Let's hear it for the old guys!

January, 20, 2009
Who knew Monday would be such a good day for the old guys?

In the morning, the Sharks announced they were calling up their comeback kid, 43-year-old Claude Lemieux, who likely will get a spot in the lineup for Tuesday night's tilt against the Canucks.

In the evening, soon-to-be 40-year-old Brendan Shanahan (his birthday is Thursday) scored a goal in the first game of his second career stint with the Devils, who beat the Preds 3-1 to move into the top spot of the Atlantic Division for the first time this season.

While Shanahan was playing his first game of the season, Lemieux's next NHL game will be his first since 2003. A four-time Cup winner, Lemieux had been thinking comeback for nearly two years. Finally, this summer, he decided to take one more run at his old gig. He hired a trainer -- moving him from the Toronto area to Lemieux's Arizona home -- to retune his body. The next move was probably the toughest -- convincing someone to take him seriously.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson offered him an opportunity to work his way from the bottom up. Lemieux played a few games for the China Sharks in an Asian hockey league. After surviving that odd detour, he signed a minor league deal to skate with the Sharks' AHL affiliate in Worcester. Lemieux showed his hunger for a return by dealing with the AHL's grinding weekend scheduling (you can play three games in three days) and tedious bus trips. In 23 AHL games, he had three goals and 11 points. He was a plus-2 and, of course, had 24 penalty minutes.

If Lemieux plays Tuesday night, I figure he'll be used on the fourth line with center Tomas Plihal and tough guy/winger Jody Shelley. In the past several games, converted defenseman Brad Staubitz (who hadn't been born when Lemieux made his NHL debut in 1983) filled that role, getting anywhere from four to nine minutes per game. Lemieux should be able to do at least as well as Staubitz. In the short term, Lemieux will need to impress. He's getting this opportunity due to injuries to forwards Jeremy Roenick and Torrey Mitchell. When they return to action, there might not be any room in the lineup.

I believe older players can be very helpful in the right situation. I think they can still perform, but they need to be supported. In that way, Lemieux (just like Roenick and defenseman Rob Blake) has a better chance in San Jose than he might have in most other NHL cities. Like everyone else, I'll be very interested to see how he looks Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Shanahan couldn't have enjoyed a better first game. The Devils won and he scored a goal. Shanahan fired a game-best six shots and just missed scoring a second goal during his 13:59 minutes of ice time. For the most part, he worked on a line with center Bobby Holik and left winger Mike Rupp. That's a pretty big line with each guy standing well over 6 feet. New Jersey coach Brent Sutter likes size and strength on the wall. With their offseason and in-season moves, the Devils are a bigger team in 2008-09. They are more like a Sutter team.

In the final minutes of the game, protecting a one-goal lead, the coach showed some confidence in his new acquisition, using Shanahan with center John Madden and left winger Brian Rolston. The future Hall of Famer responded with some very strong two-way play.

It wasn't a bad night for a guy who went a league-record 6,504 days between appearances in a Devils uniform. That stat, according to Devils play-by-play ace Mike "Doc" Emrick, comes courtesy of the Elias Sports Bureau. That's the kind of record only an old guy could set and an even older guy (me) could appreciate.

E.J. Hradek

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
E.J. Hradek is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, joining the staff prior to its launch in 1998. He began covering hockey as a writer/editor for Hockey Illustrated in 1989.



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