Oh to be 40 and still be playing a game you love and grew up playing.
San Jose’s Rob Blake and Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom are doing just that.
These two “gray beards” are playing major roles for elite teams hoping for the chance to lift the Stanley Cup in June. They’re also giving credence to the phrase that “40 is the new 30.”
“You understand you have to take full advantage of it,” said Blake of his window of opportunity.
In addition, the two 40-year-olds are captains of their respective teams and are former Stanley Cup and James Norris Memorial Trophy winners.
But age is nothing but a number, right?
“Defensemen age gracefully,” said Executive Vice President and General Manager Doug Wilson, a former Norris Trophy winner himself. “These are two athletes who are still on top of their game. They think the game very, very well and their fitness level is something they have taken seriously for many, many years.
“To play in this League is not easy,” Wilson added. “They (Blake and Lidstrom) can stand on their own merits and their own game.”
Lidstrom celebrated his 40th birthday last Wednesday, but gave himself an early birthday present with a Game Seven victory over Phoenix on April 27 where he cashed in on two goals and added an assist in the 6-1 win.
“He doesn’t look 40,” said a laughing Blake, who netted a goal himself in a game a day after celebrating his own 40th birthday. “He still looks like he’s 30, that’s the problem.” (By the way, so does Blake, whose playoff beard shows no gray.)
The Swedish defenseman, who has played his entire 17-year career in the Motor City, has won four Stanley Cups, six Norris Trophies, a Conn Smythe Trophy in 2002, is an 11-time All-Star, a gold medalist with Team Sweden in the 2006 Olympic Games and won a gold medal in 1991 as part of Sweden’s World Championship team.
With his Game Seven performance, Lidstrom also moved past fellow countryman Peter Forsberg on the all-time playoffs points list with 172 points in NHL history.
Lidstrom also owns the distinction of being the only European-born captain to win the Stanley Cup when he led the Red Wings to hockey’s holy grail in 2008.
“Look at what he’s accomplished,” Blake said. “You look at the Norris Trophies and he’s got six of them. He was probably nominated for five or six others. He goes down as one of the best defensemen to ever play.”
Blake has quite an impressive resume himself: NCAA West First All-American Team in 1990, NHL All-Rookie Team in 1991, six-time NHL All-Star, Norris Trophy winner in 1998 with the Los Angeles Kings and a Stanley Cup in 2001 with the Colorado Avalanche. Internationally with Team Canada, Blake won a gold medal in the 2002 Olympic Games and was a two-time gold medal winner at the World Championships.
In a 19-year NHL career, Blake has played 1,270 games. Lidstrom has appeared in 1,412 games over 17 seasons.
“He’s played more games because he doesn’t miss any games. He’s very, very reliable that way,” Blake said. “If you look at the number of games he’s missed, it’s minimal. Through that career, playing 30 minutes a night, it’s because he’s so much smarter than anyone else out there. He’s as good as they come that way.”
The smarts or hockey I.Q. is also what makes Blake a valuable asset to the Sharks, said Wilson.
“The wisdom and experience, thinking the game at a high level, that’s your hockey I.Q.,” Wilson added. “It’s called being quick, but not in a hurry. In hockey, as far as defensemen, it’s about playing your angles and being in the right place and being available for your partner. Both those guys are outstanding at that.”
Hockey I.Q. is important as a player gets older. But there’s one other factor to consider.
“Sometimes, a player’s game will drop off because of the commitment level needed to the fitness level,” Wilson said.
But no one is going to question Blake or Lidstrom’s commitment to their game or training.
“You learn over the years what it takes to play each year, preparing your body physically and mentally,” Blake said. “If you’re fortunate enough to play at 40 years old, you have to understand your body.”
Blake admits that training is almost a full-time job.
“When I was young, there was the stretching, the lifting, but it is way more prevalent now,” Blake said. “It was something I had to learn over the years. It’s night and day from what I did when I first started.”
But the end goal remains the same no matter where you are in your career.
“Everything is a preparation for the playoffs,” Blake said. “It’s the challenge. It’s why you work out all summer long and why you train during the season – so that you get put in this position.”
Blake may not have shown up on the stat sheet in the first two games of the Western Conference Semifinal series against Detroit. But that’s not as important as what he brings to the Sharks locker room: experience and leadership.
“The leader makes other people step up and lead, too,” Wilson said. “(Blake) maintains the standards on-and-off the ice. Right across the board, Rob has done an outstanding job.”
Lidstrom has more than made his case for a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Swede is currently in third place on the NHL all-time list in career playoff games with 244, behind only Chirs Celios (266) and Patrick Roy (247).
“He’s a guy I’ve looked up to for 15 years because of how good he is,” said Blake of Lidstrom. “He’s a very studious, very smart person. Much like he plays. He has a very, very calm demeanor which calms everybody down.
“I try to do that,” he continued, “and keep that even keel.”
But Blake added that it’s also important to have fun too.
“The fun comes after these games,” said the Simcoe, Ontario native. “You execute and play the games and the fun comes with that.”