-Team All-Star in 1968-69, when he went 19-12-8 with a 2.17 GAA and eight shutouts for the Blues.

Gump Worsley, 1967-68 (age 38)
The Montreal native was coming off a poor season in 1966-67 (3.18 GAA in only 18 games), but was almost flawless in '67-68. With "the Gumper" going 19-9-8 and posting a 1.98 GAA and six shutouts, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup for the third time in four years (Worsley went 11-0 in the playoffs with a 1.88 GAA).
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