Skip to main content

Mike Babcock declared it Ron Hainsey Day on Wednesday, one day before the Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman will play his 1,000th NHL game.

“How about Ron Hainsey? Here’s to Ron Hainsey,” Babcock said loudly to open his daily scrum with the media.

If ever there were an unlikely candidate to survive for 1,000 NHL games it is Hainsey, which is why he is one of the head coach’s favourite players. One thousand games is the territory of perennial all-stars, not a journeyman who spent the first six years of his pro career bouncing between the minor leagues and the NHL, was waived in his third NHL season, spent most of his career in the bottom half of the lineup and never played an NHL playoff game until he was 35.

Hainsey, though, did not let any of that deter him. He clawed out a place in the league, which is why Babcock loves him. The coach values hard work above all, especially by those who are modestly talented.

Babcock predicted not many of the 19,000-odd fans at the Leafs’ home game against the Dallas Stars on Thursday night will be paying attention to the pregame ceremony to celebrate Hainsey’s accomplishment. But that is their loss.

“If you look at Ronnie’s career, it should be a message to all our young guys who think they should be in the lineup more,” Babcock said. “Ronnie put in his time to get in the league and now he’s been good for a long period of time and he’s still a good player because he loves the game and he enjoys being around the guys.”

Naturally, it would not be a Babcock salute if it did not include a message to at least one of those “young guys.” Travis Dermott, for example, is a 21-year-old defenceman who arrived in the NHL late last season and seized a regular job on the Leafs defence thanks to his ability to move the puck. But something about his satisfaction level displeased Babcock almost from the start of training camp and Dermott is about to spend his fourth consecutive game in the press box, even though he recovered from the flu at least two games ago.

Given Hainsey’s age, 37, and the fact he is old enough to be, if not the father, then the uncle of many of his youthful teammates, it is no surprise he is the resident curmudgeon on the team. He professes to hate giving interviews, although there is enough humour in his responses to leave some of his interrogators wondering if it is not at least partly an act.

The approaching milestone meant Hainsey had to appear for a media scrum. Someone prodded him with the favourite question a certain publication founded by Derek Jeter likes to get players to answer in 1,000 words or so – what advice would you give your younger self?

“What’s that, a Players' Tribune article or whatever?” Hainsey said. “I’m not going to sit here all day and give what I learned.

“Probably, if I could come up with one quick for you, just that every day, getting to play in this league is not only a privilege it’s a great opportunity, no matter who’s watching, to have a good day. We did not have a very good day Monday [losing 3-1 to the Calgary Flames], so [Thursday] it’s an new opportunity to go out and put a different foot forward and hopefully make a new impression.”

The odd thing about Hainsey’s NHL journey is that it began on the fast track. A native of Bolton, Conn., a small town just east of Hartford, he was taken in the first round of the 2000 NHL entry draft, 13th over all, by the Montreal Canadiens. In those days he was an offensive defenceman who expected to play that way in the big league.

But his coaches had other ideas. Like his first one in the NHL, the Habs’ Michel Therrien.

“We won 2-1,” Hainsey said when asked what he remembered about his first NHL game, Oct. 11, 2002 against the New York Rangers. Actually, it was a 4-1 win for the Canadiens. But the rest of the memory remains sharp. “I was on the ice for a goal-against early in the first. Michel Therrien scratched me two days later.”

There would be lots of scratches and trips back to the minors over the next three years as first Therrien and then Claude Julien tried and failed to get Hainsey to play a defensive game. But it was not until he was put on waivers in November, 2005, and claimed by the Columbus Blue Jackets that he bought in.

Ken Hitchcock, then the Blue Jackets head coach and a fanatic when it came to defensive hockey, told Hainsey it was his way or a pink slip. Hainsey, no doubt realizing his fast track was now taking him from prospect to suspect, went along.

The result was not all roses and parades but steady employment in the NHL and even a free-agent contract or two along the way. But late in his career, Hainsey is getting some rewards. Late in the 2016-17 season he was traded by the Carolina Hurricanes to the Pittsburgh Penguins and played his first playoff game. Two months later he was a Stanley Cup winner.

Then there was a free-agent contract with the Leafs, a spot on the first pair with Morgan Rielly and now it’s 1,000 games into a marvellous ride. Not that Hainsey is counting.

“No. It’s just a number of games,” he said. “We seem to count games in hockey for whatever reason. I’m a big sports fan and I couldn’t tell you how many games all my favourite sportsmen have played in other sports.

“It’s just not an overly concerning thing as far as I’m concerned. But it’s a nice round number so it’s fine.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles