Looks can be deceiving: NHL 'graybeards' still making an impact

Being an undrafted free agent meant Mark Giordano had to answer questions about if he could actually make it in professional hockey. Being the captain of two teams meant he had to answer questions about why everything was either going well or going terribly.

Being the oldest player in the NHL also meant the 40-year-old Giordano had to answer another question.

How did he react the first time he saw he had gray hair?

“You know what? They come quickly,” Giordano laughed. “The first time, you’re like, ‘Ah, that’s not a big deal.’ Then, pretty soon your full beard is gray and the side of your hair is getting gray. I didn’t really react, I just shaved my head so I can hide them pretty easily. It’s a wake-up moment for sure.”

Age comes up all the time in hockey. How many players on a roster are younger than 25? Are members of a team’s core about to enter their prime? Are they in their prime? Or are they past their prime? How does the discussion around a player’s contract shift once he turns 30? If a team is rebuilding, front offices typically want older players to cultivate the dressing room. If a team is in a championship window, there’s a need to have young players on team-friendly deals who can contribute.

Appearance matters, too. Nearly every NHL team posts pictures on social media of its players walking into the arena on game day. Some of those accounts will even praise a player’s clothing choices. There are weekly fashion rankings and players frequently talk about their best- (or worst-) dressed teammates.

Hair is part of a long-standing fascination with what lies or flows underneath a helmet. Wayne Gretzky had the feathered mullet. Jaromir Jagr possessed a curly mane. Mike Marson had an Afro tucked under his helmet. Anson Carter’s dreadlocks sprouted from all angles, while Pokey Reddick had a Jheri curl. These days, more contemporary looks have been sported by Jack Eichel, Erik Karlsson, Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. The obsession has even extended to the high school level; one of the traditions of the Minnesota state tournament is the all-hair team, which has existed for more than a decade.

Gray hair is where age and appearance intersect.

Those gray hairs can be interpreted as something of a countdown in terms of how much time a player has left in his career. It’s a reality that has become even more prescient given there are 46 players in the NHL who are older than 35 and their ranks have declined over the past decade. The league had 62 players who were older than 35 during the 2013-14 season.

“Honestly, I think it’s just a mental thing,” said Dallas Stars defenseman Ryan Suter, who at 38 is the sixth-oldest player in the league. “You can think you’re old and you act old. Or you can think you’re young, hang out with young guys and be a part of it.”

AS SUTER WAS explaining the mindset that comes with being an older player in the NHL, there was a reminder within the Stars’ dressing room that age is an inescapable subject — playing through the speakers in the room were the songs “New Age Girl” by Deadeye Dick and “If You Don’t Love Me” by Pete Droge.

Both songs were released in 1994.

There are 13 players on the Stars’ active roster who were alive when those songs came out, while the others, including Thomas Harley, Miro Heiskanen, Roope Hintz, Jake Oettinger, Jason Robertson and Wyatt Johnston, were not born yet.

Suter said he uses his experience as an older player to mentor the younger Stars. His time in the league has taught him how to speak with a teammate who might be struggling.

What about Suter? Is there anything in the NHL that once was easy but he now finds more challenging because of his age?

“Nutrition probably,” he said. “When you’re young, you can get away with things and you don’t have to eat great. When you get older, you start to think a little bit more. … I remember being in Nashville my first few years and I used to have a bag of peanut M&Ms before every game and that went away probably 10 years ago. It’s just the little things like that you probably don’t want to do anymore.”

Stars forward Joe Pavelski, who turns 40 in July, is the second-oldest player in the NHL. He said the goal of finding success into his late 30s was something he started thinking about when he turned 30 back when he was with the San Jose Sharks.

From his rookie season as a 22-year-old to his age-29 season, Pavelski scored 415 points in 561 games for an average of 0.74 points per game. He played in all but 25 of the Sharks’ games in that time.

