DETROIT -- The next time forward Kirk Maltby dresses for the Red Wings, he will finish off an accomplishment few hockey players dream of.
Maltby, 36, is on the verge of skating in his 1,000th NHL game. In 15 seasons -- 13 with the Red Wings -- Maltby has made a name for himself as a top penalty killer and defensive forward that’s not afraid to get his nose dirty. He has been an important asset in all four of Detroit’s Stanley Cup championship teams in the last 12 years.
Even after 999 career games, Maltby said that he’s simply ready to play more hockey.
“It’s there, I’m not trying to make a big deal out of it, just get it and move on,” he said. “Like I said many times before, it’s a good personal milestone, it’s something I’ll appreciate a lot more after my career is over and I’m sitting back and talking with my kids or grandkids. But it’s something I’m very proud of, and once it comes just enjoy it then move forward.”
Still, Maltby said that he never thought he would have made it this far, noting how many players are on NHL rosters but how few can stick around for a career.
“I was pretty excited when I hit a 100 games, so you can kind of put things in perspective,” he said. “But when you go back and look at how many players have come through the league, it’s a pretty good accomplishment. It’s not something that just happens by accident, and it’s definitely something I’m proud of.”
Maltby plays a type of game that the hockey community refers to as a ‘grinder’. He doesn’t put up numbers like the forwards on the top two lines do (124 career goals and 130 career assists), but he leaves his mark on a game just like everyone else.
“In hockey terms -- just a guy who goes out there, plays a physical game, wears down the other team,” Maltby said. “He makes sure the other defensemen are looking over their shoulders thinking they’re going to get hit.”
However, Maltby didn’t always see himself as the penalty-kill specialist. He said he tried to adapt in any way he could to keep competing at a high level.
“In juniors, I think we were all scorers,” he said, “but as you move up in the ranks and you turn pro, everyone’s an extremely good player, so sometimes you have to redefine yourself, and find your niche.
“For me, I’ve always enjoyed the physical aspect of the game, I don’t mind getting hit or giving hits, I actually think it’s fun for the most part. So I didn’t have a problem, I was able to put the puck in a little bit here or there, but I found that killing penalties, playing physical, being a checker, grinder, whatever you want to call it, is where I fit in, especially when I came here from Edmonton.”
Maltby got his start with the Edmonton Oilers. He was selected in the third round of the 1992 draft, and joined the team for the 1993-94 season. The forward recalled that his first game featured his first goal as well, but there was a slight interruption to his celebration.
“My first NHL game, I got my first NHL goal, so I kind of killed two birds with one stone,” Maltby said. “My first NHL game was against the Islanders in Edmonton, it was actually the second game of the season, I didn’t play in the first game. I had the puck in the corner on (Dennis Hextall’s) blocker side, kind of made a move, kind of beat the defenseman. I had a shot, he saved it, and I got the rebound and scored.
“I played with Kelly Buchburger and Craig McTavish, and there was a big skirmish afterwards and I think Craig had a fight so I didn’t have much of a chance to celebrate my first goal, but you know we won the game, I got my first game and goal out of the way and the rest is history.”
The Red Wings obtained Maltby on March 20, 1996, in a trade for Dan McGillis. That’s when the chemistry between him and linemate Kris Draper began, and the two have formed one of the best checking lines in the NHL ever since.
“You know our careers have been very similar,” said Draper, who played in his 1,000th NHL game on Feb. 2. “When he came here in 1996, there hasn’t been two Red Wings that have played as many games together as Malts and myself, it’s something that we’re both proud of, to be around here as long as we have, to be able to play as much hockey as we have.
“It’s not too often that role players, grinders, character players, whatever you want to call us, get an opportunity to do that. He was excited for me after the night happened, and you get a smile on your face just thinking that in two weeks its his opportunity, and I’m looking forward to him getting to that milestone. It’s a very significant number, it’s a lot of hockey, and it’s great that we get to do it so close together.”
Maltby’s efforts on the ice rarely go unnoticed by the rest of his teammates. Veteran defenseman Chris Chelios said that Maltby made the most of his opportunity when Scotty Bowman welcomed him to Detroit in 1996, and has never looked back.
“Probably one of the top penalty killers in the league since he’s been here with Detroit,” Chelios said. “Really got his opportunity when Scotty brought him in here, him and Drapes formed a great line and obviously a great penalty-killing unit. But a great role player, when you need that extra hit he’s there, chip in offensively every once in a while, and just a good quiet goes about his business just a really good team guy.”