I'm not here to go into the ins and outs of the NHL's decision Wednesday to reject the 17-year, $102 contract that Ilya Kovalchuk signed with the New Jersey Devils. To make a long story very short, the league's stance is that the pact is a blatant attempt to circumvent the salary cap because its front-loaded nature would be less of a cap hit in the latter seasons of the deal, and that nobody actually expects Kovalchuk to still be playing by the time the pact was to expire after the 2026-27 season, when he'll be 44 years old.
Nobody except Kovalchuk, apparently.
"I've played with guys who played at a pretty good level at that age," Kovalchuk told the Newark Star-Ledger during the Devils' press conference Tuesday to announce the deal. "I hope I keep myself in shape and can still play."
Kovalchuk wasn't lying. As a member of the Atlanta Thrashers before being traded to the Devils, he was a teammate of 44-year-old Chris Chelios, who played seven games with the Thrashers in what was likely the final act of Chelios' 27-year career, which began in Montreal in 1983, when Chelios was 21.
According to QuantHockey.com, there have been only TWO players in NHL history who played at the age of 44; Chelios is one, and the other is Hall of Famer Doug Harvey, who played in 70 games with the St. Louis Blues in 1968-69. Harvey, however, played in only two seasons after the age of 39. He retired for two seasons before coming back to play two games with Detroit in 1966-67 at the age of 42, and took the next year off before finishing his career with the Blues.
Chelios and Harvey were both defensemen; should Kovalchuk actually hit the ice as a 44-year-old, he would be the first forward in NHL history to do so. Igor Larionov and Claude Lemieux were both 43 in their final NHL seasons; Larionov played 49 games with the Devils in 2003-04, and Lemieux appeared in 18 games with the San Jose Sharks in 2008-09, but that was a comeback attempt after a five-year retirement.
Of course, none of this even approaches what the immortal Gordie Howe accomplished in 1979-80, when he ended a nine-year retirement in order to play alongside his sons, Mark and Marty, with the Hartford Whalers. Howe the elder played 80 games that season, with 15 goals and 41 points.
I didn't post anything following the death of George Steinbrenner because although I've heard plenty of stories about him from "insiders" over the years, I never had any interactions with him myself. I do, however, have a good story about Bob Sheppard, the Yankees' legendary PA announcer who passed two days before Steinbrenner (those of you who are my Facebook friends got a preview of this).
I played football at William Paterson College as a freshman back in 1978, but injured my ankle early in the season. Because I knew all the players and numbers instantly without having to look them up, I became the PA announcer at our home games, and sat in the press box at road games as the spotter for the opposing teams' PA man.
Our final game of the season was at St. John's. I trudged up the bleachers to the press box, and was stunned to see Sheppard sitting behind the microphone. Turns out he was a professor of English at St. John's and doubled as the football PA announcer. He was so nice to me, going over our roster before the game and after each play, he waited for me to give him the name of the William Paterson player who carried the ball or made the tackle. I sat right next to him the entire game.
I don't remember who won that day, but my two-plus hours with Bob Sheppard are something I'll never forget.