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Teppo Numminen - the most experienced European player in the NHL

The Repo Man passes Jari Kurri's milestone of 1,251 appearances on the ice


Teppo Numminen - the most experienced European player in the NHL
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By Martin Palm in Buffalo and Vancouver
     
      Teppo Numminen's long and illustrious ice hockey career will be accorded the respect and gratitude it deserves on Monday night. The defenseman, now in his second year with the Buffalo Sabres and his 18th NHL season, will become the holder of the title of the European-trained player with most appearances in the National Hockey League.
      Numminen will suit up on Monday night for his 1,252nd league match.
     
The opposition will be the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Sabres will be hoping to extend their remarkable run of victories on the road at the same time as Teppo passes fellow-Finn Jari Kurri's record of 1,251 games.
      On November 5th, the Sabres defeated the New York Rangers in New York to set a new NHL record for consecutive wins on the road to start a season (eight), and they extended this to nine games in a 5-4 overtime win in Philadelphia on November 11th. A tenth win - and perhaps a goal or an assist to notch up Numminen's 600th NHL career point - would crown the occasion.*
     
The 38-year-old Numminen has always kept a pretty low profile in the world's elite ice hockey league. He will be doing so now, even though if ever there was a moment for celebration it is this one.
      "I haven't really thought about Monday's game any more than that it is a great honour to be at least on the same plane as legendary players like Jari Kurri or [Sweden's] Börje Salming [4th, with 1,148 regular-season games]", says Numminen.
      "But yes, this does make me feel good. I realise just how lucky I've been to get into a situation like this. I've been able to do a job that I've always dreamed about doing. It may only be that I start really appreciating it after seeing what else the world might have offered me."
     
Numminen's career in North American hockey began in the fall of 1988 when he joined the Winnipeg Jets.
      He already had under his belt an Olympic silver medal from Calgary and three successive Finnish league titles as a player with Tappara of Tampere, his home town.
      If things in the NHL had gone abruptly pear-shaped back then, the chances are that Numminen would have gone on playing for Tappara in Tampere. The ties with the club are thicker than frozen water: his father Kalevi Numminen played 12 straight seasons for the club - also as a defender - and went on to coach them to three Finnish titles, and was the managing director there for many years.
      When Teppo started out in the dollar league more than 18 years ago, there were a good many Hall of Famer legends on the ice: Lanny McDonald, Marcel Dionne, Börje Salming, Billy Smith, andGuy Lafleur among them.
      The great Wayne Gretzky was playing his first season in a Los Angeles Kings jersey, and Petri Skriko was Vancouver's top scorer.
     
Teppo Numminen was also a rare breed back in the eighties. Going into the 1988-89 season, there were just 16 other European players in the NHL. Today there are hundreds, and 36 from Finland alone.
      "Yes, in those days there were not many Europeans on the ice, not to mention Finns. The very idea of a European-trained player having had a long career in the NHL was so alien and somehow ‘abnormal' that I never gave the idea a second thought", Numminen told Helsingin Sanomat.
      He recalls his first year with the Jets, whose roster at the time included Swede Thomas Steen and the current Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle .
      "By the standards of that time they were both really old players - Steen was nearly thirty and Carlyle was 33 or so. They said that your career heads into its twilight zone really fast. And they were quite right to issue that kind of warning. Then again, at the time it went in one ear and out the other and I never really stopped to think about their advice", laughs Numminen.
     
In the nearly 90 years since the NHL was founded, only 53 players have had their names down on the team-sheet for more regular-season matches than Numminen.
      Jyrki Lumme, who played alongside Numminen for many years with the Phoenix Coyotes after the Winnipeg franchise headed south to Arizona, believes he knows the most important reason for his friend's longevity at the top level.
      "Teppo is just so smart on the ice. He can read the game so well", says Lumme. "He always knows when it is best to go into the corner of the rink first, and when it is best to be second. A long career in the NHL is practically out of the question if from one year to the next you are constantly taking big hits and big tackles that you could have avoided."
      Numminen himself mentions two things as the secret to a long career on the ice. One is health, and the other is playing style.
      Teppo Numminen has not been blighted with major injuries. "I suppose my style of playing the game is part of the answer to that, although I have some difficulty saying what that style is after all", shrugs Numminen.
      "I guess it has to do with weighing up your strengths and your weakeness and playing to them."
     
On the subject of health and injuries , it is perhaps worth adding at this point that this latest record is not Numminen's first flirtation with being #1.
      Between December 1995 and March 2000, Teppo went an astonishing 360 consecutive games with the Jets and the Coyotes, including three complete NHL seasons - without missing a single match through injury.
      This was enough to secure him the NHL's "IronMan" title, given to the player currently enjoying the longest streak without an enforced layoff, to go along with his on-the-ice nickname of "The Repo Man".
      Ironically, his remarkable run came to an end on the very day that a piece proclaiming his achievement was published in Helsingin Sanomat. The man who then took on the IronMan mantle - Tony Amonte - was a respectful distance back on 228 games.
     
Jere Lehtinen, who has played alongside Numminen in numerous major tournaments in a Finland jersey and on the Dallas Stars roster in the 2003-2004 season, remains amazed at how the Finnish defenseman has been able to preserve such consistency and reliability all these years.
      "You slice out any year you like from his career, and he's played consistently well. The same standard from one season to the next", says Lehtinen, shaking his head in admiration.
     
Retirement thoughts did cross Numminen's mind during the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
      He toyed with the idea for a while, but his mind-set changed when he could find no good reason for hanging up his skates just yet.
      "What else was I going to do? Why shouldn't I do something that I want to do and that I enjoy? If you don't love what it is you are doing, then there is no way you can go on with if for long. But for me, playing is fun", beams Numminen.
      The 38-year-old has seen big changes in the League from close quarters. The number of teams in the NHL has grown by nine since he joined Winnipeg, a lot of teams have upped and moved elsewhere, hundreds of players have started - and finished - their careers, managers and coaches have come and gone, media interest has grown exponentially, rules have been changed, and so on.
      "In my time, the NHL has gone from being a form of religion to mass entertainment."
     
Teppo Numminen now says he is taking each season as it comes, one year at a time. According to Jyrki Lumme, if he wanted to, Teppo could probably keep going for another four or five years.
      One thing Numminen has vowed is that when he quits hockey it will be in North America, and not in Finland. There is to be no sunset-phase in the league back home.
      "No, I've got used to the way things are around here. It's difficult to teach an old dog new tricks on how things are done elsewhere."
     
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 11.11.2006
     
*Note: All three things came to pass. Numminen played game number 1,252, and his team-mates joined in as the Sabres stretched their winning streak to ten away games with a 7-4 victory at the Carolina Hurricanes. Teppo himself collected three assists to push himself past the 600-point mark. It was a good night all round. Buffalo are riding high, with 15 wins from 17 starts, and with 31 points they currently head the NHL standings.

More on this subject:
 Former teammate Teemu Selänne applauds an astonishing achievement
 WHO? Teppo Numminen

Helsingin Sanomat


  14.11.2006 - THIS WEEK
 Teppo Numminen - the most experienced European player in the NHL

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