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Filppula set to skate in his 1,000th career game Saturday

Veteran forward will be just the eighth Finnish-born player to reach that milestone

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT -- It somehow makes perfect sense that Valtteri Filppula would reach 1,000 NHL games wearing the Winged Wheel on his chest.

After all, the Red Wings were the ones who originally drafted Filppula in the third round, 95th overall, in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft.

After a recent practice at Little Caesars Arena, Filppula took some time to reflect on his first time with the Wings and his return to the team.

"I think the expectation was to try to make the team and play in the NHL. That was the main thing," Filppula said. "Coming up, young player, you just want to earn your spot on the team. Obviously my first year, '05-'06, I only played, I want to say, four games up and most of the time I was in Grand Rapids. Which was good, I think that helped me a lot, get a full 82-game season, get used to the travel, get to play a lot. Those four games I don't know if I played over seven minutes total. Obviously it was good to get used to everything and I think that was a big help for moving forward."

Filppula, 35, spent the first eight years of his career in Detroit, winning a Stanley Cup with the 2008 team and falling just short in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals.

There were quite a few superstars on those Wings teams -- Nick Lidstrom, Chris Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Niklas Kronwall, to name a few -- but Filppula said he never felt intimidated.

"To be honest, it wasn't too bad just because everybody was so great," he said. "Even though we had big names, nobody acted like that so it was easy to come and be part of that team. Obviously you knew if you were going to make the team, you were going to get to play with good players, great players. So that made it kind of easier. When you play with good players, it's easier to play. Made that part easier but obviously at the same time, every day in the locker room, being a younger guy, you got to see how all these guys work, what they did and you couldn't ask for a better learning place.

"But then again, my first year we went to conference finals, then twice in the finals. Okay, well, this is nice, you get to do this every year and you have a chance to win every year. Obviously, you realize that's not the case."

After the 2012-13 season, Filppula moved on to the Tampa Bay Lightning, reuniting with general manager Steve Yzerman, who was ending his Wings playing career just as Filppula started his.

Tweet from @TommiSeppala: Valtteri Filppula 1000th NHL game - Feb 1, 2020���Think about Steve Yzerman, what kind of hockey man he is. He played with VF. Then he wanted him to Tampa and later back to Detroit. It says everything about VF - how highly respected he is.���- Mikko Koivu#NHLfi #RedWings pic.twitter.com/YG28U7cAOf

The Lightning traded Filppula to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2017 and he spent the rest of that season and the following season in the City of Brotherly Love.

Last year, Filppula joined the New York Islanders as a free agent, signing a one-year deal.

There is something to be said for staying with one team your entire career but Filppula appreciates that he had a chance to gain experience with other teams.

"I'm happy that I did that. You get to see different places, get to know different players, meet different people," he said. "I think it's been really cool to see. Obviously I think every room is pretty much the same, you have good guys, people who are alike, think alike. So that's been cool. I've been fortunate with all good organizations, too. Tampa was really good, quick visit both in Philly and Long Island, both great organizations. Had good teams. Philly didn't make the playoffs first year but second year made the playoffs. Obviously last year made the playoffs with Long Island.

"You learn a little bit, you get to see different players, you learn from different players, again, how that room works and how players do their thing. It's good, I like that. I like watching how other players do things and try and pick up some things you think can help you out."

After a really nice season in which he had 17 goals, 14 assists and was plus-19 in 72 games, Filppula could have gone back to the Islanders but decided to return to where it all began.

"I obviously had a great time here," Filppula said. "When I left, I didn't necessarily think I'd be coming back. You never know but I left on great terms. So in that sense, I was thinking I could come back and maybe the opportunity will come at some point. Now that it did, instantly I was really excited. Obviously things worked out and I was able to be here for two years, that was important for me. I still have some guys who used to play back then so that was nice.

"Those things together, I wasn't thinking about it but when that opportunity came, I found myself being really excited about coming back. I know it's a little bit of a rebuild but it's good. Obviously it hasn't been the season we want but I think when you start winning after this, it's going to feel even better."

Among those players still with the Wings from Filppula's first stint is defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.

"We always used to go out for dinners and got our group and I was sad when he was leaving us," Ericsson said. "Obviously it's really fun to have him back here."

