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Sabres' Numminen walks away as all-time great

by John McGourty
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Teppo Numminen retired earlier this week as the all-time leader among Europeans in NHL games played. The retirement was announced earlier this week in Suomen Kuvalehti, a Finnish publication.

"Playing an 82-game schedule started to get to me already last season, and I probably couldn't have done it anymore," Numminen said.

"I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to play with and against the best players in the world for so many years. Playing hockey in the NHL and also for my country, Finland, was very enjoyable. I want to thank my teammates, coaches, fans, and the media for all the great years."

Numminen, 41, returned last year to play 57 games in his 20th NHL season after undergoing open-heart surgery in September 2007 to replace a faulty valve and missed all but the last game of that season.

He had two goals and 15 assists for 17 points in 2008-09.

Numminen was the last active player in the NHL from the 1986 NHL Entry Draft. The Winnipeg Jets took him in the second round, at No. 29.

Numminen played 1,372 NHL games for the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix Coyotes, Dallas Stars and Sabres and had 117 goals and 520 assists for 637 points. He was plus-56 for his career and had only 513 penalty minutes. He had 40 power-play goals and 20 game-winners.

Numminen also had nine goals and 14 assists for 23 points in 82 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

The Finnish defenseman was also the active leader in games played among NHLers who have never won the Stanley Cup, although he was an important part of the Buffalo Sabres teams that reached the Eastern Conference Final in 2006 and 2007 -- the highest level any of his teams reached.

Ironically, the second player on that list, San Jose Sharks center Jeremy Roenick, announced his retirement Wednesday, after 1,363 NHL games. Roenick and Numminen were teammates in Phoenix.

"He is a team's dream," Roenick said in 2002. "He goes out and he's pretty much almost perfect every night. You can't see a flaw in him, and I think that's one of the greatest things you can say about a player is you can't tell when he makes a mistake."

Numminen was known for his smooth skating, superior stickhandling skills, hard shot and confident play. He rarely made mistakes and played textbook defense. He had a reputation for making his defensive partners much better. Numminen was recognized for his great character and captained Phoenix for two seasons.

Numminen said in this week's interview with the Finnish publication that he is troubled, mentally and physically, by the medication he must take for his heart condition.

"I had to take a mental step backwards when the medicines remind me all the time about the condition," Numminen said. "The level of my game decreased and my skating speed slowed down. Sometimes I was very tired.

"If somebody had told me, that I would be playing in the NHL at the age of 40 and have a total of 1,454 games in my pocket, I wouldn't have believed it. What can you do but just wonder and be grateful of it?"

Numminen ranked fifth in games played among active players and 38th all-time. Only 15 current NHL players were on the ice for more power-play goals in their careers. He passed Jari Kurri on Nov. 13, 2006, with his 1,252nd game played, becoming the all-time leader among European players. Teemu Selanne (1,132 games), ready to begin another season with Anaheim, is the only other Finn to play more than 1,000 NHL games.

"(Numminen)'s been a great leader for our country and a great player over here, too. I think all the Finnish guys should be proud of what he's done for our country and for hockey."
-- Kimmo Timonen

Numminen's longevity and durability were important factors in his greatness. He played every game in five NHL seasons and averaged 72 a year, excepting his heart-surgery season.

He is the greatest Finnish defenseman in NHL history, topping a group that includes Jyrki Lumme, Kimmo Timonen, Reijo Ruotsalainen, Janne Niinimaa, Sami Salo, and fellow Sabres defenseman Toni Lydman.

Numminen represented his country well, appearing in the 1988 World Juniors, where he was named best defenseman at the tourney. Numminen helped the Finns capture their first Olympic medal, silver, in 1988. He also played for Finland at the Olympics in 1998, 2002 and 2006.

Numminen was a member of Team Finland at the 1988 and 1992 Canada Cups and the 1996 and 2004 World Cup of Hockey. He was also a member of five World Championship teams. Numminen also won silver medals at the 2006 Olympics, 2004 World Cup and 1994 World Championships while capturing bronze medals at the 1998 Olympics and 1988 World Championship.

In recognition of his contributions to Finnish hockey, Kurri, now the Finnish Olympic team general manager, has hired him to scout the NHL this season on behalf of Team Finland.

"He's been a great leader for our country and a great player over here, too," Timonen told earlier this year. "I think all the Finnish guys should be proud of what he's done for our country and for hockey."

Numminen was diagnosed with a dilated aorta in 2004 while with the Stars. His condition took a sudden turn for the worse in September 2007, requiring surgery.

"After the last surgery I couldn't even think that I would be back playing hockey. I just hoped to be able to live a normal life," Numminen told Suomen Kuvalehti, adding that returning for the final game of the 2008-09 season "was the most important game of my life. I'll never forget it."

To gain a sense of how long Numminen, the son of famed Finnish coach Kalevi Numminen, played hockey, he was a member of Finnish championship teams at ages 12, 14, 16 and 18 while playing on a Tappara Tampere team with Janne Ojanen, who last played in the NHL in 1993.

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