The rest of us only have mirrors to remind us.
Mark Recchi has every newspaper he opens, every sports highlight show he turns to. He is, after, so old it is a wonder his skates don’t get caught up in his walker. His helmet is leather, his shinpads Eaton’s catalogues, his stick, everyone knows, was whittled from a branch of one of those giant willows that hangs over the pond with the swan boats in Boston’s Public Garden.
On Saturday night in Vancouver, Recchi became the oldest person in the history of hockey to score a goal in a Stanley Cup final when the shaft of his tree branch ticked a Zdeno Chara wristshot in behind Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.
Monday night in Boston he became older still when he scored the winning goal in Boston’s crushing 8-1 defeat of the Canucks to set the series at two-games-to-one in Vancouver’s favour heading into Wednesday’s fourth game in this best-of-seven Stanley Cup final.
One period later, he became even older when he scored Boston’s sixth goal.
At 43, Recchi had just set, and then twice broke, a record he surely has no interest in owning. The previous senior citizen of the final had been Igor Larionov, who was 41 when he scored for Detroit Red Wings nearly a decade ago. Being “oldest ever” is an honour Larionov – who has won Olympic gold, world championships, Stanley Cups and the Canada Cup – likely hands over happily.
What the goals mean to Recchi is something quite different. Scoring in the NHL at 43 is not a distinction of age but rather a denial of age. He had not scored a point in his previous eight playoff games and was a minus-5 on the ice. He was being lashed in the media for his weak play, with the suggestion being that he be replaced by a player, 19-year-old rookie Tyler Seguin, who wasn’t even born when Recchi won his first Stanley Cup.
“The critics,” he announced at game’s end, “can kiss my ass.”
The native of Kamloops, B.C., in fact, played his first NHL game, in a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform, before five of his teammates were born. He himself was born in the year of the Prague Spring, the Vietnam War was raging; the year Pierre Trudeau became prime minister of Canada and The Beatles’ Hey, Jude was No. 1 on the hit parade.
What sets Recchi apart is that he is playing, at age 43, in a sport that has gotten dramatically younger in recent years, with footspeed far more a deciding factor than ice smarts. His familiar chop-chop stride – necessitated by short legs – remains almost as active as ever. Longtime hockey observers, however, have always maintained “it’s the hands that are first to go,” and recent evidence, such as the missed open net during Game 1 that would have given Boston a 1-0 lead in a game they lost 1-0, suggest that may well be true in Recchi’s case, as well, though his second goal of the night was off a good, quick shot.
Still, he is far from a ranking Methuselah in professional sport. Hall-of-Famer Gordie how was playing in the NHL at age 52. Soccer great Sir Stanley Matthews last played at age 50 in 1965. Football great George Blanda left the game in 1976 at 48. Satchel Paige pitched his last game at age 59 in 1966. Martina Navratilova played professional tennis at 49 and golfer Jerry Barber played a PGA event, the 1994 Buick Invitational, when he was 77.
According to Wikipedia, however, the oldest ranking athletes of all time are Ted (Double Duty) Radcliffe, who threw one pitch in the Northern League at age 96 back in 1999, and John Whitmore, a Masters Track competitor, who threw both javelin and discus at a competition back in 2004, when he was 104. “If I don’t drop it on my foot,” he said at the time, “I set a world record.”
Recchi’s record may stand for a long time, given that the game is getting so young and is also so physically abusive that even the best and strongest are often forced out in their early 30s. He is, in many ways, the game’s “Iron Man,” having missed precious few games to groin pulls and a single concussion suffered several seasons back. In more than 1600 regular-season games he has more than 1500 points, making him one of the game’s greatest scorers, even if he has rarely been recognized as such. His seasons have seemingly forever been overshadowed by teammates, from Eric Lindros when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers to Mario Lemieux when he was with Pittsburgh. He has played with seven teams, winning Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh in 1991 and Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. If he won a third this spring with Boston, he swore he would retire because he expected to party all summer and forego his usual extreme fitness regime.
The longtime oenophile recently told the Vancouver Province that a third Stanley Cup victory will mean he’ll be uncorking a bottle of 1970 Petrus that he bought back in the 1990s for $1,700.
It would be a proper salute to a career that surely will be remembered for more than three times – (with more still in him?) – becoming the oldest-ever to score a goal in the Stanley Cup final.