I Never Expected It To Happen: The NHL’s “Iron Man” record was broken

I have pretty much stopped following all sports on a regular basis (for multiple reasons I’ve given before).  If I pay any attention now, it’s limited to highlights or specific events.  One of them was the possibility of the NHL’s “Iron Man” record being broken.

As I’m sure most know, an “Iron Man” streak in sports is a consecutive number of games played without interruption due to injury or other reasons.  They can’t really be measured in numbers of games because different sports play different numbers of games per season.  The most accurate comparison is the number of seasons played.

The type of sport involved and how physically violent it is plays a role.  In some sports, there are positions which are protected more than others and players less likely to be injured.  In North American helmets and pads football, it shouldn’t surprise that quarterbacks and kickers have the longest careers.  Baseball plays the most games and has positions more taxing than others, but barring injury or poor play, any position other than a catcher or pitcher could break the record.  Hockey and basketball play the same number of games per year, but basketball has positions that take less physical abuse than others.  Hockey has no “protected” positions, though defencemen take more wear and tear than forwards.

Brett Favre holds the NFL record of 297 games, or 18.5 seasons, but quarterbacks are heavily protected in multiple ways (e.g. flak jackets, rules, etc.).  AC Green set the NBA’s record of 1,192 games (14.5 seasons) in the 1980s and 1990s, but the league was different then (i.e. Green was taller and outweighed the average player by 10-20 pounds).  Cal Ripken set baseball’s record of 2,632 games (16.25 seasons) playing shortstop, the second most difficult position on the field, but he didn’t have to endure collisions the way second or third basemen do.  (Opinion only: It helped that Rikpen’s father was the team’s manager for most of that time, not benching him as another player might have been when his play declined.)

The NHL doesn’t have “protected positions”, only protected players (e.g. Gretzky, Lemieux, Crosby, etc.) and even those players got injured.  Playing 500 consecutive NHL games (more than six seasons) is a feat unto itself, only 26 players in NHL history have done it.  Glenn Hall’s record for goaltenders (502 games) will never be broken because no goaltender has played every game of a season since 1965 though many goaltenders have played upwards of 70 games in a season (Martin Brodeur, Grant Fuhr, etc.).

Garry Unger set the NHL record of 914 games between 1968 and 1979, which many thought then was “unbreakable”, but Doug Jarvis started his 964 games record in 1975, playing until 1987.  Jarvis’ record is unusual in that the first and last games of his streak were the start and end of his career, no games missed, period.  After Steve Larmer’s 884 game streak came to an end (1982-1993), no one thought the record would be challenge again because players were getting bigger.

Then the lost season of 2004-2005 happened.  Likely due to new rules, salary caps and others on free agency combined with the NHL’s two referee system causing a massive reduction in fights, player injuries went down from 2006-2007 to 2011-2012.  Fighting in the past decade is at its lowest since before NHL expansion.  Consequently, ten of the 26 longest Iron Man streaks began during or after 1999-2000 season.  Cleaner play meant fewer injuries.

Thus began a run of players with over 500 consecutive games: Brendan Morrison (542 games, ended 2007); Andrew Brunette (509G, 2009); Brad Boyes (513G, 2011); Henrik Sedin (679G, 2014); Jay Bouwmeester (737G, 2014); Andrew Cogliano (830G, 2018). All ended due to injury except Cogliano, due to a suspension.

And those weren’t even the longest.  Patrick Marleau’s streak is still considered active (910G, 2021) because he’s a free agent not under contract, but at his age and declining play, his career is likely over.  Two active streaks remain, two of the three longest: Phil Kessel (941 games) and Keith Yandle, who broke Doug Jarvis’s record by playing his 965th consecutive game this week.  Yandle’s streak is all the more remarkable because he’s a defenseman, not a forward.  Barring injury, Yandle will pass 1000 games by the end of the season, and Kessel will also pass Jarvis.

Keith Yandle breaks NHL’s all-time iron man streak, eclipsing Doug Jarvis’ record

Playing in his 965th consecutive NHL game, Keith Yandle has officially become the NHL’s Iron Man.

The Philadelphia Flyers defenceman passed the league record 964 games set by Doug Jarvis three-plus decades ago after skating against the New York Islanders on Tuesday night.

Jarvis broke the previous record held by Garry Unger on Boxing Day 1986, which happened to be less than three months after Yandle was born. Jarvis’ streak was slightly different in that the former Montreal Canadiens, Washington Capitals and Hartford Whalers forward didn’t miss a single game throughout his career that spanned 13 years.

Phil Kessel is also approaching Jarvis’ mark, having skated in 940 consecutive games since 2009. Kessel began his streak roughly seven months after Yandle started his.

The Flyers have 39 games remaining on their schedule, so hypothetically, Yandle could reach 1,000 consecutive games played come late April.

There’s something notable about all of the NHL’s longest Iron Men: all were reasonably good players, only one might be a future Hall of Fame candidate.  Unger scored over 400 goals (30 or more nine times).  Jarvis won a Selke Trophy and four Stanley Cups.  Kessel has 390 goals (20 or more twelve times) but no MVP level seasons.  Marleau is a “stat accumulator”, not an all time great despite 560 goals.  Cogliano is an average centreman.  Opinion: Steve Larmer (441 goals, 1000 points, Stanley Cup) would be in the HoF if his Iron Man streak had not ended due to his holdout over a contract dispute.

Maybe being above average is the best way to set Iron Man records.  You have to be good enough to stay on the playing roster, but not so good that the other teams target you with cheap shots less often.