Justin Abdelkader, 32, also played with Filppula in his first go-round with Detroit.

"I think it's just, gosh, an amazing accomplishment," Abdelkader said. "He's a real true pro and has been a good guy for me my first couple years to come in and to learn under, learn the game, learn how to be a pro. He's been a great guy and we've had a great relationship.

"I was excited to see when he was coming back, he's a great pro, good guy in the locker room and just a really good player still."

Although Dylan Larkin, 23, was just a young fan of those great Wings teams, Filppula made an impression on him.

"Even back when he was a Red Wing and I was a kid watching, he was one of my favorite players, because he was so underrated and did so many things right," Larkin said. "He was like a mini Pavel Datsyuk. He just plays the right way. He loves the game."

During the 2011-12 season, Wings coach Jeff Blashill was an assistant with the team.

"I had a chance to coach Val as an assistant 10 years ago and I was really impressed with so much about him back then," Blashill said. "He's a great pro, works extremely hard, has a really good skill set, probably an underrated skill set.

"In coming back, he's done an excellent job of being a great model for our guys. I think it's extremely important in anything in life, and certainly in the situation we're in, to have great models for guys to look up to and see how they do it. He prepares right. He goes out and practices hard.

"The other thing I'd say is he's a very smart player, so I've been able to pick his brain on a number of things and get his opinion. I think the players are the ones out there doing it, and he's done it for a long time obviously, getting right up here to 1,000. He's been a great addition."

Filppula has learned from all of his experiences and from all of his teammates, especially the Wings.

"I was just watching what they were doing on the ice, playing keep away with Datsyuk, Zetterberg, then you learn a lot on the ice," Filppula said. "Then watching Lidstrom, (Kris) Draper, Cheli, what they do off the ice. The list goes on and on with that team. We had so many guys that you watch and okay, he's doing this, he's doing that. Everybody was a little different age, too, so you would kind of see, he's at this point of his career and he's still doing this and this guy is a little bit older and he's doing these things. So it was basically just trying to take everything in and learn. I think now being the same age-wise, it helped a lot. It makes more sense what they were doing at that time. I think that was a big help for me as well."

Ericsson said that Filppula hasn't changed all that much in the time he spent elsewhere.

"To me, he's the same kind of player but he's just more experienced and more poised," Ericsson said. "He's always had the qualities of Pavel when they used to work together in practice and stuff. They're really good at stealing pucks, protecting pucks, and they used to work on that after practice almost every day. Kind of playing keep away with each other, I know they had a little game going on, trying to pass each other from the board to the face-off dot, outside in the neutral zone there. Obviously he's got real good skills."

While Filppula may not have changed, the game and the league certainly have.

"Summers now are totally different, too. You're just trying to get quicker, do things that you can move out there better," Filppula said. "Used to be you needed to get a little bit bigger and battle better, now you still need to battle but you gotta be skating really well to be able to play nowadays. It's been cool to see, too, how the game's changed through all this time."

As Abdelkader once did when Filppula was younger, he sees some of the young Wings observing the veteran Finn.

"I think you watch him, how he plays on the ice, he has a real calming presence, kind of like Z in some ways where he can slow the game down," Abdelkader said. "Zetterberg was really good at really slowing and dictating the pace of the game and I think Fil does a really good job. He's just really smart, has a really good hockey mind."

Filppula has such a good hockey mind that Blashill often asks him what he thinks of certain things in the game.

"I've always been a coach that talked to the players and see what they're seeing on the ice," Blashill said. "They're the ones playing. The game happens fast out there, and you have a perspective from the bench, you have a perspective from video, and I like to get a perspective from certain players that I think are smart and self-accountable. Thomas Vanek would've been similar. It would've been similar with Henrik Zetterberg, with Niklas Kronwall. That's the kind of thought process. He's got a really good mind and I like to hear what he has to say."

Getting to learn from different coaches is another thing that Filppula has enjoyed during his career, going from Mike Babcock in Detroit to Jon Cooper in Tampa to Dave Hakstol and then Scott Gordon in Philadelphia to Barry Trotz in New York and now Blashill.

