For N.H.L.’s Oldest Players, the Clock Ticks Louder Every Day

For N.H.L.’s Oldest Players, the Clock Ticks Louder Every Day

For N.H.L.’s Oldest Players, the Clock Ticks Louder Every Day

For N.H.L.’s Oldest Players, the Clock Ticks Louder Every Day

For professional hockey’s veteran players, the scramble of a suspended season and the wait for a return to the ice has been a test of deferred dreams and tempered ambitions.

Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is one of three active players who have played professionally in four decades. At 43, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Chara is both the league’s largest and oldest player, and perhaps because he has already lifted the Stanley Cup — as a member of the Bruins’ 2011 championship team — he was able to take the long view when the league shut down.

“We all had to accept the situation that we were facing, and it was something that, slowly, we all got used to,” Chara said in a recent Zoom interview, his face veiled by a blue surgical mask. “We have to continue to make sure that we keep a safe environment for us, our friends, families and everybody around us.”

When training camps opened last Monday — signaling the start of the third part of the N.H.L.’s four-phase plan to return to competition — Chara and several other old-guard players took the first cautious steps toward reigniting their pursuit of the Stanley Cup. There have already been some bumps in the road.

As the N.H.L. prepares to return with an unusual expanded format for the playoffs, where vagaries and injuries play an outsized role, a new phrase has come into fashion: “unfit to play.” The term currently applies to a mounting number of players, and seems appropriately nebulous for a league, and a moment, in which so much seems uncertain.

“Even if a player felt kind of uneasy or uncomfortable to go on, we just have to accept that and respect their decision,” Chara said. “They have the right to do that. You can’t be looking at it in a negative way. These are just the things that you have to be open to.”

But for veterans like Chara, who already has lifted the Cup in his career, the opportunities to do it again are running out. This year was looking like a good chance; the Bruins had the N.H.L.’s best record when the league suspended play.

For some of his peers chasing a final championship, or their first one, Chara’s even-keel demeanor may seem like a luxury.

Carolina Hurricanes right wing Justin Williams, 38, effectively retired last summer, but he made a comeback and returned to action for eight games in February and March. He has won three Stanley Cups and earned the nickname “Mr. Game 7” for his performances in deciding games. But Williams sought one more Cup, particularly with a tight-knit Carolina team that coalesced well last season under its coach, Rod Brind’Amour.

“Selfishly, I was really upset when we stopped playing,” Williams said.

“I didn’t come back just to play 20 games,” he added. “I came back for a chance to win a Stanley Cup and thankfully, I think, we’re going to get that opportunity.”

Ilya Kovalchuk, 37, has never lifted the Stanley Cup, but he had already won gold medals at the Olympics and the world championships when he decided to return to the N.H.L. in 2018 after a five-year absence.

That year, he signed with a playoff team from the previous season, the Los Angeles Kings, but their fortunes flagged abruptly. He joined the Canadiens in January and then was traded to Washington six weeks later, only days before the N.H.L. shut down.

Kovalchuk did not appear to let the shutdown curb his enthusiasm; he has posted his rigorous, age-defying and unconventional training regimens on social media. But he admitted that he was initially worried his chance at the Cup might have been lost for good because of the pandemic.

“It was tough,” he said. “When the first cases were happening in China, everybody was trying to relax, and we never thought it was going to come all over the world.”

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Patrick Marleau has been waiting, too. Marleau, 40, has won two Olympic gold medals with Canada and has been one of the most durable players in hockey during his career, but the Stanley Cup has always eluded him. He holds the undesirable distinction of being the player with the most games played in N.H.L. history without having won a Cup.

Returning to the ice has given him what could be his last shot. The question, for him and for the other veterans, is whether the sacrifices they are making — the testing, the quarantines from family members, the grind of one last summer push — will pay off.

“My family is very supportive and they want me to realize my childhood dream,” Marleau said. Being quarantined from them for weeks will be difficult, he said, but “they’re willing to do it for me, which is very humbling.”

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