Calgary Flames defenceman Erik Gudbranson’s earliest memories of playing against Milan Lucic had nothing to do with what he saw. The sense stirred in those battles was his hearing.
“I remember you could hear him coming on the forecheck,” Gudbranson said after Saturday’s morning skate. “You could hear his skates hit the ice. You knew he was coming. He’s a big man, 240 pounds and six per cent body fat. He can hit hard.
“The puck really wasn’t there. He was coming to take your head off, and you knew that. He did it to a lot of guys and it was an extremely effective way of playing for him. And it still is.”
Lucic may not be as quick these days, but he still hits hard. And he’s been effective and healthy enough through his 15-year NHL career to reach regular-season game 1,042 on Saturday, with the Flames taking on the Boston Bruins.
Although Lucic cracked the 1,000-game milestone last season, the Flames franchise decided to salute their veteran leader again – this time with fans in attendance.
During a first-period TV timeout, the Saddledome erupted with a standing ovation and familiar Looch chant when a tribute video played and the 33-year-old bruiser took a spin to wave to the crowd in front of the Calgary Flames bench.
Unfortunately, his former Bruins weren’t as eager to make it special for Lucic.
Boston got goals from Connor Clifton, Brad Marchand, Charlie McAvoy and former Flames forward Curtis Lazar to hand the Flames a 4-2 loss. It was the Flames’ fourth straight loss, and evaporated any of the euphoria Lucic and his teammates felt early on.
The Flames had some great chances but were repeatedly denied by Bruins goaltender Linus Ullmark. Ullmark finished with 40 saves on the night.
Lucic had a couple of those shots, and banked a pass in off Sean Monahan’s skate late in the third period to cut the Bruins lead in half, but in the end he may not be able to shake the memory of his close-up view of a pair of Bruins goals.
For more than half of his career, Lucic was a big part of Boston’s scoresheet himself. He was a three-time 20-goalscorer with the Bruins, cracking 30 in 2010-11, the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup.
He added 20-goal seasons with the Los Angeles Kings and Edmonton Oilers, and has seven goals in 28 games this year thanks in large part to his patented five-hole shot.
According to former coach with the Kings and current coach of the Calgary Flames, Lucic’s longevity can be credited to his ability to adapt.
“The game’s changed over the last 20 years. It’s changed the last two or three years. Everyone’s got this stereotype of Milan Lucic, what type of player he is, well, he’s made those adjustments and still been successful,” said Darryl Sutter. “That tells you something about the player.”
Lucic part of a pretty exclusive NHL club
Gudbranson agrees the milestone is a special one.
“How many guys have done it to this point? The amount of guys that have played in this league, to play 1,000 games, it’s incredibly difficult and something you should be very, very proud of,” he said.
“He still makes great plays. He’s got great poise with the puck. And he’s an all-around good guy and leader in our dressing room that we listen to with very open ears. He’s been great for us.”
Lucic acknowledged how special it was that the Flames decided to recognize him again at the Saddledome.
“Not having the fans last year for it, in Toronto and then for the ceremony here last year, it took a little bit away from it. To have it here tonight and recognize it against a team that I played over half of my games with will be pretty cool,” Lucic said.
“I remember my rookie year and I remember talking to guys like Zdeno Chara and Shane Hnidy and Glen Murray. Those three guys were the first guys who said it to me. They said ‘Enjoy it because it goes by fast.’ And I kind of laughed. I was like ‘OK.’ You’re just a 19-year-old kid and you’re kind of laughing at it. But now, 15 years in, you’re sitting back and you look at it all. And it really does go by fast.
“And it is a roller coaster ride. You have ups and downs. Luckily for me, I’ve gotten to experience a lot, I’ve achieved a lot, being fortunate to be on a lot of good teams. So as you get older, I think you cherish it more. You try to enjoy it on a day-to-day basis. It’s been 15 years and I’m still only 33 years old. I feel young. I just want to keep it going as long as I can.”
To answer Gudbranson’s question, only 360 NHL players have ever made it to 1,000 games. The secret, according to Lucic, is having fun.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to enjoy it all,” he said. “I still enjoy going to the gym in the offseason, I still enjoy coming to the rink, practice days, game days, pre-game skates. I think that’s the thing that keeps me going, the love of the game, the love of the grind.”
He won’t love the result on Saturday, but you can bet he’ll be one of the guys in the dressing room working to turn the Calgary Flames fortunes around as quickly as possible.