Once he turned 30, Pavelski’s production increased across the board. From his age-30 season to his last game before this year’s NHL All-Star break, he scored 653 points over 771 games for an average of 0.85 points per game while playing in all but nine regular-season games between his time with the Sharks and Stars.

Since joining the Stars in 2019-20, Pavelski has missed only two games, and those came in his first season. He’s the only Stars player to appear in every game since the 2020-21 season and is one of three Stars who hasn’t missed a game since the 2021-22 season.

The other players who have appeared in every game since the 2021-22 season are captain Jamie Benn, who turns 35 in July, and Suter.

“Coming in at a younger age, you have great guys around you,” Pavelski said. “You watch them early and kind of take things from there and you build your own structure with how you take care of yourself and how you can play. When you get to a certain level, you want to keep it there for as long as you can. There are expectations, and that doesn’t change as you get older.”

A skill that has helped Pavelski throughout his career and kept him productive is his ability to consistently reach high-danger areas and convert those scoring chances into goals.

Metrics from IcyData show that 52% of Pavelski’s career goals have come from the slot with another 21% coming at the front of the net. Back in 2013-14, half of his goals came from the slot while an additional 24% came at the net front. This season he has scored 17% of his goals from the slot and 33% at the net front. He has scored 33% of his goals from the left perimeter — something of an outlier given just 5% of his career goals have come from that spot on the ice.

He finished the regular season with 27 goals and 67 points for his 14th season with more than 20 goals while falling short of what would have been his sixth 30-goal season. Pavelski was also three points shy of hitting the 70-point mark for what would have been a third straight campaign and the sixth time of his career.

In most any other field, Pavelski, at 39, would be viewed as someone who has much of his career ahead of him. If he were named CEO of a company, he’d be on a “40 under 40” list or might be talked about as the next great innovator.

But when it comes to hockey and other pro sports? There’s a belief that being 30 — let alone 35 or 40 — and still productive is something just short of a miracle.

And for the record, Pavelski said he has not found a gray hair.

“Those questions happen because that’s the life expectancy of an athlete,” Pavelski said. “With today’s game you see guys in other leagues, you see guys in your own league that are having a lot of success and you want to put the work into being one of those guys who continues to play well.”

IT’S NOT LIKE athletes can lie about their age as they get older. After all, their birth dates are posted all over the internet.

How does it work being a hockey player with gray hair? Do they embrace it? Do they try to hide it? Do they even care?

The answers vary depending upon the source.

San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who is the 21st-oldest player in the NHL, said he has found a gray hair here and there. But he plucked them out as soon as he saw them.

“It’s not enough to the point where I need to use Just For Men,” Vlasic said. “I am OK, so far. Knock on wood.”

But would he ever dye his hair?

“I’m not there, so I don’t have to think about it,” Vlasic said with a laugh. “I’m not at that point. I don’t want to think about what it would take to get to that point. I’m good for now.”

Colorado Avalanche defenseman Jack Johnson, who is the 18th-oldest player in the NHL, said he has not had any gray hair yet and that his hair is still brown with some blond highlights in the summer.

“I am going to keep it there for a little while longer,” Johnson said. “I might just skip the gray. I might just lose it. I don’t know.”

Johnson said he’s not going to panic once he has gray hair. He was also emphatic that he was not going to dye his hair “every couple weeks” to hide it when the time comes.

“That’s way too much energy. I’m not that vain,” Johnson said. “If my wife wants me to, maybe I’ll think about it.”

Talking about having gray hair made Johnson reminisce and shake his head at certain realities. Like when he was asked what it’s like to have teammates, such as Samuel Girard and Cale Makar, who are younger than Netflix.

No, really. Girard and Makar were born in 1998; Netflix was founded in 1997.

“I think what gets me sometimes is seeing guys I’ve played against or with in management roles or things like that,” Johnson said. “Rob Blake was my first defense partner and now he’s the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings. I was fortunate enough that I got to play against Joe Sakic,” Colorado’s president of hockey operations.

