- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
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Every night, they answered the call.
Through bruises and colds and muscle pulls, with stitches and fevers and limps, they were in the lineup. And at the end of the regular season, they had played in every game.
Then, they did it again the next season.
And the next.
And the next.
They are the NHL's iron men.
Their ranks have included Doug Jarvis, Garry Unger, Steve Larmer, Craig Ramsay, Tim Horton, Rod Brind'Amour.
Colorado's Karlis Skrastins took a symbolic step Tuesday night, playing his 486th consecutive game and tying the legendary Horton for the longest streak in history among NHL defensemen. Horton's streak came with Toronto from February 1961 to February 1968, ending six years before he was killed when he lost control of his Pantera sports car while driving home to Buffalo after a game in Maple Leafs Gardens, playing then for the Sabres.
Since Skrastins came up from Milwaukee, then of the IHL, to join the Predators in 1999, he has missed one NHL game, on Feb. 18, 2000 with a shoulder injury. The native of Riga, Latvia, was back in the lineup Feb. 21 and he hasn't missed a game since. He was traded to Colorado before the 2003-04 season.
"I know the streak is going, but in my mind, I don't have the feeling that it's anything big, you know?" Skrastins said.
Edmonton coach Craig MacTavish was also one of the iron men during his 18 seasons in the NHL. The curly-haired center once played 518 consecutive games for the Oilers -- all of them without a helmet.
The streak itself, MacTavish said over the weekend, "never was really important to me. What was important was to be available, and any time you play that length of time without missing a game, you're going to play with some injuries. A lot of that is good fortune."
MacTavish said he didn't get to a point when keeping the streak going was a deciding factor on whether he would play.
"Even when it ended, I could have probably played," he said. "I had a bit of a bad back. Ted Green was the coach, it was near the end of the year, so we just took a game off."
Actually, MacTavish's streak came to an end in January 1993, and he ended up playing in 82 of the Oilers' 84 games that season.
Jarvis, now a Canadiens assistant coach, holds the overall NHL record of 964 games, stretching over stints with Montreal, Washington and Hartford. He never missed a game from the time he joined the Canadiens for the 1975-76 season, until the Whalers sent him down to Binghamton of the AHL just two games into the 1987-88 campaign.
Jarvis said Tuesday he "played with all the normal bumps and bruises," and the closest the streak came to ending earlier was when he was with the Capitals in January 1985. He suffered a concussion in a game against Detroit. He was checked out after the game, and played the next night in St. Louis. "In this day and age now, that probably wouldn't have happened," Jarvis said. "But they gave me the once-over and I was good to go." The game in Detroit ran his streak to 762 -- the third-longest streak in NHL history at the time. He went on to catch Ramsay and Unger.
"When you're going through something like that, or at least the way it was with me, you don't really think a whole lot about it," Jarvis said. "You want to go to the rink and play because that's your job. The only time I really thought about it at all was each time I was passing somebody."
Jarvis' streak remains amazing, but the most eye-popping run is goalie Glenn Hall's streak of 502 consecutive complete games in the Detroit and Chicago nets from the opening of the 1955-56 season to Nov. 7, 1962, when he was forced to leave the ice with a back injury. (No word on whether he threw up after leaving the game, too.) And in a way, Martin Brodeur's eight straight seasons of playing 70 or more games in the Devils' net deserves to be considered in the iron man realm.
Other non-goaltenders who posted notable consecutive-game streaks include Unger, who played 914 consecutive games with the Blues and three other teams from 1968-79; Larmer, 884 games with the Blackhawks from 1982-93; Ramsay, 776 games with Buffalo from 1973-83; and Andy Hebenton, 630 games with the Rangers and Boston from 1955-64.
When Skrastins hit 485 consecutive games Saturday, his streak was the longest since Brind'Amour's 484 for the Flyers during 1993-99. Vancouver center Brendan Morrison has the second-longest current streak (483). Kevin Lowe, now the Oilers' GM, has the third-longest streak among defensemen, 420 games that ran from 1981-86.
Skrastins is among those blessed with high pain tolerances and, to an extent, good luck on the ice. That's true for all defensemen, who are at risk from flying pucks, collisions, hits and pileups. But Skrastins is also one of the leading shot-blockers in the league; in addition to averaging 21 minutes a game, he generally plays against opponents' top lines.
"Every time I'm in Canada, I drink Tim Hortons coffee and have some donuts. Those are good things."
-- Karlis Skrastins on the lighter side of his games streak
His run is a triumph for the unheralded, for those who show up and do their jobs, whether in the role as a geologist in Latvia, as Martins Skrastins, Karlis' father, made his living, or on an assembly line in Detroit. Skrastins' 207 blocked shots last season were second to Jay McKee's 241 for the Sabres, so it's not as if he's playing it safe.
"Karl's not a guy who cuts many corners on the ice, in terms of the tough areas," MacTavish said. "I'm sure he's played with a lot of things through the course of this."
Skrastins is also part of a grit quotient that puts some of the other sports, or maybe all of them, to shame. He has stayed in the lineup with injuries that, Cal Ripken's streak notwithstanding, would have had baseball players on the disabled list for six weeks.
"He gets in the way of opposition, he gets in the way of pucks," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said last week. "He's a great shot blocker. He's very courageous He's got the wrist straps, he's got the knee strap, he's got everything going. He's just a warrior. Here's a guy where he takes a puck in the face and you go, 'Oh my God, I don't think he's going to be around for a couple of weeks.' And he's at practice the next day."
Near the end of the 2001-02 season, the Predators were going to miss the playoffs. Skrastins' knee was troubling him, and he was going to have offseason surgery. Trotz told him he could skip the Predators' final two games and have the surgery sooner.
"I said, 'OK, let's do [the surgery]. Why do I have to play those two games?'" Skrastins said. "Then somebody told me, 'What are you doing?' You have to keep the streak going!' I said, 'Oh, really?' So I played those two games."
With the Avalanche, Skrastins didn't let a broken wrist or painful ribs stop him along the way.
As he approached Horton's record consecutive streak for defensemen, Skrastins heard more about the man who played and lived on the edge and died at age 44, not whose name is in the windows of over 3,000 Tim Hortons donut shops in Canada and 11 states. (Like Caesars Palace, Hortons has no apostrophe; unlike Caesars Palace, Hortons has great apple fritters and Timbits.)
"Every time I'm in Canada, I drink Tim Hortons coffee and have some donuts," Skrastins said. "Those are good things."
Part of his iron man mentality stems from how appreciative he is of being able to make a comfortable living in North America.
When he was young in Latvia, it was part of the Soviet Union. He was 16 when the Latvian Supreme Council declared national independence in 1990. Street demonstrations followed. This was a year before the official dissolution of the USSR. "It was exciting, for hockey, too, because we knew we were going to have our own national team," Skrastins said.
After a stint with his hometown pro team in Riga, he played three seasons with Turku of the Finnish pro league, where his coach was Latvian national coach Vladimir Jurzinov.
"A lot of guys talked about me being drafted after my first year in Finland," Skrastins said. "But I didn't go, so I said, 'OK, my train is gone.'"
But he got his chance. After his third season in Finland, the Predators drafted him in 1998, shortly before his 24th birthday.
His train had come in. And he's not letting anything shove him off.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."
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