"Obviously Babs was my first coach, was with me for eight years or seven years," Filppula said. "Learned a lot, how well he prepared everything. You knew exactly what the other teams are going to do and preparation was great. I hadn't had that before in Finland. We prepared but it wasn't, nothing on that level. Obviously won with him, too, so that's special. But hard coach, demanded a lot and you needed to be, especially a young guy, you needed to be on your game or you didn't play.

"Then going into Tampa, it was totally the opposite. More relaxed, obviously coaches always demand things from you but a little more relaxed atmosphere. So that was like going from one end to another end. Then I'd say probably both in Philly and in Long Island, a little bit in-between and I'd say even now Blash, more in-between those two."

Throughout Filppula's long career, there has been one constant, someone he could always count on.

"I'd always pick best friend for me altogether is my brother, who also plays hockey," Filppula said of his older brother, Ilari. "So it's kind of been the same, been able to talk to him about anything and then also about hockey. He understands hockey so it's kind of been all in one for me."

While Valtteri has spent most of his career in the United States, Ilari was only here for one season, 2010-11, when he played for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Wings' AHL affiliate.

"Good thing in my age the phones have been working," Filppula said. "We talk almost every day, now a little bit less because he has two kids. But still, talk about hockey, talk about obviously other stuff as well. He's always been kind of in hockey the best friend for me."

Because Ilari is in the middle of his season with TPS in Finland's Liiga, he was not able to travel to Detroit for Saturday night's milestone game.

But their parents, mom Liisa and dad Raineri, both made the trip.

Playing 1,000 games is something that Filppula is excited about but not something he ever really imagined when he first got into the league.

"Even obviously the last year, I started thinking about, okay, I'm actually pretty close and it became more like, it'd be nice to get to that 1,000," Filppula said. "I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about it but it's just being able to stay fairly healthy, being part of good teams, and a lot of teams want to sign some players who have been part of good teams. So I've been fortunate to be around great players and been able to go for some playoff runs and be able to stay in the league."

Filppula and St. Louis Blues forward Alexander Steen are set to become the 345th and 346th players to hit 1,000 games when they skate against the New York Rangers and Winnipeg Jets, respectively, on Saturday.

They will be the sixth and seventh players from the 2002 draft to achieve that milestone, joining St. Louis' Jay Bouwmeester, Chicago's Duncan Keith, Trevor Daley, Rick Nash and Matt Stajan.

However, Filppula will be just the eighth Finnish-born player with 1,000 games.

Tweet from @TommiSeppala: Finns with 1000 games:1. Teemu Sel��nne 14512. Teppo Numminen 13723. Jari Kurri 12514. Olli Jokinen 12315. Saku Koivu 11246. Kimmo Timonen 11087. Mikko Koivu 1009***8. Valtteri Filppula 9999. Jyrki Lumme 98510. Jussi Jokinen 951

"That feels pretty special as well," Filppula said. "I think we've got a lot of young guys in the league that now that will have a good opportunity to get 1,000 games if nothing happens, but it's exciting."

Although Filppula turns 36 on March 20, he hasn't thought much about what his post-NHL life would look like.

"That's another reason why you try to play as long as you can, you have more time to think about it," he said. "I don't know. Obviously hockey's been such a big part for a long time. I haven't really done anything else. I don't know, probably have to go to school and learn something else."

When that time does come for Filppula to hang up his skates, he said he and his wife, Jordan, aren't planning to rush off to Finland.

"We still have our place in Tampa, which we've grown to love," Filppula said. "So I think the plan, as of right now at least, it's going there for winters and then summers in Finland."

For now, Filppula wants to enjoy the moment of playing in his 1,000th game and then keep on playing.

"I'm still competitive, I want to win. I want to get better," Filppula said. "I want to get out of this slump that we're in right now. Hopefully we start building up more wins. It'd be great to get to playoffs and win. Obviously this year it looks like it's not going to happen but hopefully next year. You still want to win. It's more fun when you win.

"Obviously still trying to get better. I think as soon as you're kind of happy where you're at, things kind of go the other way. Body still feels good, I feel I can still play and kind of see how far I can go. But mostly, goals are just trying to help the team and go as far as we can."

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