“I’m excited,” said Draper, before playing in his 1,000th NHL game. “This is something, way back when, I never even imagined I’d close into a number like this and I’m pretty proud of that.”
Draper, who entered the league in 1990, is in his 18th season – the 15th as a member of the Red Wings. He became the 235th NHL player to reach 1,000 games, and will soon join a small fraternity of players to have played in 1,000 games for the Red Wings -- Gordie Howe (1,687), Alex Delvecchio (1,549), Steve Yzerman (1,514) and Nicklas Lidstrom
The speedy center is best known for his grit and his defensive strengths, as he played in integral part in the Wings’ four Stanley Cup championships since 1997.
“Getting a great opportunity within this organization, Scotty Bowman back in the day calling me up, is something I will never forget,” Draper said.
The 37-year-old said that he has been able to stay at the NHL level for so long because of his work ethic and determination.
“I’m a big fan of trying to work as hard as I can on the ice,” he said, “and a big fan of doing whatever I can off the ice too, that’s something that I think has helped.
“I have been banged up, and I have missed some time with injuries, and a couple lockouts, I was kind of wondering if I was going to get to that number, but it was just being relatively healthy has been the main thing to get to this point.”
In 1,000 career games, Draper has 177 goals, 322 assists, and an impressive plus-74 career overall. But the first goal might still be the most memorable to the member of the 2006 Canadian Olympic team. He scored against goaltender Jeff Reese on Oct. 4, 1990, for his first NHL goal.
Draper was an assist shy of scoring a Gordie Howe hat trick, as he also got into his first fight in that game.
“My first game was with the Winnipeg Jets, I was playing for them against the Toronto Maple Leafs and I scored in that game, and I got in a fight too,” Draper said. “I kind of really slowed down the pace on everything after that game, goal scoring went down, fights went down.
“It’s something that I’ll never forget, my parents flew in from Toronto for the game, and it was pretty neat as a kid growing up in Toronto that that was my first NHL game and that I managed to score on them. I think I shocked everybody by getting in a fight as well, but it was just the adrenaline and emotion when I was doing it.”
Forward Kirk Maltby, one of Draper’s linemates and close friends on the team, had plenty to say about his longtime friend.
“I’ve been a good portion of those games with him, and I’ve played with him in a majority of those games on the same line, so I’m happy for him,” Maltby said. “It’s a great personal milestone, and it’s not by accident that you get that many games. It’s nice to see guys like him and myself soon and what not, be able to get a milestone like that.”
Draper recalled a conversation with former Red Wings teammate Dino Ciccarelli as he discussed his time in the league with the media following Monday’s morning skate.
“It’s amazing,” Draper said. “I’ll never forget in 1995, sitting with Dino, and he was just talking about how fast it goes, and being on the other end, it’s amazing that here we are talking about, 999 games later, it’s an exciting night for myself.”
When asked how many more games he hoped to play in, the Wings’ assistant captain said “a lot more” with a laugh.
“Anything after this is something I’m proud of, tonight’s a great night its obviously my 1,000th night, but the one thing that I’m closing in on that I’m really excited about and really proud of is an opportunity to play a 1,000 games in a Red Wings’ uniform.”
Monday’s game was No. 980 for Draper as a Red Wing. If all goes as planned, he would likely play his 1,000th game with the Wings on March 15 at Columbus.
“Being able to stay healthy I should be able to get it by the end of this year,” he said. “That’s something that is going to mean a lot to me as well.”