“Then there’s other fun parts where [Avalanche teammate] Andrew [Cogliano] and I were classmates at the University of Michigan. That stuff’s kind of cool when you’re like, ‘Man, that was a long time ago.'”

Cogliano, who is the 23rd-oldest player in the league, admits to having gray hair and said it makes him feel at times like he’s closer in age to Avalanche coach Jared Bednar than he is to some of his teammates.

Cogliano is not far off in his assessment. Bednar, who turns 52 in late February, is 15 years older than Cogliano, whereas the Avs’ youngest player, Justus Annunen, is 24, or 12 years younger than Cogliano.

Both Cogliano and Johnson left Michigan after the 2006-07 season. That was just a few months before Boston University center Macklin Celebrini, who is projected to be the No. 1 pick of this year’s draft, celebrated his first birthday.

“It is what it is and sometimes, you take it for a vote of confidence when you look pretty good and you’re going out there against a younger guy,” said Cogliano, who said there are times when he hears about his age from his younger teammates.

Seattle Kraken forward Jaden Schwartz, who was born in 1992, already has a few strands of gray. He said the color of his hair is not what gets him. It’s seeing that there are players who were born in 2000 who are not only playing in the NHL but are already in their early 20s.

“That’s when you start feeling — or at least, that’s when I started feeling a little bit on the older side and you’re not seeing a lot of guys born around the same time as you,” Schwartz said. “It’s just a little different as you go. When I came in, it was an older league. And now that I am older, it’s a younger league. It’s just gone that way the last 10 years. It’s kind of fun because when I was young, I had a lot of good veterans that I learned from, and now you’re trying to be that for them.”

Kraken forward Jordan Eberle, who turns 34 in May, said he has found a bit of gray in his beard but had an idea it was coming. Eberle, like a number of players, said seeing his dad get gray hair at a certain age let him know what was ahead.

Eberle said he was 27 when he spotted his first gray hair, while noting he has gained more in recent years. Similar to Johnson, Eberle said watching former teammates or players he played against go into management was another sign of how long he has been at this.

Eberle was struck by Steve Staios being hired by the Ottawa Senators to be their president of hockey operations. Eberle was an Edmonton Oilers prospect when Staios, now the Senators’ GM, played for the team.

“I was at [training] camp with him!” Eberle said. “You see that stuff, but I still love hockey. You enjoy being around the kids and it makes you feel youthful.

“I think as you get older, you enjoy the game a little more. I have kids and I love when they come to the rink and watch you play. As you get older, you realize you’re on the back nine and don’t have many years left.”

Being an older player can mean their younger teammates might have grown up idolizing or watching them.

Oilers forward Derek Ryan, who is the 16th-oldest player in the NHL, spent four seasons playing in Europe and didn’t make his NHL debut until he was 29. The 37-year-old spent one season in Sweden playing for Örebro HK, where children would come on the ice for warm-ups.

Defenseman Philip Broberg, who has split time between the Oilers and their AHL affiliate, grew up in Örebro and was one of the youngsters who skated alongside Ryan.

“It makes me feel a little bit older when you hear stories like that,” Ryan said. “But it keeps me young and keeps me feeling young when I am around the young guys and hear them talking and hear their stories. I try to take a little bit of the good with the bad.”

That said, there are young players who have already found they have some gray hair at the start of their careers.

Matty Beniers is one of them. Yes, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, who was born in 2002 — the year “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” was released — already had gray hair by the time he was 20.

Even with his jet black hair, Beniers’ gray hair is not visible from a distance. But anyone who sits within five or so feet of him will notice he has two or three strands of gray.

Beniers said he knew he’d eventually go gray because of his father.

But to go gray in the earliest part of his 20s? As a second-year player?

“Yeah, it’s not the best thing,” Beniers said with a smile.

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