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Number 1,000 Just Like Number One

by Glen Andresen / Minnesota Wild

Someday, Andrew Brunette's National Hockey League career will come to an end, and as soon as it's official, he's going to have plenty of job offers from folks in the hockey broadcasting business. While "Bruno" has never been known for quick skates, he's famous in the Wild locker room for his quick wit.

He showcased these skills during a father/brother/son trip to Chicago last year, when he stood up at a team dinner and began interviewing players and staff members about the influence their fathers had on them. Tears were shed in that room, but all were the result of too much laughter.

When he asked General Manager Chuck Fletcher what his dad's (longtime hockey executive Cliff) greatest advice was, Fletcher responded, "He always said you can never go wrong with speed and grit."

Brunette quickly announced, "If I don't see you guys in Finland next year, it's been a great ride."

Then, there was his performance at last year's Wild Skills Competition. In between events, Brunette again grabbed the mic and poked fun at teammates, including incessant ribbing of Kim Johnsson for his lack of power, and Nick Schultz for his lack of accuracy.

In both instances, Brunette let out his boisterous laugh that would make Santa Claus feel inadequate.

Yes, one day we're likely to see that booming voice and echoing laughter on TV, but for now Brunette has games to play. In fact, he's got number 1,000 coming up tonight.

"Same way," he said when asked how he looks at his 1,000th game in comparison to his first. "Whatever the next game is, that's the most important game."

"Bruno" or "Bru" played that first NHL game with the Washington Capitals on January 17, 1996, and he's worried about the "next game" for over 15 years, and now that next one will be a four-digit number.

"I can't believe how fast it went," admitted Brunette the day before. "I still feel young, even though I'm getting up there. You think of the guys you're able to play with and I've been very fortunate to play with some great people along the way. Those are more of the thoughts I have as opposed to memories of actual games."

The rest of us will remember plenty of games, but of course nobody will forget the goal he scored to beat Colorado in Game Seven of the 2003 Western Conference quarterfinal, which was picked by Wild fans as the greatest moment in the Wild's first 10 years of existence.

But again, Brunette doesn't reminisce about the moment itself. He does look back fondly on the players that mobbed him as he raised his arms to the sky with eyes as big as frisbees.

"That was one of the best teams I ever played on, guy-wise, teammate-wise," he recalled of that closely knit group. "That was a special group. I was very fortunate to play with all of those guys."

"Those guys" were and are fortunate to play with him as well, and not just because he sets them up for so many goals. He organizes fantasy drafts, outings to Twins games and card games on trips. Even though he often takes well-intended shots at teammates (like calling Pierre-Marc Bouchard the worst Wild fantasy football player in the last three years), he's fine with getting it back from jokes centering around his speed, his slap shot or his rump.

He can take it, because he's shown supreme talents in other areas of the game. He finds linemates with passes that don't make sense. He holds the puck behind the net with players beating on him like riot police, and he refuses to give it up. He lifts pucks up over goalies who are no more than a couple feet in front of him and have seemingly every angle covered.

"He deserves it," said Bouchard of the honor that Brunette will receive when his accomplishment is celebrated on February 9. "He's had a great career, and it's going to be a special night for him."

Talent aside, nobody has a better attitude, work ethic or willingness to play through injuries.

"I think a love of the game is just as important as ability," he said.

Coming to the rink ready to work has never been an issue with Brunette. You often see him on the ice for optional practices, which are often void of established veterans. He's currently on pace to play all 82 NHL games for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. The only blemish was a two-game absence in late February of 2009 due to a torn ACL in his knee.

Of course, that knee required reconstructive surgery, which he refused to undergo until the season was complete. And he missed exactly zero games to start the following season, one in which he surpassed 20 goals for the sixth time.

"Regardless of what's wrong with you, you try to find a way to play because you don't want to miss anything," he said.

Brunette is durable. He loves the game. He has talent. But a lot of players had those traits and didn't play 1,000 games. His current head coach says 1,000 games means something else as well.

"You're wanted," said the coach. "Teams want your services. The guys that played 1,000 games have character…and talent on the ice."

Game 1,000 is finally here, and nobody will be happier to see it disappear than "Bruno" who will then start thinking about 1,001. But that's not to say it won't be special for him at some point.

"I think when all is said and done, you look back and figure out what the meaning of everything is."

As he figures it out, let's hope he's sharing some of those thoughts in his own humorous way on a hockey broadcast.
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